Hymnodia Sacra – music from the hymnbook of 17th and 18th century Iceland

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Our knowledge of music in Iceland up until the 18th century is confined to the contents of various Icelandic hymnbooks. Hymnodia sacra is the best known of these. It is also the title of this Smekkeysa Records CD and forms the basis for its contents (Smekkeysa translates to tastelessness from the Icelandic, but the modestly named label is better known as Bad Taste Records). Directed by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson, the performances are by two Icelandic groups: period instrument ensemble Nordic Affect and Carmina, a mixed chorus whose first CD won Best Classical CD at the Icelandic Music Awards in 2007 and was an Editor's Choice for November 2009 by Gramophone magazine.

In the year 1742, the hymbook Hymnodia sacra was compiled, most likely for use by his parishioners, by Reverend Guðmundur Högnason - "a man of great knowledge, sharp-witted and distinguished, but always very poor [as he] was considerably inclined toward ale" (historian Pall Eggert Olason). Virtually all of the hymns here are drawn from Reverend Högnason's collection. Little or nothing is known about some of these texts and music beyond this fact; other hymns can be found in further collections, some dating back to ancient times.

Most of the music is sung in unison or by a solo voice. Much of it sounds like chant, but softer - less austere - and occasionally flowers into multiple parts. Director Ingólfsson has taken the liberty of enhancing some sections with accompanying theorbo or a bowed string instrument. The tune of the hymn that opens the program is one that is very common and saw widespread use across the island, appearing in Icelandic manuscripts as the melody for twenty different known texts - texts of vastly varying sentiments, some dating back to c. 348-410. The four-part use heard here survives from c.1750 - the year of J.S. Bach's death, which makes for a fascinating comparison between the state of Icelandic music and that of continental Europe at this point in time. You can listen to this, as well as one track for solo voice with cello, in our album sample.

It's especially rewarding to recommend a disc like this one on Expedition Audio. This is beautiful music from a constellation of a time and place that few of us have ever imagined, let alone heard.