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Jón Leifs (May 1, 1899 – July 30, 1968)

Jón was born in Sólheimar. He left Iceland in 1916 to study in Germany at the Leipzig Conservatory. He graduated in 1921 having studied piano, and then devoted his time to conducting and composing. He became successful as a conductor, and also as a writer.

He married pianist Annie Riethof. They had two daughters, Snót and Líf, and lived in Wernigerode and subsequently in Baden-Baden. Because his wife was Jewish, his family was harassed by the Nazis. In 1944 he moved to Sweden, and in 1945 he moved back to Iceland. After returning to Iceland he eventually divorced his wife. One of his daughters, Líf, drowned in a swimming accident off the coast of Sweden, and he wrote his string quartet Vita et Mors in her memory.

Most of his works are about Icelandic natural phenomena. In the piece Hekla he depicts the eruption of the volcano Hekla which he witnessed. Dettifoss (Op. 57) was inspired by the Dettifoss waterfall, the most powerful in Europe. In the Saga Symphony he musically portrays five characters of famous Icelandic sagas. His last work, Consolation, Intermezzo for string orchestra was written as he was dying. He died of lung cancer in Reykjavík in 1968.

In recent years Leifs has become recognized as the most important and original composer of Icelandic music in the twentieth century. A controversial figure in his own lifetime, Leifs´s most important contribution to Icelandic music was his attempt to integrate elements of native folk music into the Western art music tradition in which he was trained. Although many Icelandic composers have since followed Leifs´s example by using folk elements in their music, Leifs´s creation of a national style in the early twenties was a radical departure from convention. The small number of native musicians trained in composition in the early years of the century had for the most part neglected folk music as a source for their works, and they treated Leifs´s ideas with skepticism, if not outright scorn. There is, indeed, much that is primitive in Leifs´s music; although there are moments of great expressive beauty in his works, they often have a harsh, rugged, and austere character. In fact, Leifs occasionally attempted to describe in music the severe and often desolate landscape of his native country, including volcanoes, geysers, icebergs, and waterfalls.

Jón and his wife are the subjects of the film Tears of Stone / Tár úr steini (1995), directed by the Icelandic director Hilmar Oddsson.

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