Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson

(1938 - 2013)


One of the most prominent Icelandic composers, Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson was born on 16 July 1938 in Reykjavik, Iceland. Sigurbjörnsson wrote prolifically in a number of genres and was known internationally as both a composer and pianist, frequently giving performances of his own works both nationally and internationally. Born to Sigurbjörn Einarsson, professor of theology and later Protestant bishop of Iceland, Sigurbjörnsson sought cultural, religious and intellectual ideologies from within the family home. His cultural inheritance is embedded within his many works, which are somewhat characterised by their often programmatic and expressive nature.

Composer, conductor and pianist, Sigurbjörnsson began his musical studies in 1946 at the Conservatory of Reykjavik where he studied the piano, alongside violin and organ. He furthered his musical study at the Hamline University in Minnesota, studying composition under Russel G.Harris and later turning his attention to electronic music, working alongside Kenneth Gaburo and Lejaran A.Hiller at the University of Illinois. In 1962 he attended composition classes with Ligeti and Boulez before returning to the Conservatory of Reykjavik to teach composition and music theory. During his time at the Conservatory of Reykjavik, Sigurbjörnsson played a key role in the development of the department of composition and music theory.

Upon his return to Iceland, Sigurbjörnsson worked as a composer, pianist, critic and commentator for Icelandic broadcasting. A pioneer of the changing face of Icelandic music and an avid promotor of Icelandic contemporary music. As an active performer he frequently toured with Canadian flautist Robert Aitken, and cellist Hafliði Hallgrimsson. In 1963 he became chairman of the music group ‘Musica Nova’, who initiated the programming of avant-garde music in Iceland at a time in which much of the core classical repertory was yet to be established. Alongside this, he was the president and secretary of the Society of Icelandic Composers, the artistic director of the Biennial Reykjavik International Festival of the Arts and founder member of the Icelandic Music Information centre. He was a creative associate of the Centre for Creative and Performing Arts, New York (1973), a guest of the Centre for Music Experiment at the University of California, San Diego (1975), and a lecturer at the Shanghai Conservatory (1995).

Sigurbjörnsson was an energetic supporter of both his contemporaries and pupils, many of whom are now represented in the succeeding generations of Icelandic composers. One of the most important composers of contemporary music in Northern Europe and a seminal figure in Icelandic music, he remains Iceland’s most prolific composer with an oeuvre of over 350 works, ranging from children’s songs to large-scale orchestral works. 

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