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Saga Symphony

A blizzard shut the city down this Thursday, and holed up in my apartment, I resolved to get some writing done on my next play (I managed a rough draft of the first scene). To try and facilitate the old creative juices, I went through my CD collection to find some music. I found a comparatively obscure 20th century symphonic work to listen to as I typed away. A work by the Icelandic composer Jon Leifs, known as the Saga Symphony.

The story of Leifs and this symphony is actually an interesting one, and tragic. Though Icelandic, Leifs was employed as a conductor in Germany for much of his career, and was there as the Nazis came to power and World War II broke out – along with his wife, who was Jewish, and their children. Leifs was well-placed enough to protect his family; so long as he remained a member of Berlin’s Composer’s Council, and assisted in the broadcasting of Nazi propaganda aimed at his home country, he was able to shield his family from persecution. By remaining outwardly compliant, he kept his family safe. Privately, he holed up in his proverbial garret and composed the Saga Symphony, an intensely patriotic (and by extension, anti-Nazi) work, which harkened back to the legendary figures of the Icelandic Sagas for inspiration. Here’s how the composer Hjalmar H. Ragnarsson describes it in the liner notes of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra recording I have:

“He shut himself in with his ideas, losing himself in the world of the old Icelandic manuscripts, that to him, was more real than the terror outside his door. In this world the characters in the sagas became magnificent heroes that no adversary could defeat and no power could force into submission. Only death could vanquish them, which these heroes met standing erect with a smile on their lips.”

The music manages to live up to this description. It bypasses much of the harmonic language of Western symphonic music, instead invoking something more ancient, primal. Its melody lines are so rugged and craggy as to barely qualify as melody. It has sudden bursts of percussion over ever churning strings. It even has tuned rocks and Viking shields as part of the instrumentation. (Perfect to have playing in the background while wrestling with one’s recalcitrant muse.)

But what are we to make of this work of art, and its composer scribbling in secret with the Nazis outside the door? Clearly Leifs’ hope (and the view of his admirers) is that this would be heard as an act of secret resistance, its ancient heroes providing inspiration to the modern world. But the figure of Leifs himself, at least in this portion of his life, reminds one of a helpless teenager, shutting out a world he’s powerless to change and seeking refuge in fantasy. He had Njall and Kari Solmundarson; we have Captain America and Iron Man. Is there much of a difference?

And did he, in the end, make a difference?

The question preys on my mind because of what I’ve been holed up writing myself. I’ll go into the specifics in another post, but it’s a mock Shakespeare play. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for a long time, but finally figured out how to make work recently. And I’d like to think, as I map it out, that the final result will have things to say about the frightening world we’re living in right now. But it’s just as easy to point at me, in my cozy apartment, away from the rest of the world, and say that I’m retreating into a fantasy world based on an idealized past.

So which is it?

Hard to say. I’m still working on the script. Events around us are still unfolding. And nobody’s written my liner notes yet.

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