ICELAND Steindor Andersen: Rimur (Icelandic Epic Song) (Hilmar Orn Hilmar/ Steindor Andersen) (Naxos: 76031-2)
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Rima (plural rimur) is a traditional form of narrativeIcelandic epic song chanted or intoned in a specific manner called \ad kveda."The inner structure and content can partially be traced to Eddic and Skaldicpoetry of the Viking Age. Therimur rely on the complex metaphors called "kenningar" (singular kenning) andthe poetic synonyms called "heiti."
The Skaldic poetic stanza was an extremely intricateconstruct with a unique poetic vocabulary and syntax, frequently employingmetaphors within metaphors in a manner reminiscent of the cryptic crossword.
In the 14th century, the rima started to supplant theearlier forms of poetry - its attraction being a simple metric style with endrhymes, usually divided into three types: ferskeytt, braghent and afhent. Whileinternal rhyme was a central feature of old poetry, end rhyme first appears inthe poem "Hofudlausn" (Head Ransom) in the Saga of warrior-poet EgillSkallagrimsson (10th century), where he manages to reprieve his head by heapingpraise on his captor, the king of England. End rhyme was then popular in theBritish Isles and it has been surmised that Egill introduced it to theIcelanders. The form of the rima also shows influences from other Europeantraditions of the 13th and 14th century: the short lyric
introduction to each rima-section called "Mansongur"(maiden-song) has been traced to Germany, and the style called "blomadur" has acounterpart in the flowery and ornate mode of early French romantic poetry.
The early rimur are primarily based on pre-existingnarratives in prose, heroic tales, and mythical or purely fictitious Sagasbeing those most frequently selected for adaptation into this metrical form.The poet usually begins with a certain number of introductory stanzas, themaiden-song, where he laments his lack of poetic skills and success in theaffairs of the heart. He then starts converting the prose narrative into rime.After building to a climax, he breaks off and the first rima is finished. Then, usually in a different metre, he beginsa new maiden song, followed by a different portion of the tale. This process isrepeated until the whole narrative has been worked into metrical form. Thesubject and the length of the tale can vary in length and scope, and the numberof rimur can stretch from two up to a few dozen. Single rimur are less common,but the less formal "lausavisa"(single stanza) introduced a shorter and simpler form into the tradition. Astime went on, the poets took pride in inventing new metrical forms and rhymestructures, and in the 19th century these were counted in the the thousands.
While the literary tradition of the rimur is well documentedfrom the 14th century, there is scant evidence of their actual performance. In"Sorlarimur," one of the earliest examples of the genre, the poet refers to thedancing that accompanies his recital, and in the 17th century the term "dans"or dance was synonymous with poetry. An essay called "Qualiscunque DescriptioIslandiae," which was probably written by Bishop Oddur Einarsson in Copenhagenin 1588, describes a
performance which may refer to a performance analogous to arimur recital: "They select one who has mastered the art of kvedskapur (istamcantillandi artem). He recites for a while some sort of introduction with a tremblingvoice and in a hesitant fashion (tremula ac titubante quodammado voces)."
It is well documented that the Icelanders enjoyed a specialform of communal story-telling and poetry recitals from the earliest times, andthese seem to have developed into the institution of "kvoldvaka" (night-vigil),of which the chanting of rimur was an integral part.
In 1589, Gudbrandur Borlaksson wrote in the preface to hisbook of hymns a pious diatribe against this practice, and said that his aimwith the publication was "lastly in order to have thrown out the undesirablepoems of giants and heros, rimur, love songs, amorous songs, lustful songs,mocking and satirical songs and other evil and wicked recitation...which are
used and loved by the peasantry of this land to the sorrowof God and his angels, but to the delight of Satan and all his spawn, apractice more widespread than in any other Christian land and more suited tothe practice of heathens than Christian folk at their night-vigils and othergatherings."
In 1634, the Reverend Sigurdur Oddsson wrote a letter to hisbishop complaining that the sacred writ was faring badly in competition withthe impromptu secular entertainment that was practiced outside the churches,and that people would often leave in the middle of the service to listen tovarious tall tales of the heros of yore. He furthermore complains that one hisparishioners had confided to him that "next to hearing about the passion of theLord he enjoyed nothing more than the Rimur of Rollant: I must gloss over thefact that many would sooner listen to Rimur of Brana, Arinnefja et cetera thanlisten to the pious song of the church..."
In 1746, the ruling authorities issued a decree to priestssaying that they should "caution the people of the household with the utmostgravity to guard themselves against undesirable stories and unreasonable fablesand ballads which have been abroad in the land." In the same year another decree was aimed at the paterfamilias stating that he should "diligently remind his children and hisservants to begin both work and business with a prayer to God...and they must beearnestly reminded, on pain of punishment, to guard themselves against unseemlytalk and sport, oaths and swearing, vain stories or so-called Sagas and licentiouspoems or rimes, which are not seemly for a Christian and which sadden the HolyGhost to hear sung or said forth." And the main proponent of the Enlightenmentin Iceland, Magn?â??s Stephensen, wrote an essay in 1808 lamenting the "horrendoushowling of rimur" which he saw as an enemy of more tasteful musical practices.
But the Icelanders stuck to their most popular form ofentertainment, and, needless to say, these best of intentions did not succeed,and in the mid-19th century people started to write down and notate the oldrimur melodies. The monumental work of Reverend Bjarni Borsteinsson onIcelandic folk-songs devoted a special chapter to rimur and its publication inthe years 1906 - 1909 and is a landmark in the preservation of the oldtradition.
Furthermore, in the year 1903, Jon Palsson made the firstsound recordings of rimur and others soon followed suit. The result is anenormous collection of melodies that serve as a living and vibrant link to thepast, as the last few years have seen a revival where the old tradition is nolonger considered anachronistic, but something that needs to be studied andcherished. Hopefully this collection can be seen as part of that revival.
Notes on the recording process
When Steindor first contacted me about this project, I wasthrilled to be part of a rimur recording which was not done for archivalpurposes and furthermore I saw this as a chance to put to test some theorieswhich maintain that the special intonation of the rimur was a direct result ofthe environment in which they were performed. Some authorities maintain that asthe rimur were performed in anechoic or non-reverberant spaces such as thetraditional sleeping loft or out in the fields, their vocal style developeddifferently to musical styles where people "sang into spaces" such as churchesor chambers where the acoustics become part of the performance.
To this end, I cont