Who was Jóhann Jóhannsson? A guide to the Icelandic composer

You might have heard of this Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer who died in 2018 aged only 48, but who exactly was he? What was his music like? How did he make his breakthrough? Here's everything you need to know about Jóhann Jóhannsson

Published: June 7, 2022 at 1:27 pm
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Who was Jóhann Jóhannsson?

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He was a prolific Icelandic composer and multi-instrumentalist - one of the most acclaimed film composers of the last few decades - who wrote music for a variety of media, and skilfully blurred the lines between musical genres.

What work was he best known for?

Probably his haunting scores to The Theory of Everything, James Marsh's 2014 film about the romance between physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane; and Sicario, Denis Villeneuve's 2015 crime thriller about the F.B.I.’s war against a brutal Mexican drug cartel. Both scores won him Oscar nominations.

What was his background?

He was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, to Jóhann Gunnarsson, a maintenance engineer who worked for IBM, and Edda Thorkelsdóttir. Although he learned the piano and trombone from the age of 11, Jóhannsson gave them up as a teenager, going on to study languages and literature at the University of Iceland. His route back into music was via the world of pop: he played in various rock and pop bands as part of Iceland's indie scene in the '80's, before eventually deciding to focus on composition and leaving Reykjavík for Copenhagen, then, eventually, Berlin.

How would you describe his music?

Highly original. Ignoring the boundary between classical and electronic music, he created a distinctive sound world by blending aspects of minimalism, classical forms and a symphonic sweep, along with both electronic and acoustic sounds. A humble and intensely private man, Jóhannsson had no interest in sounding commercial. Instead he aimed 'to write music that touches people in a very direct way, and then simplify it down to a specific core,' as he once put it in an interview for the Reykjavík Grapevine. The result was poetic, epic and often deeply melancholic.

How did he make his breakthrough?

Although his debut album, Englabörn, which he released in 2002, already revealed Jóhannsson's talent for storytelling and poignant melody, it would take a while for film producers to seize on his potential. He scored a clutch of Icelandic films before coming to widespread attention for his work on 'The Miners' Hymns', Bill Morrison's 2010 documentary about coal mining in northern England.

When did he die?

In February 2018, aged only 48, most likely from a lethal combination of cocaine and prescribed medication - just after he had been hired to write the score for the Disney film Christopher Robin. The film is dedicated to his memory.

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Photo: Getty

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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