Jón Leifs: Edda II

Oratorio for mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, choir and orchestra

I.               Odin
II.             Sons of Odin
III.           Goddesses
IV.           Valkyries
V.             Norns
VI.           Warriors

English translation of Edda II

Jón Leifs (1899–1968) was profoundly influenced by the medieval tradition of Icelandic literature. Much of the renowned poetry of medieval Iceland is preserved in a handful of manuscripts written in the 13th century, although the material is believed to be older. Poems about Óðinn and other gods, and about the major characters in the heroic story of the Völsungs, are transmitted in an anthology known as Codex Regius (the King's Book), written about 1270 and traditionally referred to in English as the Poetic Edda. Another substantial and slightly older text is the Prose Edda (or Snorra Edda, as it is known in Icelandic), believed to have been written ca. 1225 by the chieftain Snorri Sturluson. This work combines a treatise on poetry with an account of the myths and legends also contained in the Poetic Edda.

These texts for the basis of a large-scale work that would occupy Leifs for much of his carreer: an oratorio titled Edda, for soloists, choir and orchestra. When he first began contemplating the work, in 1928, he had intended to set only Völuspá (Sybil's Prophecy) which is one of the great Eddic poems, a monologue of roughly 60 stanzas in which a seeress describes a vision of the world's beginning and collapse--the apocalyptic carnage of ragnarök, in which many of the gods die and the world is submerged in water. Still, destruction is followed by re-creation: the earth rises from the sea again, and a new generation of gods takes over. The dimensions of the work far outgrew Leifs's initial plan. By 1930, he was referring to an “Edda-oratorio,” the libretto to which he himself had begun to assemble from various Eddic sources. When the oratorio text was complete in May 1933, it consisted of 350 stanzas and ran to 86 typewritten pages. The work was to be divided into four parts: The Creation of the World (Sköpun heimsins), The Lives of the Gods (Líf guðanna), Twilight of the Gods (Ragnarökr), and Resurrection (Endurreisn). By using the Norse myths as a basis of a tetralogy, Leifs was of course inviting comparisons with Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, with which he was well acquainted--Muck's conducting of Siegfried at the 1920 Munich Summer Festival had left a strong impression, and he had studied the score during his years at the Leipzig Conservatory. But Leifs found Wagner's approach too romantic and sentimental for the subject matter, and claimed to have written many of his own works, including the Edda oratorio and the Saga Symphony, as “a protest against Wagner, who misunderstood so terribly the Nordic character and Nordic artistic heritage.”

Leifs was enraptured by his idea of the work and even the text alone had a profound effect on him, as he remarked to his sister: “parts of [the libretto] are so magnificent that they leave me breathless.” Yet he was daunted by the vast scale of his undertaking, admitting that it would be “quite pointless for me to embark on such a composition unless I can work at it without interruption for 2–3 years, that is, without having to worry about putting food on the table.” From 1930–35, Leifs wrote only works of small scope--the Icelandic Dances for piano, organ preludes, hymn arrangements, and songs with piano--as if consciously avoiding large projects that might delay his magnum opus even further. Although Leifs set the original text, a performance in Iceland was out of the question given the forces required. His optimism for a German première was fueled by the increasing popularity there of the Old Icelandic poetry and sagas, now available in a 24-volume translation under the title Sammlung Thule (1911–30), which Leifs knew and praised as a “major achievement”.

Leifs completed Edda I in 1939, but did not immediately continue with the project. Performances of Edda I were impossible to procure, and Leifs instead spent several years writing the “choreographic drama” Baldr, itself also based on the ancient mythology. He began composing Edda II in 1951, but soon the project stalled. Two movements from Edda I were premiered at the Nordic Music Days in Copenhagen in 1952 but were poorly received, and along with the harsh criticism of his Saga Symphony in Helsinki two years earlier, Leifs's self-confidence was dealt a severe blow. He only revisited the score to Edda II a decade later. A remark on page 51 of the manuscript reads: “Here I commenced work on this composition again, July 11, 1962.”

In fact, Leifs only hit his stride with Edda II in early 1966, completing the final four movements between January and May. He had originally intended for the first movement to be titled Gods (Æsir), a portrayal of each of the male gods in turn (Óðinn, Þór, Baldr, Njörður, etc.). He later decided to divide it into two movements: the first (Óðinn) depicts the father of all the gods; the second enumerates his sons (Sons of Óðinn) and is referred to in one sketch as a “Scherzo with trio episodes”. The calmer third movement, Goddesses (Ásynjur), is a portrayal of the female characters: Frigg, Freyja, Sigyn, Eir, Gefjun. The oratorioʼs last three movements (Valkyries, Norns, and Warriors) are far shorter than the previous ones, perhaps an indication that Leifs suspected time was running out and that he was determined to finish the work at all cost.

Leifs immediately began work on the next installment. Edda III--Twilight of the Gods (Ragnarökr) calls for mammoth performing forces, a decision inspired in part by hearing what he later described as “two of the most magnificent Requiems ever written”--by Berlioz and Verdi--in Paris in November that year. On All Souls' Day, he heard the Berlioz Requiem performed at the Panthéon by the ORTF Philharmonic and the fanfare of the Garde républicaine; the Verdi Requiem was given at Saint-Roch three days later. The dramatic qualities of both works, but not least the vast resources of the former, inspired him to make the single-movement Edda III his most demanding work by far. Virtually no sketches exist for Edda III; it is as if Leifs, sensing that time was running out, wrote most of his ideas directly into the full score. And a very full score it is: he even outdid his earlier efforts in Hekla, this time taping together pages of score paper to reach a total of 60 staves. In an interview he remarked that “I've never done anything like it before. It's impossible to describe such events without employing gigantic forces.”

While composing Edda I, Leifs often remarked on his fear of dying before achieving his life's goals as an artist. In 1932, the death and funeral in Leipzig of the poet Jóhann Jónsson had a profound effect on him and he confessed to his sister his terror of “meeting the same fate, before I complete my main works.” A premature death was still on his mind a year later: “My main concern is that I will not live to complete the works I must finish, and that no one else can accomplish. Everything else seems to me trivial in comparison.” It is almost as if he sensed his own fate, for while Leifs did not die young, his epic Edda-project was doomed to remain incomplete. In April 1968 he began vomiting blood and was admitted to the Reykjavík City Hospital on May 14, where doctors discovered a malignant tumor. In response, Leifs briefly put aside Edda III to express more tender emotions in a simple, touching work for string orchestra, Consolation op. 66. He then returned to Edda III once more, completing page 200 of the full score at the hospital on June 5, 1968, the day before undergoing an operation. He managed to write twelve more pages before his powers were exhausted. Edda III remained incomplete, and to this day has never been performed. Only a libretto draft hints at Leifs's intentions for the final installment, Edda IV, in which a green and fair earth rises from the ocean and a new world order is established under the leadership of Baldur, the “white god.” 

English translation of Edda II