History

History

Decorative illustration

The Icelandic national anthem Ó, guð vors lands (Our country's God) was originally written as a hymn on the occasion of the nationwide celebrations held in 1874 to commemorate the millennium of Iceland's settlement. Religious services were held all over the country and the text for the sermons delivered on that day was Psalm 90, verses l-4 and 12-17, by decree of the Bishop of Iceland. This text inspired the anthem which the Rev. Matthías Jochumsson (1835-1920), one of Iceland's most loved poets of all time, wrote while he was in Britain in the winter 1873-74. The tune was composed by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1926), the first Icelander to make a career out of music. For most of his working life Sveinbjörnsson lived in Edinburgh, where he wrote the music to Jochumsson's hymn.

The anthem was first performed at a commemorative service in Reykjavík Cathedral on Sunday, August 2, 1874, in the presence of King Christian IX of Denmark, who was visiting Iceland for the millennium celebrations, the first ruling monarch to set foot in the country. He presented Iceland with a constitution which entailed substantial improvements to its legal status. This was one of the most noteworthy milestones in Iceland's process towards reclaiming the independence it had lost in 1262-64 and preceded the Home Rule Government in 1904, sovereignty in 1918 and, finally, the establishment of the Republic of Iceland on June 17, 1944.

Matthías Jochumsson, illustrationWhile sovereignty remained a distant prospect, Iceland had no national anthem in the normal sense of the term. However, Our country's God was often sung in public in the final quarter of the 19th century, and during the period between home rule and sovereignty, 1904-1918, it became established as the national anthem by tradition. On December 1, 1918 (sovereignty day) it was sung as Iceland's national anthem and has been ever since. Jochumsson's poem, however, is more a hymn than a patriotic ode, and the range of the tune is much too wide for many people to be able to sing. Icelanders do not regard this as an obstacle and no other patriotic ode, even those which are easier to sing, has supplanted Our country's God as national anthem. It has even acquired all the more reverence by not becoming commonplace. People in Iceland revere Matthías Jochumsson's lofty verse and the solemn, moving song is dear to their hearts.

The Icelandic State acquired the copyright to the music in 1948 and to the poem in 1949. It is under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister. In 1983 parliament passed Act no. 7/1983 on the national anthem. Under this law, no one may perform or publish the national anthem in any other form than the original. Furthermore, it is prohibited to use the national anthem in any way for commercial or advertising purposes.

Office of the Prime Minister, February 1 2003.

This account is based in part on Steingrímur J. Þorsteinsson's preface to Ó, Guð vors lands, published by the Office of the Prime Minister in 1957, and in part on Birgir Thorlacius' history of the Icelandic national anthem in Fáni Íslands, skjaldarmerki, þjóðsöngur, heiðursmerki (Iceland's flag, coat of arms, national anthem and honorary awards), published by the Office of the Prime Minister in 1991.