A Serial Struggle

In Iceland in the 1960s, a battle was waging. On one side, influential Icelandic composer, music critic and composition lecturer Jon Thorarinsson - a disciple of Paul Hindemith - and on the other, several of Thorarinsson's students from the Reykjavík College of Music, including Leifur Thorarinsson, who favoured a more avant-garde style of composition. After learning from Hindemith at Yale in the '40s, Jon Thorarinsson was more accustomed to a somewhat traditional style of music. His supporters were sceptical of the new style of music that was appearing, and one critic said of Schönberg's Fantasy for Violin and Piano "I often felt like someone was torturing a cat from a distance". At the same time, Leifur Thorarinsson was critical of the country's lack of adventure when it came to programming concerts: "Generally speaking, no music is performed here that is older than Bach, none that is more recent than Debussy, and the core of the concert programmes consists of the works of Chopin." Something had to give.

Leifur Thorarinsson was a pioneer of serialism in Iceland. He was first exposed to the style in Vienna and Munich in the '50s, and studied with leading serial composers such as Wallingford Riegger at the Manhatten School of Music, before returning to Iceland where he became a leading figure in serial composition. He wrote what are considered to be Iceland's first fully developed serial works in 1960 and '61, which received praise west of the Atlantic, but denigration at home. His former teacher Jon said of one his pieces "I do not doubt that it is well and cleverly composer…but it does not strike me as music." Leifur would soon move away from strict serialism, yet it remained a key component in his output for the rest of his life.

The Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano was written in 1975 as a birthday tribute to his former teacher Gunther Schuller. Written in two movements, there are still hints of Classical era roots amongst the 20th century complexity. The first movement has a clear exposition, development and recapitulation, while in the second movement, which features more driving rhythmical material, it eventually opens up to what could easily be a 20th Century style Chopin nocturne.