Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Bach Cantatas for Church Events without Date (D): Unspecified Occasions

Among the church cantatas without a specific (church) date, there are - besides wedding cantatas, funeral cantatas and cantatas for the election of a new town council -  also a small number of cantatas for minor services such as penance (when the whole community did penance, for example after a disaster such as a great fire), as well as cantatas of which the use is unknown or uncertain. We'll put them together in this post.

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)


[Kirche St. Marien, Mühlhausen,
whose minister commissioned BWV 131]


Cantatas:

Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150, 1707


(1) Sinfonia
(2) Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (Chorus)
(3) Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt (Aria soprano)
(4) Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit (Chorus)
(5) Zedern müssen von den Winden (Aria Alto, Tenor, Basso)
(6) Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn (Chorus)
(7) Meine Tage in dem Leide (Chorus)s


"For Thee, O Lord, I long"
Text & translation

This is an early work, which only exists in manuscript by another hand. Not surprisingly, there has been speculation that the cantata is not by Bach. The often heard argument that "only Bach could have written such an impressive work" is of course unconvincing, but a more reliable indication was found in 2010, when an acrostic was discovered in the concluding four movements. This acrostic contains the name Merkbach, one of Mühlhausen's councilors, who was a supporter of Bach. In that case, the cantata may have been written as an homage for his 70th birthday in April 1707, or else July 1707 when Merkbach was elected for another year as mayor. On this basis the cantata can be dated to the young Bach's time in Arnstadt.

This makes it the earliest cantata extant by Bach. It is only scored for two violins, bassoon, and continuo. In this early work there are no recitatives, no da capo arias and no chorale. But Bach makes extensive use of choral fugues and imitative polyphony, often shifting the tempo and character of the music within movements.


The text, by an unidentified author, is based on verses from Psalm 25 in movements 2, 4 and 6. In the remaining movements rhymed verse with varied metrical structure expresses the theme that mankind faces many hardships but salvation comes from trust in God.

The short (15 min) work opens with a melancholy string sinfonia which leads into a short opening chorus in the style of a motet; the text is from Psalm 25.

This is followed by an attractive soprano aria. The next chorus, also in motet style, starts with a bold ascending scale. Unusually, the following aria is a trio for alto, tenor and bass, one of only a handful of vocal trios found in Bach's oeuvre. Next again follows a chorus.

The cantata ends with a mighty choral chaconne. When the volume of the Bach Gesellschaft containing this cantata was first published, Brahms was working on his Fourth Symphony. He was one of the few original subscribers to the Bach Gesellschaft edition and was so impressed with this movement that he quoted the bass line in the finale of his symphony. This is indeed the most beautiful part of the cantata.

Rating: A-
Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Voces 8 / Kristian Commichau


Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131, 1707


(1) Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (sinfonia and Chorus)
(2) So du willst, Herr, Sünde zurechnen (Arioso e chorale)
(3) Ich harre des Herrn, meine Seele harret (Chorus)
(4) Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn von einer Morgenwache (Aria e chorale)
(5) Israel hoffe auf den Herrn; denn bei dem Herrn (Chorus)

"Out of the depths I call, Lord, to You"
Text & translation

Another early cantata by Bach, the earliest autograph of a complete major work by Bach, probably from his time in Mühlhausen. There is speculation that it was written for a penitential service in Mühlhausen shortly after a major fire had destroyed a large part of the town in 1707 (shortly before Bach took up his position in the town), but this occasion can not be proven.

However, a note on the autograph score of the cantata indicates that the work was commissioned by Georg Christian Eilmar, minister of the Marienkirche in Mühlhausen. This allows the work to be dated to 1707–08, which is the period when Bach was living in Mühlhausen. Bach was employed as organist at the city's other main church, Divi Blasii. He was also involved to some extent with performances at the Marienkirche, where civic ceremonies were held. One service there which Bach would have attended was that for the city council's inauguration in 1708 during which his cantata Gott ist mein Konig, BWV 71 had its premiere. He may have had a close personal relationship with Eilmar, who was godfather to his daughter Catharina Dorothea (born 1708).

Like many German sacred works from the 17th century, the cantata draws on two textual sources simultaneously. One is Psalm 130, one of the seven penitential psalms, which takes a prominent place in the liturgy for the dead, not as a lament but as an expression of trust in God. Every movement of the cantata takes as its text one or two verses of this psalm. The second textual source is the chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt (1588). In the bass aria the second strophe of the chorale is juxtaposed with the psalm, and in the tenor aria the fifth strophe is used in a similar way. The symmetrical work exhibits the same general features as above noted for BWV 150. Bach structured the cantata in five movements, three choral movements interspersed by an arioso and an aria.

In the beginning was human suffering - at least, that is what the slow sinfonia with plaintive oboe seems to imply. It leads straight into the first choral movement in which the voices literally dive into the deepest depths. This in its turn goes straight into the bass aria in which the chorus sings a chorale as backdrop. The excellent tenor aria has the same form with the chorus again providing accompaniment and the last movement is for chorus alone. The Fugue in G minor, BWV 131a is a transcription for organ of the fugue of this closing movement, but it is not certain that the arranger was Bach.

Rating: A-
Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung / Koopman

 

Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut, BWV 117, c. 1728–1731


(1) Chorale: Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut
(2) Recitative (bass): Es danken dir die Himmelsheer
(3) Aria (tenor): Was unser Gott geschaffen hat
(4) Chorale: Ich rief dem Herrn in meiner Not
(5) Recitative (alto): Der Herr ist noch und nimmer nicht
(6) Aria (bass): Wenn Trost und Hülf ermangeln muss
(7) Aria (alto): Ich will dich all mein Leben lang
(8) Recitative (tenor): Ihr, die ihr Christi Namen nennt
(9) Chorale: So kommet vor sein Angesicht

"Praise and honor be to the highest good"
Text & translation

This cantata, based on a hymn by the poet Johann Jacob Schütz, was written somewhere between 1728 and 1731 for an unknown occasion. There are two possibilities: it could be an "all-purpose" cantata that could be used for almost any occasion with minimal changes, or it could have been written for a wedding ceremony.

The cantata has been infused with the spirit of dance - triple time is omnipresent. It is only 20 min long, but counts nine movements. The opening chorus, composed as a chorale fantasy, starts with a long ritornello. The bass recitative is about thanksgiving to encourage the listener to show glory to God. The tenor aria adopts the minor mode, although the text is still optimistic. It is accompanied by two oboe d’amores.

The main choir adopts the text from the original hymn, in a simple setting of the chorale melody (it is rare for Bach to have this in the middle of the cantata and not at the end). The alto recitative is very similar to the foregoing bass recitative, and the bass aria mirrors the earlier tenor aria, although now with violin accompaniment.

In the alto aria the singer takes a personal view of devotion. The accompaniment consists of triplets of the flute which have been compared to "the pounding of an excited heartbeat." This aria surely is the gem of the cantata!

The tenor recitative takes on the voice of a pastor preaching to his followers. Unusually for Bach, the final chorus repeats the music of the first movement with a text that invites the listener to sing and dance.

Rating: B+
Video: Eastman School Bach Cantata Series



Nun danket alle Gott, BWV 192, 1730 (June or September)


(1) Chorus: Nun danket alle Gott
(2) Duet aria (soprano and bass): Der ewig reiche Gott
(3) Chorus: Lob, Ehr und Preis sei Gott

"Now thank ye all our God"
Text & translation

The original score and tenor part of this chorale cantata are lost. With three movements, this is one of Bach's shortest cantatas; however, the large-scale melodic phrases lead to a length that has a balancing effect. The cantata is based on Martin Rinckart's hymn of thanksgiving "Nun danket alle Gott". Scholars are divided on the matter of the occasion for this cantata: some think it was written for Trinity, others for an unknown wedding, and still others ascribe it to Reformation Day.

In the imposing first movement, which is in three-four time, the ritornello is not immediately followed by the chorale melody, but by an imitative preparation, after which the first phrase of the chorale melody appears in the soprano over further imitation in the lower voices and by staccato chords in the accompaniment.

The second movement, a complex duet aria, has a dance-like effect. The two soloists are now and then interrupted by the orchestra's ritornelles.

The third movement, again a choral fantasy, is characterized by a rollicking gigue melody. As in verse 1, the chorale melody is in the soprano and the lower voices sing imitative lines.

Rating: A
Video: CM Bednarska Polen


Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, BWV 100, c. 1732–1735


(1) Choralfantasie (Chor): Es bleibt gerecht sein Wille
(2) Aria (Duett Alt, Tenor): Er wird mich nicht betrügen
(3) Aria (Sopran): Er wird mich wohl bedenken
(4) Aria (Bass): Er ist mein Licht, mein Leben.
(5) Aria (Alt): Muß ich den Kelch gleich schmecken
(6) Choral (Chor): Darbei will ich verbleiben

"What God Does Is Well Done"
Text & translation

Bach composed this choral  cantata between 1732 and 1735 in Leipzig for an unknown occasion. The work is considered to be one of the last surviving church cantatas by Bach. The text is based on the chorale "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan" (1674) by Samuel Rodigast, which Bach had also used for BWV 99 some ten years earlier. He made the cantata extra festive by adding a second horn and timpani.

In dividing the cantata into movements, Bach followed the stanza division of the chorale. As usual with his chorale cantatas, he framed the solo movements between an initial chorale fantasy and a final chorale. There are no recitatives: four arias, one of which is a duet for alto and tenor, rejoice without interruption about God's goodness. This time no the pain or suffering, but encouragement and consolation are central.

The opening chorale fantasy essentially corresponds to the opening movement of BWV 99, but Bach adds horns and timpani, making the instrumentation more solemn. The movement begins with two instrumental themes that are repeated when the soprano kicks in with the chorale melody. Compared to the vocal part, the instrumental lines are complex.

The alto tenor duet resembles an Italian chamber duet in terms of the motet-like arrangement of the text and the interwoven imitation of the voices. There is a lovely walking bass.

The soprano aria is accompanied by a technically extremely challenging flute obbligato. The jaunty bass aria is notable for the closing descending motif. The alto aria, set in 12⁄8 time, is accompanied by plaintive oboe d’amore and continuo.

The final chorale resembles the chorale that occurs twice in BWV 75, Bach's first cantata as Thomaskantor. For BWV 100, Bach also added horns and timpani, which makes the movement appear more solemn and creates symmetry with the first movement.

Bach performed the cantata again in 1737 and 1742.

Rating: A
Video: Netherlands Bach Society


In allen meinen Taten, BWV 97, 25 July 1734 (5th Sunday after Trinity)


(1) Chorus: In allen meinen Taten
(2) Aria (bass): Nichts ist es spat und frühe
(3) Recitative (tenor): Es kann mir nichts geschehen
(4) Aria (tenor): Ich traue seiner Gnaden
(5) Recitative (alto): Er wolle meiner Sünden
(6) Aria (alto): Leg ich mich späte nieder
(7) Duet aria (soprano, bass): Hat er es denn beschlossen
(8) Aria (soprano): Ich hab mich ihm ergeben
(9) Chorale: So sei nun, Seele, deine


"In all my undertakings"
Text & translation

Bach wrote this chorale cantata in 1734, about a decade after his annual cycle of cantatas, in the same year as his Christmas Oratorio. He dated the manuscript himself, but the occasion is unspecified. The work may have originally been composed for a wedding, because the score shows on top of movement 7 the crossed-out words "nach der Trauung" (after the wedding). A later copy mentions however the fifth Sunday after Trinity.

The author of the chorale is Paul Fleming (1609-1640), who already turned out to be a gifted poet as a medical student in Leipzig. Before his departure on a risky journey to Moscow and Persia, he wrote a song of fifteen stanzas in which he confessed his confidence in God's providence. After Fleming died from the rigors of his journey shortly after returning home, nine verses of more general scope found their way into general songbooks.

The opening chorus is an overture in the French style with heavily dotted rhythms and an attractive vivace fugue and the closing chorale harmonization is of Isaac's exceptionally beautiful tune O Welt ich muss dich lassen. In between we find five arias and two recitatives - a bit hampered by the monotony caused by nine identically structured stanzas, without any striking imagery.

Supported purely by a sober continuo accompaniment, the bass in the first aria puts his fate in God's hand. Trust in God's unfailing love and protection defines the warm and carefree atmosphere of tenor aria. The predominant affect of the alto aria is a resigned acceptance of one's destiny, trusting in God. The soprano shows herself willing to die when God wills. She forms a lovely quartet with the continuo and two oboes, that expresses her quiet acceptance of her fate.

Rating: A

Video: Bach-Stiftung


Bach Cantata Index

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Bach Cantatas for Church Events without Date (C): Council Elections

It was customary in Bach's time to inaugurate a newly elected town council with a festive religious service plus cantata at the official town church. It may seem strange to find religious cantatas about a matter which for us is solidly secular, but in Bach's time - before the Enlightenment - there was no division between the religious and the secular and the authorities governing on earth were considered as the representatives of God.

This ceremony was called the Ratswahl (council election) or Ratswechsel (change of council) and in Leipzig it took place on the last Monday in August (around the time of Trinity XII). In fact, the occasion had not much to do with elections: the Leipzig city council consisted of thirty councilors appointed for life, divided into three sections, one of which was reigning for a year and two others "resting"; as mayor served the leader of the ruling group. The new city council was inaugurated annually with a solemn divine service in the main city church, the Nicolai Church, at 8:30 in the morning on the Monday following St. Bartholomew's Day (24 August).

Bach was expected to perform a special cantata for this occasion. There were often trumpets and drums available for this occasion. Five such cantatas from Bach's Leipzig period have survived: Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn, BWV 119 for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council in 1723 (Bach's initial year in Leipzig); BWV 193 (1727?); 120 (1728-29?); 29 (1731); and 69 (1748?). For some other similar Leipzig cantatas, only the text survives. It is also possible that some Trinity XII cantatas were performed at the celebration for the council election the next day. But as Bach as municipal music director was annually commissioned to compose a festive new work for that occasion, for which he was paid separately, Bach must have provided this service 27 times during his employment in Leipzig. That shows how much has been lost - or rather, as Bach recycled a lot of existing music with new lyrics, probably on purpose not preserved. Anyway, after Bach had become a somewhat older and established composer he had probably more social duties and composed less than in the rather frantic 1720s; he made up for that by recycling previous music, which was eminently possible (and in my view entirely justified) as those pieces had not been published.

In Mühlhausen the Ratswechsel service took place on February 4, and we have Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, for the  inauguration of Mühlhausen town council in 1708; another cantata, for the service in the following year, has been lost.

These are all festive and vibrant works and despite being occasional music, they are all top-drawer Bach.

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)


[Nikolai Kirche, Leipzig]

  • Gott ist mein König, BWV 71, 4 February 1708

    Chor: Gott ist mein König von altersher
    Aria Tenor und Choral Soprano: Ich bin nun achtzig Jahr
    Chor: Dein Alter sei wie deine Jugend
    Arioso Bass: Tag und Nacht ist dein
    Arie Alto: Durch mächtige Kraft
    Chor: Du wollest dem Feinde
    Chor: Das neue Regiment auf jeglichen Wegen

    "God is my King"
    Text & translation

    This is one of Bach earliest cantatas and thanks to the occasion, the first and only piece of Bach's music to be published during his lifetime. The new town council must have liked this festive work to sponsor its printing! Stylistically it shares features with Bach's other early cantatas - with short movements that flow into each other, the cantata shows the characteristics of traditional 17th-century cantatas. The service was held on 4 February 1708 in the Marienkirche, Mühlhausen's largest church. The score indicates that Bach deployed his musicians in different locations in the building.

    The author of the text is unknown, but both Archdeacon Georg Christian Eilmar, the pastor of the Marienkirche, and Bach himself have been suggested as possibilities. The text is a combination of Biblical quotations (mostly Psalm 74), a hymn (O Gott, du frommer Gott, Johann Heermann 1630), and original matter (which pays homage to aged burgomasters). Movements 5 and 7 use specially written verses containing references to the Emperor Joseph I and the war of the Spanish Succession.

    The work starts with a rousing opening chorus, accompanied by trumpets ("God is my King from long ago"). In the aria for tenor and soprano we meet the mayor of Mühlhausen, Adolf Strecker, who is already 83 years old but still is getting a new term! Apparently, he had a lot of experience. "May your old age be like your youth," sings the chorus next in a fugue which starts a capella (quite a curiosity).

    The attractive bass aria shows the proper attitude towards God's governance: "You set borders to every land." It boasts very beautiful woodwind and continuo accompaniment. The alto aria takes this theme up further with "Through powerful strength you maintain our borders." It is a lively piece with interjections from trumpets and drums.

    The cantata closes with two choral movements, the first one simple ("a movement of extraordinary reticence, delicacy and the utmost tonal subtlety," as Gardiner has remarked), the second one including a vocal fugue. The chorus asks a blessing for the new town council.

    Rating: A-
    Video: Felices Cantus Bach / Bachcantates Tilburg /
    Rilling

  • Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn, BWV 119, 30 August 1723

    Chorus: Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn
    Rezitativ Tenor: Gesegnet Land
    Arie Tenor: Wohl dir, du Volk der Linden
    Rezitativ Bass: So herrlich stehst du, liebe Stadt!
    Arie Alto: Die Obrigkeit ist Gottes Gabe
    Rezitativ Soprano: Nun! Wir erkennen es und bringen dir
    Chorus: Der Herr hat Guts an uns getan
    Rezitativ Alto: Zuletzt! Da du uns, Herr, zu deinem Volk gesetzt
    Choral: Hilf deinem Volk, Herr Jesu Christ

    "Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem"
    Text & translation

    This cantata was written for the inauguration of the town council of Leipzig in the first year that Bach was working there. He clearly wanted to impress and provides spectacular music for the festivities. After all, such a service would have been attended by all the important dignitaries, so it was a good opportunity for Bach to show off his capacities as cantor.

    The magnificent opening chorus is based on a French overture (associated with the splendor of the French court), and is accompanied by the full orchestra of four trumpets, timpani, three oboes, two recorders, and strings. The choir makes its entrance at the moment when a fast fugue breaks into this French overture. The anonymous lyricist has based the words of the opening chorus on verses from Psalm 147, in which Jerusalem and its blessed children symbolize the city of Leipzig and its inhabitants. This metaphor continues in the following sections.

    The dance-like first aria with two English horns and tenor (accompanied by a pair of oboes da caccia) praises Leipzig as a great town, the chosen place of God ("blessed land, fortunate city"). Indeed, Leipzig was then a flourishing city of 27,000 inhabitants. The tenor also mentions the linden trees that line the streets of Leipzig.

    To shake up the congregation, the next bass recitative is grandly accompanied by all the wind and brass instruments, like a piece of ceremonial music for a pompous state occasion.

    Then follows another gentle piece, now for alto with two recorders, music of great refinement, but with an ideological text ("Authority is God's gift"). After a soprano recitative follows again a monumental chorus, a song of praise, accompanied by martial trumpets and drums.

    But this is not the end: the cantata's finale is a simple and humble choral setting, a quiet prayer as a call for help and blessing. The cantata which opened in a blaze of sound, thus ends in a spirit of contemplation.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung



    Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest, BWV 194, 2 November 1723


    I.
    Chor: Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest
    Rezitativ Bass: Unendlich großer Gott
    Arie Bass: Was des Höchsten Glanz erfüllt
    Rezitativ Soprano: Wie könnte dir, du höchstes Angesicht
    Arie Soprano: Hilf, Gott, daß es uns gelingt
    Choral: Heilger Geist ins Himmels Throne

    II.
    Rezitativ Tenor: Ihr Heiligen, erfreuet euch
    Arie Tenor: Des Höchsten Gegenwart allein
    Rezitativ (Dialog - Duett) Bass, Soprano: Kann wohl ein Mensch zu Gott im Himmel steigen?
    Arie (Duett) Soprano & Bass: O wie wohl ist uns geschehn
    Rezitativ Bass: Wohlan demnach, du heilige Gemeine
    Choral: Sprich Ja zu meinen Taten


    "Most highly desired festival of joy"
    Text & translation

    A very attractive cantata composed for the dedication of the church and organ at Störmthal, a village near Leipzig. I include it here as it is a case of inauguration. The cantata lasts a full 40 minutes and somewhat reminds one of an orchestral suite. The opening chorus (in three parts) is in the style of a French overture and all the arias have dance rhythms. The reason is that this cantata was based on an earlier, secular one written when Bach served at the court in Cöthen (which is now lost). The bass aria ("the radiance of the Highest") is a pastoral and sings in a softly rocking rhythm about the light of God. It is the most beautiful aria of the cantata, sung in a high register with strings and oboe. The soprano next warns for vanity in her recitative. Also the soprano aria, a gavotte, is very attractive. It sings about the movement of the fire ("imbue Your Fire in us"). The first part is next closed with a straightforward choral - with a rare, independent oboe.

    The second part (which would have followed after the sermon) starts with an recitative and aria (in the form of a gigue) for tenor, a song which describes joy ("Only the presence of the Highest can be the source of our joy"). The recitative for soprano and bass is a dialogue between Doubt (bass) and Conviction (soprano). Of course Conviction wins and in their duet (a minuet) soprano and bass together sing the praise of God. This duet again features a very attractive melody, accompanied by two oboes and spun out for a long time. The final choral has a dance-like character, in tune with the overall joyfulness of this cantata.

    Bach apparently also liked it as he revived it in 1724 for Trinity Sunday, and performed it at two further Trinity Sundays in 1726 and 1731.

    Rating: A
    Video: Stichting Rondom de Cantates Amersfoort:
    Mvts. 1-3 / Mvt. 4-5 / Mvts. 6-8 / Mvts. 9-12


  • Ihr Tore zu Zion, BWV 193, 25 August 1727


    Chor: Ihr Tore zu Zion
    Rezitativ Soprano: Der Hüter Israels entschläft noch schlummert nicht
    Arie Soprano: Gott, wir danken deiner Güte
    Rezitativ Alto: O Leipziger Jerusalem
    Arie Alto: Sende, Herr, den Segen ein  
    Chor: Ihr Tore zu Zion

    "Ye gates of Zion"
    Text & translation

    Much of the music of this cantata for the inauguration of Leipzig's town council in 1727 was in fact lost (only the soprano and alto parts together with the parts for oboes and strings have come down to us), and what we hear today is a reconstruction. The opening chorus is very festive and has a motive that will stick in your mind for a long time. The attractive soprano aria is accompanied by a beautiful oboe and also the alto aria is also a fine piece. The melody of the opening chorus is repeated at the end of the cantata. It is good that so much of this fine cantata could be reconstituted. By the way, this music had been heard in the open air in Leipzig less than four weeks earlier as a tribute cantata (BWV 193a) on the name day of the King / Elector August II. This cantata is seldom performed and I only know it in a recording by Ton Koopman.

    Rating: B+
    Video: -



  • Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille, BWV 120, 29 August 1729


    Alto solo: Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille
    Coro: Jauchzet, ihr erfreuten Stimmen
    Recitativo (bass): Auf, du geliebte Lindenstadt
    Aria (soprano): Heil und Segen
    Recitativo (tenor): Nun, Herr, so weihe selbst das Regiment
    Chorale: Nun hilf uns, Herr, den Dienern dein

    "God, Praise awaits You in the stillness"
    Text & translation

    This inaugurational cantata starts surprisingly with an elegant aria for alto with oboe d'amore accompaniment, which probably had its origins in a lost violin concerto. But it is a gorgeous setting of the Psalm's words "God, You are praised in the stillness of Zion, and vows to You shall be fulfilled." The reason for this can be found in Psalm 65: 2 (used in this cantata), which says that it is precisely the silence that is a song of praise to God.

    The chorus stands (just as surprisingly) in second position and must sound familiar to Bach lovers, as it was later also used in the more famous B Minor Mass. It is a brilliant setting with trumpets and drums.

    The soprano aria has an interesting violin accompaniment, perhaps something from a common model shared by the third movement of the violin sonata BWV1019a. The cantata ends with a four-voice setting of a verse of the German Te Deum.

    Rating: A
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society

     
  • Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29, 27 August 1731

    Sinfonia
    Coro: Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir
    Aria (tenor, violin): Halleluja, Stärk und Macht
    Recitativo (bass): Gottlob! es geht uns wohl!
    Aria (soprano, oboe, strings):Gedenk an uns mit deiner Liebe
    Recitativo (alto, choir): Vergiß es ferner nicht, mit deiner Hand
    Aria (alto): Halleluja, Stärk und Macht
    Chorale: Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren

    "We give thanks to You, O God"
    Text & translation

    Central in this festive cantata is gratefulness for blessings received in the past. The elaborate sinfonia for organ and strings at the beginning is based on the E Major partita for solo violin (BWV 1006). It has been arranged like an organ concerto.

    This is followed by a sublime chorus which was later included as the Gratias in the B-minor Mass. The old-style setting forms a perfect match with the message of the psalm text. At the end, three trumpets and drums join in with the four choir voices, creating a seven-voice whole - the number of perfection.

    After that, we have three pleasant arias: for tenor with obbligato violin, in which Leipzig is compared to Sion (Jeruzalem); then a quiet sicilliano for soprano (" Bless those who rule us, who lead, protect and guide us "); and finally for alto accompanied by the organ, praising the power and might of the Most High. The final solemn chorale is again accompanied by trumpets and drums. One of Bach's best.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung / Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium
    / Thomaskirche


  • Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69, 1742–48 (adapted from BWV 69a)


    Chorus: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
    Recitativo (soprano): Wie groß ist Gottes Güte doch
    Aria (alto): Meine Seele, auf, erzähle,
    Recitativo (tenor): Der Herr hat große Ding an uns getan
    Aria (bass): Mein Erlöser und Erhalter
    Chorale: Es danke, Gott, und lobe dich

    "Praise the Lord, O my Soul"
    Text & translation

    Bach wrote this cantata in his last years, basing it on BWV 69a which was written for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity of 1723. The recitatives and the chorale were changed for the occasion, as were other details but it is basically the same cantata - it was easy to transform thanks to its jubilant character. The triumphant words of Psalm 103 are accompanied by a rich orchestral setting that includes three trumpets, timpani, three oboes and a bassoon, besides the strings. Bach reflected the duality of the words of the psalm in the opening chorus ("Praise the Lord, my soul, and do not forget the good He has done for you!") by creating a double fugue.

    This grand opening chorus (preceded by an orchestral ritornello) is followed by two arias, one for tenor, the other for bass. The first aria is a pastoral movement, the tenor is accompanied by oboe da caccia, recorder and bassoon. In the second recitative the tenor expresses the hope that God will bestow ‘the spirit of wisdom’ on the new town council of Leipzig. At that moment, the strings join in, lending more solemnity to the message.

    In the second aria the contrast between suffering and joy is expressed by chromatic "up and down" figures and vivid coloraturas. The closing chorale is accompanied by festive trumpets and drums.

    Rating: A-
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society

     
       
    Bach Cantata Index


   
 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Bach Cantatas for Church Feasts on Fixed Dates: Feast of Reformation (October 31)

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against the trade in indulgences on the door of the castle chapel in Wittenberg. This event has come to be regarded as the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) started out as an Augustinian friar, but after his appointment in 1508 as professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, he developed into the leading personality of the Reformation in the German Empire. The publication of his academic theses against indulgence trade on October 31, 1517, is the symbolic beginning of Protestantism. Luther taught that salvation and, consequently, eternal life are not earned by good deeds but are received only as the free gift of God's grace through the believer's faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority and office of the pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge. His translation of the Bible into the German vernacular (instead of Latin) made it more accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture. It fostered the development of a standard version of the German language. His German hymns influenced the development of singing in Protestant churches.

To commemorate the beginning of Protestantism, 31 October was declared a national holiday by the Elector of Saxony (whose predecessors had protected Luther). This holiday was however never fully equal to the other fests of the church year. Bach first experienced this holiday after his move to Saxon Leipzig. But in 1723 it fell on a Sunday and in 1724 Bach was preoccupied with his weekly series of chorale cantatas, so in these years he did not compose a cantata for the Reformationsfest. In 1725 Bach wrote the joyous, dancing quarter-hour cantata, BWV 79, and the more iconic half-hour chorale cantata, BWV 80, evolved for two decades in at least four versions, until reaching its final form in 1735. These two cantatas only make up a fraction of the praise and thanksgiving works Bach actually presented around the 1730s for the popular festival, but the other cantatas he used on this date were not original compositions like the above mentioned two, but parodied from Christmas, Trinity and wedding and festive cantatas. He also performed works by Fasch and Telemann.

Readings:
Epistle: 2 Thessalonians 2: 3-8
Gospel: Revelations 14: 6-8

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)


[Lucas Cranach d.Ä.- Martin Luther (1529)]


Cantatas:

Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79, 31 October 1725

Gott, der Herr, ist Sonn und Schild (Chorus)
Gott ist unser Sonn und Schild (Aria Alto)
Nun danket alle Gott (Chorale)
Gottlob! Wir wissen den rechten Weg zur Seligkeit (Recitative Basso)
Gott, ach Gott, verlaß die Deinen nimmermehr (Aria Soprano / Basso)
Erhalt uns in der Wahrheit (Chorale)

"God the Lord is sun and shield"
Text: anonymous

The opening chorus of this Reformation cantata, praising God as refuge, is superb with its festive, march-like theme for the horns and timpani. It also starts with an impressive sinfonia. The insistent repeated notes on the timpani, which undergird the fanfares of the high horns, perhaps depict the hammering of Luther’s theses to the oak door at the back of the church.

The following engaging alto aria with obbligato oboe is in contrast tranquil and contemplative. Next comes a chorale with blazing horns which forms a rousing hymn of thanks. This hymn was apparently sung regularly on Reformation Day in Leipzig. After this chorale probably the sermon would follow, dividing the cantata in two parts as was often the case.  

The only recitative, sung by the bass, praises Jesus who shows us the "right way," addressing the basic issues of the Reformation. The duet for bass and soprano expresses a prayer for support against enemies. It is accompanied by a vigorous obbligato for unison violins. The cantata ends with a four-part setting of the second chorale, asking for the gift of truth.

Bach performed the cantata again, probably in 1730. He must have been rather satisfied with it, because with BWV 102, 179 and 187 it is one of the four cantatas of which Bach reused all the relevant parts (choirs, arias) in the late 1730s in his four Lutheran Masses.

Rating: A-
Video: Bach-Stiftung / Thomaner


Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (Chorale fantasia)
Alles, was von Gott geboren / Mit unser Macht ist nichts getan (Aria e chorale)
Erwäge doch, Kind Gottes (Recitative Basso)
Komm in mein Herzenshaus (Aria Soprano)
Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär (Chorale)
So stehe dann bei Christi blutgefärbter Fahne (Recitative Tenor)
Wie selig sind doch die, die Gott im Munde tragen (Duetto Alt / Tenor)
Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn (Chorale)

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"
Text: Salomon Franck

According a legend, Martin Luther composed this popular church hymn in 1521 on his way to the Reichstag in Worms, where he was summoned for an interrogation by Emperor Charles V. Singing this battle song, Luther and his supporters traveled through Germany in triumph, making the venerable cathedral of Worms shake on its foundations, and the tower crows fly up uneasily. It has been called "the Marseillaise of the Reformation" and retained its charm in German hearts for centuries. In reality, Luther wrote this hymn in 1529 as a Christianized paraphrase of the Old Testament psalm 46.

Cantata BWV 80 originated from two other cantatas by Bach: the cantata “Alles was von Gott geboren” for Oculi, composed in Weimar in 1715, and a previously written much simpler cantata for the day of the Reformation. Bach used the recitatives and arias from the 1715 cantata and the chords of this simple reform cantata to create cantata 80, probably around 1735. The lyrics were adapted to the Reformation Day readings and two unused stanzas from the Luther song were added. Even after Bach's death in 1750, this cantata was still worked on: his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, added parts for timpani and trumpets in parts 1 and 5.

The cantata starts with an enormous chorale fantasia on Luther's hymn, a beautiful but also awe-inspiring edifice and the last choral fantasia Bach wrote - and one of his greatest.

The second movement combines a robust bass aria to a text by Salomon Franck with the second verse of the Feste-Burg chorale sung by the soprano with oboe accompaniment. The meaning is that human militancy (bass) achieves little without Christ's backing (soprano). There is what has been called a "machine gun" accompaniment in the strings.

The bass recitative starts secco but ends in an arioso, and illustrates the unity of Christians with Jesus. As so often the soprano in her lovely aria embodies the subjective perspective of the individual ideal believer, who allows Jesus into her heart. It swings beautifully in triple time and is characterized by extensive melismas and a "floating and ethereal" melody.

The central chorale presents the third stanza of the hymn in unison voices, an unusual practice for Bach. After a secco tenor recitative ending in an arioso (like that of the bass) follows an alto and tenor duet, accompanied by continuo and obbligato violin with a warm-sounding oboe da caccia. It is a piece of great beauty. The final movement is a four-part setting of the last stanza of the hymn.

Rating: A+
Video: Bach-Stiftung / Musica Amphion/Gesualdo



Sunday, December 27, 2020

Bach Cantatas for Church Feasts on Fixed Dates: Feast of St Michael (Sept. 29)

Saint Michael is an archangel who in the Book of Revelation leads God's armies against Satan's forces, where during the war in heaven he defeats Satan. In the Epistle of Jude, Michael is specifically referred to as "the archangel Michael." Shrines to Michael were built by Christians in the 4th century, when he was first seen as a healing angel. Over time his role became one of a protector and the leader of the army of God against the forces of evil. In Christian angelology, the Archangel Michael is the greatest of all the angels and is honored for defeating Lucifer in the war in heaven.

His feast day, Michaelis or Michaelmas, is held on September 29, a very important day in the Lutheran church calendar - on the same level as Christmas and Easter. Michaelmas is one of the four quarter days of the financial, judicial, and academic year.

In art, Michael is represented as an angelic warrior, armed with helmet, sword, and shield. He may also be standing over a serpent, a dragon, or the defeated figure of Satan, whom he sometimes pierces with a lance.

St. Michael's Day was important in the commercial life of Leipzig as it marked the start of one of the city's annual trade fairs, which were visited by many people from other parts of Germany and abroad. Traditionally in Leipzig during Bach's time the Feast of St Michael celebrations used the largest orchestra available - all of Bach's  cantatas for this occasion include trumpet and timpani.

The theme of the war against evil obviously greatly appealed to Bach - his musical responses to the story are varied and strikingly pictorial. There are three full cantatas for this day 'BWV 130, 19 and 149), plus a fragment (BWV 50).

By the way, Cantata BWV 219, "Siehe, es hat uberwunden der Lowe," which was also written for St Michael's Day, is not by Bach, as was thought for a long time (I wonder how, for it is completely different in style!), but is a composition of Georg Philip Telemann. 

Readings:
Epistle: Revelations 12: 7-12
Gospel: Matthew 18: 1-11

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)


[Michael, the archangel, by Guido Reni, 1636]

Cantatas:

Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV 130, 29 September 1724

Chorale: Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir
Recitative (alto): Ihr heller Glanz und hohe Weisheit zeigt
Aria (bass): Der alte Drache brennt vor Neid
Recitative (soprano, tenor): Wohl aber uns, daß Tag und Nacht
Aria (tenor): Laß, o Fürst der Cherubinen
Chorale: Darum wir billig loben dich

"Lord God, we all praise you"
Text: anonymous; chorale "Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir" by Paul Eber (1554)

All the stops are pulled out in "Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir" - from spectacular trumpets and timpani to an intimate song of praise. It belongs to Bach's second annual cycle. The anonymous libretto has been based on Paul Eber's hymn "Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir" (1554), which in its turn derives from the Latin canticle "Dicimus grates tibi" by Luther's colleague Philipp Melanchthon. Bach wrote this cantata for the saint’s day of the archangel Michael, who according to the Book of Revelation conquered the dragon in heaven with his troops of angels. Although this did not root out all evil, it cast it back to earth. So this day focuses on the firm conviction that good will conquer evil.

The first choral movement which sets the first strophe of the hymn is resplendently scored for three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, strings and continuo. It is about  the eternal fight between good and evil – in this case in the guise of a dragon. The very first notes make it clear who will win: God’s angels. God is praised and thanked with triumphal music, while in the soprano part you hear the chorale.

Movement 3 is the theological kernel of the cantata, a bass aria with trumpets and drums, in which the confrontation between St Michael and his angels with Satan, the "old dragon," is described in fiery terms. Luther's angels were not some friendly effeminate creatures with wings, but rather sturdy representatives of the church militant, capable of doing their bit in the war against evil. It is a ferocious confrontation and one of the most thrilling arias Bach ever wrote.

The ensuing warm and transparent recitative for soprano and tenor provides a striking contrast to these military tones. It is full of rest, peace and security after the storm has subsided and thus prepares the ground for the alluring tenor aria. In the text pass two classic Old Testament examples of angelic guard: the protection that Daniel enjoyed in the lions' den and the three men who emerged unharmed from the burning fiery furnace in Babel. In a gentle song of praise with an angelic flute solo, the tenor asks the angels for protection, after which the cantata closes with a straightforward setting of the chorale melody.

Rating: A+
Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Collegium Vocale Gent

Es erhub sich ein Streit, BWV 19, 29 September, 1726

Es erhub sich ein Streit (Chorus)
Gottlob! der Drache liegt (Recitative, Bass)
Gott schickt uns Mahanaim zu (Aria, Soprano)
Was ist der schnöde Mensch, das Erdenkind? (Recitative, Tenor)
Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir! (Aria, Alto)
Laßt uns das Angesicht (Recitative, Soprano)
Laß dein' Engel mit mir fahren (Chorale)

"There arose a war"
Text: Picander

As with other Bach cantatas written for the Feast of St. Michael, this work opens with an imposing chorus, a great fugal movement in which Bach illustrates the conflict between heaven and hell with stirring ferocity. It is scored for three trumpets, drums, two oboes and an oboe da caccia, strings and basso continuo. This opening movement includes no instrumental introduction, creating an immediate dramatic effect. It presents a realistic picture of the war against evil.

This is followed by a simple  bass recitative in which the outcome of the battle in favor of the archangel Michael is declared. The third movement is a soprano aria with obbligato oboes d'amore, an oasis of protective tranquillity. Textually, it is concerned with the protection offered humanity by the angelic host.

The tenor recitative is again in the minor mode, this time to describe the fragility of man. This is followed  into a striking tenor aria, containing a plea for heavenly guidance. The aria in the rhythm of a siciliana is the longest movement of the cantata (and its second highlight after the opening chorus), and quite technically demanding. The chorale tune is introduced into this aria by a single trumpet penetrating the warm textured string accompaniment. After a brief secco soprano recitative follows the closing chorale, which has the feel of a minuet,  and which once more introduces the full instrumental arsenal heard in the opening chorus.

Rating: A
Video: Rilling (starts with an explanation of the cantata in German by Rilling)


[Jacomart, Archangel St MIchael, 1441-42]

Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg, BWV 149, 29 September, 1729

Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg   (Chorus)
Kraft und Stärke sei gesungen (Aria B)
Ich fürchte mich (Recitative A)
Gottes Engel weichen nie (Aria S)
Ich danke dir (Recitative T)
Seid wachsam, ihr heiligen Wächter (Aria A T)
Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein (Chorale)

"
One sings with joy about victory"
Text: Picander

The third of Bach's completely preserved St MIchael cantatas has seven movements, and is scored festively with four vocal parts and three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo. Bach derived the music of the concluding chorus from his Hunting Cantata, composed in 1713. It is a very nice adaptation, the trumpets providing a suitably stirring call to rejoicing (and this makes one wonder which other parts of this cantata were adopted as well).

The bass aria continues the theme of the struggle between god and satan. The continuo line here includes a violone. The soloist has to be very mobile to match the rather independent, staccato bassoon and make the most of this movement.

An alto recitative leads to a simple but very beautiful soprano aria with strings. The text of the lyrical and dance-like movement reflects on the protection afforded by the guardian angels.

A tenor recitative leads to the third aria of the cantata, a duet for alto and tenor that is introduced and accompanied by the most athletic of bassoon lines. Its light-hearted and sinewy figurations are echoed in canon by the alto and tenor voices.

The cantata ends with a straightforward chorale setting - until the last two bars when the trumpets and timpani join in and end the cantata in a blaze of color.

Rating: A-
Video: Trinity Church, Wall Street


Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, BWV 50

Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft  (chorus)

"Now has the salvation and the strength"

We find Bach in tremendous form in the overwhelming opening double chorus of Nun ist das Heil. Tragically, that's all that there is left. Just under four minutes of what surely must have been one of Bach's greatest cantatas!

Rating: A+
Video: Netherlands Bach Society



Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Best European Novels: Iceland

Iceland is an island country in the North Atlantic Ocean, with a population of about 342,000 and an area of 103,000 square kilometers, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavík in the southwest of the country, which with its surrounding areas is home to over two-thirds of the population. Iceland is one of the most dynamic volcanic regions in the world. The interior consists of a plateau of lava fields, mountains, and glaciers. Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the activity of diverging tectonic plates brings heat and magma closer to the surface - but this also means that the island holds enormous geothermal resources, enabling it to be world leader in the production of this eco-friendly power. The negative side is that there are frequent earthquakes and that volcanoes do indeed erupt, like Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which - although relatively small for a volcanic eruption - caused severe disruption to air travel. In the past, volcanic eruptions have also caused famine, such as the eruption of Laki in 1783.

Iceland's summers are chilly, although the subpolar climate is tempered by the warm Gulf Stream. The difference in daylight between summer and winter is stark: in winter the sun rises at lunchtime and so to speak again sets an hour later (this is the period in which the northern lights may be observed), while in May to July one can see the midnight sun (there are only a few hours of twilight in the height of summer until full daylight resumes once more).

The settlement of Iceland began in 874 CE when Norwegians emigrated to Iceland. The island was governed as an independent commonwealth under the Althing, the world's oldest functioning legislative assembly. Iceland came under Norwegian rule in the 13th century, and in 1397 was together with Norway integrated into a union with Sweden and Denmark, followed from 1523 by Danish solo rule. In 1550 Denmark introduced Lutheranism to the island, but overall Iceland remained a distant semi-colonial territory in which Danish institutions and infrastructures were conspicuous by their absence.

In the early 19th c. Iceland's struggle for self-rule took form and culminated in independence in 1918 and the founding of the republic in 1944 (thanks to the 1940 German occupation of Denmark). Although its parliament (Althing) was suspended from 1799 to 1845, the island republic has been credited with sustaining the world's oldest parliament. As Iceland was ruled by Denmark for 682 years, it still has a close and complex relationship with its former masters. For centuries Iceland's intellectual class was almost exclusively educated in Copenhagen. Even today, more Icelanders live in the Danish capital than in any other place outside the island. From the end of WWII to 2006 Iceland had other quasi-masters in the form of the US military who maintained a base here (set up under anti-Nato protests as reflected in The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness), but Iceland also benefited from the Marshall plan. Danish cultural influence has subsequently been supplanted by British and American influence, and English now is the second language of Icelanders.

Until the 20th century, Iceland relied largely on subsistence fishing and agriculture, but modernization following WWII brought prosperity and Iceland became one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world, with sectors as biotechnology and geothermal energy. It maintains a Nordic social welfare system that provides universal health care and tertiary education for its citizens. Iceland ranks high in economic, democratic, and social stability, as well as equality. In 2008, Iceland was hit hard by the worldwide financial crisis (due to economic mismanagement - Iceland's banks had gone on an investment spree in glittering foreign assets with borrowed money), leading to a systemic failure of its banking system and a deep economic crisis which left its traces in literature as well. Interestingly, when Iceland experienced its boom and bubble, explanations were found in the uniqueness of the Icelandic economy and culture - "a new model of doing things," similar to the type of explanations applied 20 years earlier in a similar situation to Japan. In retrospect, it was a clear demonstration of how strong social networks can turn to incestuous corruption and the shutting down of democratic discourse (such as a free press). But by 2014, the Icelandic economy already had made a significant recovery, in large part due to a surge in tourism.

Like other Nordic societies, Icelandic society is very egalitarian. Hierarchy is established for convenience, and superiors are accessible. Information is shared frequently and communication is informal and direct. Conflicts are resolved by compromise and negotiation. The focus is on well-being and quality of life, and status is not emphasized. Genders are emphatically equal (in 1980, Iceland became the first country in the world to have a female president). Iceland is also a highly individualist culture, which means that society is loosely-knit and that people are expected to look after themselves. Icelanders are not averse to taking risks and there is a large degree of acceptance for new ideas. In a negative way, this can lead to a Viking-like, dare-do attitude of winning by being clever and bold, and an in-bred sense of superiority, which contributed to the crash of 2008.

Icelandic food is natural and based on fresh seafood, lamb chops, delicious rye bread and dairy products (such as Skyr yogurt). However, there are also some (at least to me) truly weird dishes, as hákarl (fermented shark), hrútspungar (ram's testicles), blóðmör (blood pudding), svið (boiled sheep's head) and súr hvalur (whale blubber).

Most Icelanders are descendants of Norse and Gaelic settlers. Icelandic, a Germanic language, is descended from Old Norse. Icelandic literature is known for the sagas written in medieval times, starting in the 13th century. The most famous of these include Njáls saga, about an epic blood feud, and Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga, describing the discovery and settlement of Greenland.

A translation of the Bible was published in the 16th century. Important compositions since the 15th to the 19th century include sacred verse and rímur, rhyming epic poems. In the 19th century, the development of new literary forms was stimulated by national-romantic ideas. In recent times, Iceland has produced many great writers, the best-known of whom is Halldór Laxness, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 (the only Icelander to win a Nobel Prize thus far). Another important writer is Einar Már Guðmundsson. Nordic "noir" crime novels are a popular genre, with as most important author Arnaldur Indriðason. Icelanders are avid consumers of literature; for its size, Iceland imports and translates more international literature than any other nation.

With few exceptions in Iceland people do not have surnames, but patronyms or occasionally matronyms. These consist of the first name of the father (or mother) followed by -son ("son") or -dóttir ("daughter"). But these function differently from surnames and Icelanders therefore formally address each other by their first names (this is not a matter of Icelandic equality!) and listings such as the telephone directory are alphabetized by first name rather than surname. So the writer Arnaldur Indriðason is both casually and formally called "Arnaldur" and in bookshops his books are ranked under the A for "Arnaldur" and not under "Indriðason" (as happens with the translations of his books outside Iceland; on the English translations of his books, "Indriðason" is misleadingly printed in larger letters).

The big themes of the Icelandic novel are:
- Rugged independence
- Iceland's mesmerizing landscape
- A typical kind of humor
- Icelandic noir, helped in atmosphere by the island's dark and inclement weather of rain and snow
- Because of the tiny population, everyone knows everyone else and the close-knit society allows for nepotism and cliques

The rules I have followed are:
(1) English translations must exist (it may be our of print, in which case you'll have to try the sellers at Amazon etc., or a good library)
(2) Every writer is represented by only one book (to prevent me from spamming the list with my favorites)
(3) One of the selection criteria is "sense of place," meaning that I have a preference for books that bring the reader closer to the country under consideration.
(4) Besides "high literature," I also include a few "genre novels" (usually thrillers or mysteries), as these can give a good insight in the culture of a particular country.

Useful websites:
Reikjavik, Unesco City of Literature: https://bokmenntaborgin.is/en
Reikjavik Grapevine: https://grapevine.is/
Iceland Review: https://www.icelandreview.com/
Iceland Monitor: https://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/

Have a virtual trip by checking out the various places mentioned in these novels via Google Maps or Wikipedia!

1. Under the Glacier / Christianity at the Glacier (Kristnihald undir Jökli), by Halldór Laxness (1968)
Independent People is Laxness' most famous novel, a story about a stubborn and uncompromisingly independent sheep farmer, but I am not a fan of "regional novels" about agricultural pursuits, so I have opted for Under the Glacier, one of Laxness' latest, most quirky, and most philosophical books. The correct English translation of the title of this novel is "Christianity under the Glacier" and that glacier is Snæfellsjökull, a huge glacier capping a stratovolcano in western Iceland. The mountain is located at the most western part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, at a distance of 120 kilometers from Reykjavík, and is sometimes visible from that city. It is one of the most famous mountains in Iceland, also thanks to the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne, in which the protagonists find the entrance to a passage leading to the center of the earth on Snæfellsjökull.

In Laxness' novel the Bishop of Iceland sends an emissary (in the novel only called "Emissary of the Bishop" or "Embi") to that area to investigate what the eccentric local priest is up to. There are rumors that Pastor Jon is not burying the dead, that the church is boarded up, and that in general Christianity is being "tampered with." What the emissary (a young theology student) encounters is very different from such mundane concerns: he finds a true theater of the absurd. For example, one of the characters is a woman who may or may not have been killed, turned into a fish, frozen under the glacier, and then later defrosted and resurrected by a group of traveling American hippies! An utterly perplexing but also brilliantly funny book.

[Snæfellsjökull]

Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) was born in Reykjavik, but spent his youth in the countryside. His real name was Halldór Guðjónsson (with a patronymic) - Laxness is a writer's pseudonym that functions as a surname. From the age of seventeen on, he traveled and lived abroad, chiefly on the European continent. He was influenced by expressionism and other modern currents in Germany and France. In 1930, Laxness settled again in Iceland. In 1935 he published Independent People, the novel that was instrumental in the decision to grant him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other important novels are Iceland's Bell (1943), a historical trilogy; the satirical The Atom Station (1948); and the Bildungsroman The Fish Can Sing (1957).
How Halldór Laxness Brings the Heroic to the Everyday
Laxness in Translation


2. Trolls' Cathedral (Tröllakirkja), by Ólafur Gunnarsson (1992)
In Scandinavian (and Icelandic) folklore, trolls are beings who live far from human habitation, are not Christianized, and are considered dangerous to human beings. Depending on the source, their appearance varies greatly; trolls may be ugly and slow-witted, or look and behave exactly like human beings, with no particularly grotesque characteristic about them. The troll in human form in this novel is the protagonist, the architect Sigurbjörn, who dreams of building a massive and imposing cathedral that echoes the Icelandic landscape (as Hallgrímskirkja by architect Guðjón Samúelsson, built in 1937, in fact does) - but he is never asked for such a large, public project. His main project therefore becomes a franchise department store, a church of materialism, built in 1952, the year in which the novel takes place. Acquiring the land in Reykjavik from his father-in-law, he begins construction in partnership with Gudbrandur, a master carpenter and friend (who mostly finances the project). With its five floors of merchandise linked by escalators, the store is something which has never been seen yet in Iceland.

But Sigurbjörn is anyway a man who has lost his faith. His religious elder brother traveled abroad to study theology, but contracted a disease and died overseas. The brother remained a believer to the end, but Sigurbjörn looses faith in a cold-hearted god that allowed such a sincere and kind man as his brother to die. Sigurbjörn is confirmed in his rejection of god when his young son is raped and the rapist pardoned by the authorities after a very short stint in prison. Grief and anger make Sigurbjörn unable to forgive god or any fellow human being. He sees guilt everywhere and in everyone. His family disintegrates subsequent to the incident. Sigurbjörn looses his grip on sanity, kills his only friend instead of the rapist and ends up in jail. In this novel, the undercurrent of violence never fails to shock and when it erupts, victims and perpetrators prove equally unpredictable. A discomfiting read.


[Hallgrímskirkja, one of Reikjavik's best-known landmarks, visible throughout the city. State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson's design of the church was commissioned in 1937. He is said to have designed it to resemble the trap rocks, mountains and glaciers of Iceland's landscape.]

Ólafur Gunnarsson (1948) graduated from Commercial College of Iceland in 1968 and first worked as a medical emergency driver. Since 1974 he has been an independent writer and translator. His most famous novel is Trolls' Cathedral, which was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize in 1992. Ólafur has been called one of Iceland's most important realist storytellers and his novels have been termed "urban epics." He lives and works on a small farm a few miles outside Reykjavík. Other novels are The Beautiful Flying Whale (a children's book), Potter’s Field and Million Percent Men.
Their Best Guardian, article on Ólafur Gunnarsson

3. Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins), by Einar Már Guðmundsson (1995)
Angels of the Universe is a Nordic Bildungsroman that is often described as the Icelandic version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The protagonist Páll, who increasingly suffers from a split personality, anxiety, unrest and paranoia, was based on Einar's mentally ill brother and much of the book is true. The novel is poetic, but also filled with lots of (very) dark humor - all the more so as Páll himself is the narrator. The story can be divided into two parts. The first part is focused on the childhood and youth of Páll (who is born on the fateful day that Iceland joins NATO) in Reykjavik and brings many colorful persons on stage (don't worry when you can't remember them) - in this section we also get some insight into Icelandic culture. Páll is looking for an explanation why his life turned out as it did – what was it that flung him into this internal chaos? While longing for lost friends and childhood, slowly the idea is born: is leaving childhood perhaps the same as losing your mind? In the second part Páll walks Reykjavik's streets, out-of-work and aimless, tormented by bouts of drinking and ferocious tantrums, scaring his family, lusting after women, and brooding over petty humiliations. Páll finally ends up in the mental hospital Klepp where he meets several colorful characters, such as Óli, who believes he is the songwriter for The Beatles, Peter who is waiting for his doctorate from Beijing University, and Viktor, who signs bills with the signature of Adolf Hitler. The novel has won the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1995. In 2000, it was adapted into an eponymous feature film.

[Klepp Psychiatric Hospital]

Einar Már Guðmundsson (1954) was born in Reykjavík. In 1979 he received his Bachelor of Arts in comparative literature and history at the University of Iceland. He subsequently worked in the comparative literature department of the University of Copenhagen. The author lives in Reykjavík. His books have been translated into several languages (but more often into German than English). Other novels are for example The Knights of the Spiral Stairs and On the Point of Erupting. Angels of the Universe is available in a Kindle edition.
Confusion of the Dominant, article on Már Guðmundsson

4. Jar City (Mýrin, lit. The Bog), by ARNALDUR Indriðason (2000)
Inspector Erlendur is your archetypal Nordic noir police detective: while he  searches for criminals, he must also face his own demons. He is about 50, long divorced, no contact anymore with his ex-wife and son, and with a daughter, Eva Lind, who suffers from varying degrees of drug addiction. In this novel, she is pregnant and still using; she flits in and out of Erlendur's life angrily, as if crying out for help. The weather in the novel is invariably cold, dark, and it either rains or snows (winter is Arnaldur's season, not summer).

The body of a 70-year-old man who was struck on the head with a glass ashtray is found in a flat in Norðurmýri. The only clues are a photograph of a young girl's grave and a cryptic note left on the body. Detective Erlendur discovers that the victim was accused of a violent rape some forty years earlier but was never convicted. The man indeed turns out to have been a nasty piece of work, and Erlendur is disgusted to discover that he and his mates may have been connected with more rapes and deaths of young women in the past. And then there is that suffocating, moldy smell in the man's apartment...

The novel won the Scandinavian crime writers' Glass Key award in 2002 for best Nordic crime fiction novel, and was adapted into an eponymous film. What I like in this novel (and other books by Arnaldur) is that the plot is neither too daring nor too unrealistic; the story spins a thread which connects sensitive matters: sexual crimes and the problem of the information society where the genetic ID of the individual has become the property of private firms.

[Reykjavik]

Arnaldur Indriðason (1961) was born in Reykjavík, and graduated with a degree in history from the University of Iceland. Before becoming a full time novelist, he worked as a journalist and film critic for a large newspaper. His first book, Sons of Earth (Synir duftsins) came out in 1997, the first in the series with Detective Erlendur (the first two novels in the series have not yet been translated into English). The series now includes 14 novels. Arnaldur is considered one of the most popular writers in Iceland in recent years, crowning bestseller lists time and again. His books have sold over 14 million copies worldwide, in 40 languages. Two different series by Arnaldur are the "Reykjavik Wartime Mystery series" (in which the two detectives Flovent and Thorson investigate crime and espionage in Reykjavik during WWII), and the "Konráð series" (about a retired police officer).
Reykjavík by day and night, article about Arnaldur's novels.
Guide to Arnaldur at Mystery Tribune.


5. Pets (Gæludýrin), by
Bragi Ólafsson (2001)
This book is about nasty people: people who don't leave you in peace (for example when you want to read your book in the airplane and the guy next to you keeps trying to engage you in conversation), or people who want something from you (money, or that even more precious phenomenon, time). And often, instead of getting angry and being nasty yourself, you endure such people out of a sort of lazy masochism (hoping they go away of their own accord). In the book, Emil has the above airplane experience when he returns from London to Reykjavik. But at home a much nastier experience lies in wait: Havard, a sinister lout from his past, shows up on his doorstep, and Emil does the only sensible thing he can think of: he hides under his bed. But Havard doesn't take no for an answer and breaks into Emil's house, where he makes himself comfortable by enjoying the large amount of liquor Emil has just brought back from London. He even ends up hosting a party for Emil's friends, while Emil in question remains in hiding. From his position under the bed he has to live through all the outrages that take place. A hilarious novel with a dark undertone. 

[Keflavik Airport]

Bragi Olafsson (1962) was born in Reykjavík and studied Spanish at the University of Iceland and the University of Granada in Spain. He has done a number of jobs in Reykjavík, at the post office, in a bank and a record store and was a member of different music bands for a number of years. One of them was the Sugarcubes, and Bragi toured with them in Europe and America. Currently, Bragi works at an advertising agency in Reykjavík, as well as being a writer. Other well-known novels are The Ambassador and The Narrator.
Essay about Bragi Olafsson

6. The Flatey Enigma (Flateyjargáta), by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson (2003)
This interesting mystery is situated on Flatey, a tiny island (one by two kilometers) in the cluster of the western islands in Breiðafjörður (NW Iceland). As the name "Flatey" indicates, it is indeed very flat. In 1960, the year in which the story takes place, it has a church, a post office (with one telephone, the only one on the island), a doctor and two shops; the few score of inhabitants are sheep farmers and seal hunters. The island is visited by migratory birds, such as the puffin, which also occupies an important position on the island's menu (together with fermented shark and seal blubber). There is a regular ferry to ports on the Icelandic mainland.

On an uninhabited islet near Flatey seal hunters find a dead man, but no boat or remains of a shipwreck - and nobody is missing from the area. Kjartan, a representative of the district magistrate, is sent to Flatey to investigate the crime. He feels out of his element among the colorful inhabitants such as Grimur, the district officer/seal hunter, the local priest Thormodur Krakur, and the alluring doctor Johanna, who acts as coroner. Kjartan discovers a cryptic note in the dead man’s pocket which he relates to a famous medieval manuscript called the Flatey Book (Flateyjarbók or Codex Flateyensis), which contains a riddle believed to inflict a curse on anyone who attempts to solve its mysteries. At the end of every chapter Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson has incorporated a brief text from that manuscript, each about a violent deed of the Norse kings, and containing one of 40 riddles. Although the original manuscript is kept in Copenhagen (since 1971 in Reikjavik), the small library on Flatey (built in 1864 and the oldest library in Iceland) houses a copy.

The dead man then is identified as Gaston Lund, a noted Danish scholar of Icelandic antiquities known to be obsessed with the Flatey enigma, and now the investigation expands: an investigator from the Reykjavik police and a reporter launch their parallel research. This all leads to an unexpected and very original conclusion.

The novel is fascinating for the realistic descriptions of life on Flatey: the islander's diet, their small cottages, dress, their ethics and religious beliefs, and the fishing industry aimed at seal pups.

[Flatey Island]

Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson (1955) has a B.Sc. degree in civil engineering and, in addition to having a successful career as a writer, he continues to work full-time at the Public Roads Administration in Iceland. His first two novels where published in 1978 and 1982 (long before Nordic noir became popular) and since 1998 he has published four more crime-novels, such as Daybreak, House of Evidence and Sun on Fire.
Essay about the author

7. The Blue Fox (Skugga-Baldur), by Sjón (2004)

This lyrical novella, set in Iceland in 1883, contains two connected threads: one is about a mean-spirited priest, who hunts and finally kills the blue fox of the title, only to be killed himself in the avalanche caused by the echoes of his gun; the other is a tenderhearted herbalist, Fridrik Fridjónsson, who rescues a girl with Down syndrome from a shipwreck. Because she can't keep quiet, she is kicked out of the church by the above priest. In due course she collects natural wonders of the Icelandic environment and even invents her own language. But this is all in retrospect, for when we first meet her she has already died and is made ready for burial.

The arctic fox (vulpes lagopus), also known as white fox, polar fox, or snow fox, is a small fox native to the arctic regions of the northern hemisphere, well adapted to living in cold environments, and known for its thick, warm fur that is also used as camouflage. Sjón gives spellbinding descriptions of the cold northern winters and the snowy landscapes.


[Arctic fox]

Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, 1962) is a poet, novelist, and lyricist who  collaborates with the singer Björk. He began his writing career as a poet in the late 1970s and was a founding member of an important Neo-surrealist group; since the early 1980s he has also been active in Iceland's music scene. His books have been translated into 30 languages. Alongside his work as writer Sjón has taken part in a wide range of art exhibitions and music events. His longtime collaboration with the Icelandic singer Björk led to an Oscar nomination for his lyrics for the Lars von Trier movie Dancer in the Dark. Other novels are From the Mouth of the Whale and Moonstone.
Author's website
Interview at Words Without Borders

8. The Perfect Landscape (Hið fullkomna landslag), by Ragna Sigurðardóttir (2009)
A novel set in the Icelandic art world. Art historian Hanna has returned to Reikjavik from Amsterdam to run an experimental gallery, The Annexe, attached to the city's main art museum. She must adapt to her new job and new life and keep her head high among the usual office politics facing an outsider. There are three threads in the book. The major one is that of forgery in the art world. The economic bubble has yet to burst, and rich businessmen are eager to become known as sponsors of culture by donating expensive artworks. Hanna's museum has recently received such a donation – a landscape by a known early 20th c. Icelandic artist. However, the painting's authenticity is called into doubt, sending Hanna, in collaboration with a colleague, headlong into a tricky investigation of the painting's origins. Her task is undermined by a widespread unwillingness to upset the cozy relationship between big money and high culture by revealing an embarrassing forgery.

As two more threads we also follow the well-meaning but perhaps misguided attempts of Hanna to connect with the street kids who have covered public art works such as statues under graffiti, as well as her organization of the first exhibition in The Annexe, which reveals that artists are very difficult people.

[Reykjavik Art Museum]

Ragna Sigurðardóttir (1962) studied visual art at the Icelandic School of Arts and Craft (1985-1989), and then obtained an advanced degree from The Jan Eyck Academy in Maastricht (1989-1991). Since 2002, she has been an art critic for a  major daily newspaper. The present novel is clearly based on her experiences in the Icelandic art world. The Perfect Landscape is her fourth novel.
About the author

9. Snowblind (Snjóblinda), by Ragnar Jónasson (2010)
Siglufjörður is a depressed fishing community in a narrow fjord on the far northern coast of Iceland, with a population of 1,200 - and shrinking, since the herring industry disappeared. The town is only accessible via a mountain pass and narrow tunnel. Everybody knows everybody, secrets can't be kept and no one locks their doors - in a way, it is symbolic for the whole of Iceland. This village becomes the first posting of rookie police detective Ari Thór Arason, who must leave his girlfriend, who is studying for doctor, behind in Reykjavik. Soon after his arrival, the peaceful town is shattered by two deaths: a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, grand old man of Icelandic literature falls to his death in the local theater. Ari investigates, but is trusted by almost no one (except a young woman, Ugla, who is herself involved in the town's mystery) and can trust no one from his side. An avalanche and unremitting snowstorms close the mountain pass, turning the town into a "locked room." Blinded by the snow, and with an unknown murderer who may strike again, the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness. The narrative skips from viewpoint to viewpoint, revealing the interlocking lives of its characters.

[Siglufjörður]

Ragnar Jónasson (1976) is known for the bestselling "Dark Iceland" series, set in and around Siglufjörður, and featuring Detective Ari Thor. Ragnar works as a lawyer and teaches copyright law at Reykjavik University Law School. He has translated 14 of Agatha Christie's novels into Icelandic, and indeed, his own work has some of that author's qualities, such as good traditional plots. Ragner lives in Reykjavik where he is co-founder of the international crime-writing festival, Iceland Noir.
Author's website
Essay about the author

10. I Remember You (Ég man þig), by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (2010)
As a rationalist I am convinced that ghosts and supernatural phenomena don't exist, but that they are all hallucinations or otherwise "tricks of the mind." So I prefer ghost stories that leave a door open to a rational explanation, which is unfortunately not the case with I Remember You. The book is also only mildly scary, for the author has cut the story into two threads which are told alternately, so the tension is too frequently broken. What makes the novel interesting is the setting in Iceland's remote and bleak northwestern Westfjords area (which has a reputation for witchcraft). One thread tells how a couple and a female friend whose husband has recently died set out to renovate a rundown house as a guesthouse for tourists, in a totally isolated location: the long-abandoned fisherman's village of Hesteyri, which can only be reached by boat (a non-fictional location). They soon realize they are not as alone as they thought - someone or something among the abandoned houses wants them to leave: this later appears to be the ghost of a boy, who reminded me of the vengeful kid in the Japanese horror film Juon; The Grudge. The old house seems to have a horrific past...

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Ísafjörður (the main town in the Westfjords), a young doctor who is investigating the weird suicide of an elderly woman discovers that she was obsessed with his vanished son (whose body has never been located). The woman has strange mutilations in the form of crosses on her back and seems to have been a member of a religious sect. The doctor gradually delves into the mystery...

The two threads come together at the end of the novel, when the truth becomes clear. I recommend this book for its setting in the stark landscape of the Westfjords, the wintry scenes and the atmosphere of increasing claustrophobia and darkness. The book was made into an eponymous film in 2017.


[Westfjords]

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (1963) writes both crime novels and children's fiction. The central character in her usual crime novels (but not in I Remember You, her only horror story) is Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a lawyer. These crime novels are rather lighthearted and humorous and miss the dark atmosphere associated with Nordic noir novels (I enjoyed, for example, My Soul to Take). Yrsa Sigurdardóttir also has a career as a civil engineer.
Essay about the author

11. The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning (10 ráð til að hætta að drepa fólk og byrja að vaska upp), by Hallgrímur Helgason (2012)
This book is an intercultural romp through Reikjavik: how cold it is (even in summer), how quiet and how empty - and how egalitarian, gender-equal and helpful the Icelanders are. This all observed by an outsider, a Croat, Tomislav Bokšić, nicknamed Toxic, who used to live in New York. And oh yes, he works as a hitman for the Croatian mafia and has killed 66 people (and about the same number in the Croatian War of Independence). This "ecological killer" (he uses only one bullet per victim) now is visiting a gun-free country with a near-zero homicide rate - the author jokes about the fact that this peaceful, non-crime country is such a strong provider of Nordic noir crime novels. Since Toxic arrives in Iceland with no previous knowledge of the culture, the book acts as a funny crash course in Icelandic society.

The last victim the hitman killed was an undercover FBI agent and he therefore had to flee the U.S. At J.F. Kennedy Airport, he avoids detection by murdering a priest (the Reverend Friendly) and stealing the man's passport and plane ticket. Unexpected destination: Reikjavik, where he is met upon arrival by two Icelandic television evangelists, Guðmundur and his wife Sigríður. The hitman manages to pass for holy man Reverend Friendly - it appears to be very easy to pretend being a true Christian believer. When the police come searching for him, he seeks refuge with his hosts' daughter Gunnhildur, who dislikes her parents' religiosity and is pleased to harbor a criminal. The rich plot further includes a suicide attempt by Toxic when he discovers that his girlfriend in New York has been brutally murdered (his doorman finds her head in his fridge); a soul-purging program of bodily mortification when he confesses his sins to the evangelist couple; and a final dramatic encounter with his old mafia colleagues who have come to looking for him. In the end, a wounded Toxic settles down into a peaceful Icelandic life...

The novel was written in very playful English and translated into Icelandic by the author. The prose and dialogue are fresh and include many phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into funny English (Gunnhildur becomes "Gunholder"). First a commercial and critical failure, the book was picked up by Amazon Crossing and became a big bestseller. An odd but very fine novel, full of wry humor (and rather coarse language and situations, so not for the faint of heart).


[Reykjavik]

Hallgrímur Helgason (1959) started out as a visual artist but gradually became a writer as well. His best known books are 101 Reykjavik (1996), The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning (2008) and The Thousand Degree Woman (2011). Two of his novels have been turned into films and four of them have been adapted for the stage. He has held over 30 solo exhibitions of his paintings in Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and France, and his work can be found in several art museums.
Author's website
Essay about Hallgrimur Helgason

12. Betrayal (Svik), by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (2017)
"Betrayal" is a fitting title for this novel, for there is a lot of backstabbing going on - people betraying others and then being betrayed themselves in turn. The story focuses on Ursula, who as a foreign aid worker in war-torn Syria and in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic has witnessed terrible things, and often been in danger herself (she is in fact traumatized). Now she has returned to Reykjavik with her husband and children and is offered what seems like a dream job: Interior Minister, drafted from outside politics to cover the post, which became open due to the resignation of her predecessor, for a year until the next elections (it is only in a very small country with a limited talent pool that such a career shift is possible - Iceland's ministers are comparable to the municipal councilors of a mid-sized city elsewhere!). In fact, as later appears she has been set up ("betrayed") by the Prime Minister, who wants her as outsider to take a very unpopular decision, after which she will be booted out again so that his own protege can take over. On top of that, starting on her first day in office she makes a series of mistakes. Out of a rather naive wish to do good she promises assistance to a woman who aggressively demands her daughter's rape gets looked into by the government - which sets off the unforeseen chain of events which will finally become her own undoing. The lesson is that one should be careful and diplomatic when starting an important job in a new environment and not upset anything before one knows how things are balanced.

There are more betrayals: Stella, an immigrant who works as cleaner at the Ministry, and who is the second most important character, betrays the trust in her by selling confidential papers from the Minister's trash can to a reporter (but later more than makes up for that); in her private life Stella herself is betrayed by a girlfriend. In her private life, Ursula betrays her husband and family by having a fling with a lover - and that lover later is revealed to be a man who deeply betrays Ursula. So betrayals echo each other - and there are more of them then I can reveal here without giving away the whole plot.

We also have a funny situation again caused by Ursula's naivete: in good egalitarian style she refuses the car with driver offered her by the Ministry, but she soon must change her mind when she is attacked in the street - Gunnar, the driver, also doubles as her much needed bodyguard. And not everybody is what he seems to be: one of her "attackers" was a tramp who only wanted to tell her what he knew about the mysterious death of her father in prison many years ago, something which hooks into the core of the plot. But more than being only plot, the novel details Ursula's hectic job and daily private life in good Nordic style.  


[Prime Minister's Residence, Iceland]

Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir (1972) was born in Akranes and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, Lilja has written several crime novels, including Snare, Trap and Cage, making up the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, which became bestsellers worldwide.
Author's website


* All photos in this article are from Wikipedia.