An 800-year-old Icelandic hymn sung in a train station is utterly haunting

7 May 2021, 16:18

Árstíðir sings in Wuppertal train station
Árstíðir sings in Wuppertal train station. Picture: YouTube / Árstíðir

By Kyle Macdonald

A modern reworking of an ancient hymn, a vast station acoustic, and a deeply moving video.

A few years ago, an Icelandic indie-folk group walked into a train station in the German city of Wuppertal and created an unforgettable moment of music.

The group was Árstíðir, and the music a 13th-century Icelandic hymn Heyr himna smiður, adapted by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, one of Iceland’s most important 20th-century composers.

The musicians had been attracted to the station building, which was built in the early 20th century by the Prussian State Railways and features a high, curved church-like ceiling.

As they sung the ancient words, their notes swirled in the huge resonant acoustic. Watch the incredible moment below.

Since the video was first published in 2013, the moment of music has resonated deeply. So far the performance has amassed almost 7 million views, with the singers going on to record the piece with Dutch singer-songwriter Anneke van Giersbergen.

Read more: Listen to the enchanting sound of the world’s oldest song, the Hurrian Hymn

The devotional hymn Heyr himna smiður was written by the Icelandic viking Kolbeinn Tumason in 1208, and then set to music in the 1970s by Sigurbjörnsson. The text reads:

Hear, maker of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
thy mercy.
So I call on thee,
for thou hast created me.
I am thy slave,
thou art my Lord.

Árstíðir tells the story about how their impromptu concert came to be. “We had just finished playing a regular concert in an adjacent music venue and we were hanging out with our listeners after the show when we discovered the amazing acoustics inside the train station hall. Our friend Linda Iliste spontaneously recorded this on her camera, and we’re very happy she did!”

What a wonderful demonstration of the power, beauty, simplicity, and centuries-long timelessness of music. And, boy did those Prussians know how to build impressive-sounding railway stations.