ríma (plural rímur) is a traditional form of narrative ıcelandic epic song chanted or intoned in a specific manner called “ad kveda.” the inner structure and content can partially be traced to eddic and skaldic poetry of the viking age. the rímur rely on the complex metaphors called “kenningar” (singular kenning) and the poetic synonyms called “heiti.”
the skaldic poetic stanza was an extremely intricate construct with a unique poetic vocabulary and syntax, frequently employing metaphors within metaphors in a manner reminiscent of the cryptic crossword.
ın the 14th century, the ríma started to supplant the earlier forms of poetry – its attraction being a simple metric style with end rhymes, usually divided into three types: ferskeytt, braghent and afhent. while internal rhyme was a central feature of old poetry, end rhyme first appears in the poem “höfudlausn” (head ransom) in the saga of warrior-poet egill skallagrímsson (10th century), where he manages to reprieve his head by heaping praise on his captor, the king of england. end rhyme was then popular in the british ısles and it has been surmised that egill introduced it to the ıcelanders. the form of the ríma also shows influences from other european traditions of the 13th and 14th century: the short lyric
introduction to each ríma-section called “mansöngur” (maiden-song) has been traced to germany, and the style called “blómadur” has a counterpart in the flowery and ornate mode of early french romantic poetry.
the early rímur are primarily based on pre-existing narratives in prose, heroic tales, and mythical or purely fictitious sagas being those most frequently selected for adaptation into this metrical form. the poet usually begins with a certain number of introductory stanzas, the maiden-song, where he laments his lack of poetic skills and success in the affairs of the heart. he then starts converting the prose narrative into rime. after building to a climax, he breaks off and the first ríma is finished. then, usually in a different metre, he begins a new maiden song, followed by a different portion of the tale. this process is repeated until the whole narrative has been worked into metrical form. the subject and the length of the tale can vary in length and scope, and the number of rímur can stretch from two up to a few dozen. single rímur are less common, but the less formal “lausavísa” (single stanza) introduced a shorter and simpler form into the tradition. as time went on, the poets took pride in inventing new metrical forms and rhyme structures, and in the 19th century these were counted in the the thousands.
while the literary tradition of the rímur is well documented from the 14th century, there is scant evidence of their actual performance. ın “sörlarímur,” one of the earliest examples of the genre, the poet refers to the dancing that accompanies his recital, and in the 17th century the term “dans” or dance was synonymous with poetry. an essay called “qualiscunque descriptio ıslandiae,” which was probably written by bishop oddur einarsson in copenhagen in 1588, describes a
performance which may refer to a performance analogous to a rímur recital: “they select one who has mastered the art of kvedskapur (istam cantillandi artem). he recites for a while some sort of introduction with a trembling voice and in a hesitant fashion (tremula ac titubante quodammado voces).”
ıt is well documented that the ıcelanders enjoyed a special form of communal story-telling and poetry recitals from the earliest times, and these seem to have developed into the institution of “kvöldvaka” (night-vigil), of which the chanting of rímur was an integral part.
ın 1589, gudbrandur borláksson wrote in the preface to his book of hymns a pious diatribe against this practice, and said that his aim with the publication was “lastly in order to have thrown out the undesirable poems of giants and heros, rímur, love songs, amorous songs, lustful songs, mocking and satirical songs and other evil and wicked recitation…which are
used and loved by the peasantry of this land to the sorrow of god and his angels, but to the delight of satan and all his spawn, a practice more widespread than in any other christian land and more suited to the practice of heathens than christian folk at their night-vigils and other gatherings.”
ın 1634, the reverend sigurdur oddsson wrote a letter to his bishop complaining that the sacred writ was faring badly in competition with the impromptu secular entertainment that was practiced outside the churches, and that people would often leave in the middle of the service to listen to various tall tales of the heros of yore. he furthermore complains that one his parishioners had confided to him that “next to hearing about the passion of the lord he enjoyed nothing more than the rímur of rollant: ı must gloss over the fact that many would sooner listen to rímur of brana, arinnefja et cetera than listen to the pious song of the church...”
ın 1746, the ruling authorities issued a decree to priests saying that they should “caution the people of the household with the utmost gravity to guard themselves against undesirable stories and unreasonable fables and ballads which have been abroad in the land.” ın the same year another decree was aimed at the pater familias stating that he should “diligently remind his children and his servants to begin both work and business with a prayer to god…and they must be earnestly reminded, on pain of punishment, to guard themselves against unseemly talk and sport, oaths and swearing, vain stories or so-called sagas and licentious poems or rimes, which are not seemly for a christian and which sadden the holy ghost to hear sung or said forth.” and the main proponent of the enlightenment in ıceland, magnús stephensen, wrote an essay in 1808 lamenting the “horrendous howling of rímur” which he saw as an enemy of more tasteful musical practices.
but the ıcelanders stuck to their most popular form of entertainment, and, needless to say, these best of intentions did not succeed, and in the mid-19th century people started to write down and notate the old rímur melodies. the monumental work of reverend bjarni borsteinsson on ıcelandic folk-songs devoted a special chapter to rímur and its publication in the years 1906 - 1909 and is a landmark in the preservation of the old tradition.
furthermore, in the year 1903, jón pálsson made the first sound recordings of rímur and others soon followed suit. the result is an enormous collection of melodies that serve as a living and vibrant link to the past, as the last few years have seen a revival where the old tradition is no longer considered anachronistic, but something that needs to be studied and cherished. hopefully this collection can be seen as part of that revival.
notes on the recording process
when steindór first contacted me about this project, ı was thrilled to be part of a rímur recording which was not done for archival purposes and furthermore ı saw this as a chance to put to test some theories which maintain that the special intonation of the rímur was a direct result of the environment in which they were performed. some authorities maintain that as the rímur were performed in anechoic or non-reverberant spaces such as the traditional sleeping loft or out in the fields, their vocal style developed differently to musical styles where people “sang into spaces” such as churches or chambers where the acoustics become part of the performance.
to this end, ı contacted sound engineer extraordinaire sveinn kjartansson and we decided on using a portable 24-bit pro-tools set-up with apogee ad 8000 converters so that we could record in different locations chosen by their inherent acoustic properties. our microphone of choice was the calrec soundfield, which is in my humble opinion simply the best microphone ever produced. the calrec soundfield is unique in the sense that it also records spatial information and becomes in effect an auditory time-machine, as you can move it in different directions after the recording – this is done by recording on four discrete tracks and using a special console where the focus can be moved back and forth, up and down, as well as to the left and right of a standard stereo recording.
tracks 1 to 7 were recorded in the small confines of the traditional badstofa, and the perspective was that of a member of the household listening in a typical evening wake situation. tracks 8 to 11 were recorded in a small turf church and the
perspective was that of a member of the congregation. a winter-storm raging outside makes its presence felt from time to time, appropriately it reached its height when steindór chanted stanzas about turbulent weather at sea…
then we moved to the salurinn concert hall, which is known for its beautiful acoustics, and tracks 12 and 14 feature pairings with other elements such as a didgeridoo or another chanter, while tracks 13, 15 and 17 are examples of rímur chanting in a modern musical environment. we changed the set-up for tracks 16 and 18 as we wanted more control over the subtle nuances of monika’s ırish harp: these were recorded with sveinn kjartansson’s other über-microphones, a pair of the special edition bruel and kjær dba 4040 and a pair of b & k 4041.
- hilmar örn hilmarsson