The chamber choir Schola Cantorum was founded in 1996 by the conductor Hörður Áskelsson, the cantor at Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrim’s Church) in Reykjavík. Schola Cantorum has from the very start played an important role in the Icelandic music scene with a repertoire that consists mainly of renaissance, baroque and contemporary music including numerous premier performances of works by Icelandic contemporary composers. The choir has also performed many of the great masterpieces of choral repertoire, e.g. Handel's Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Since the first concert Schola Cantorum has given regular concerts in Iceland, which have been very well received. With a growing success the choir expanded its way and started taking part in choir competitions and festivals abroad with great success.
The choir has recorded the collective works of Icelandic composer Jón Leifs (1899-1968) with The Iceland Symphony Orchestra on five CD’s, which were released by the Swedish label BIS. It has also recorded a collection of Iceland’s dearest hymns in collaboration with the Skálholt publication in Iceland. The album is titled Sálmar í gleði (Hymns in Joy). Other recordings by the choir are Hallgrímspassía, (The Passion of Christ) by Sigurður Sævarsson (1963- ) and Flétta by Haukur Tómasson (1960- ). Principium which contains pieces of the renaissance period, Heyr himna smiður with Icelandic contemporary choir music, which was nominated for the Icelandic music awards and Foldarskart published in 2012 which contains a fine selection of Icelandic choir pieces. The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RUV) has also recorded and broadcasted many of the choir’s concerts.
The choir recorded the piece Barn er oss fætt (A Child is Born) by John Speight (1945- ). It was released on CD by the Icelandic label Smekkleysa in 2005. The piece had previously received the Icelandic Music Awards for best classical composition of the year 2002 and also won the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service a special prize from the European Broadcasting Union following the broadcast of the piece from Hallgrímskirkja church as a part of EBU's annual Christmas concert that same year.
Schola Cantorum has often collaborated with The Hague International Baroque Orchestra. The members of the orchestra are all young musicians who specialize in the performance of baroque music with original instruments. Amongst the collaboration projects of the orchestra and choir are The Christmas Oratorio of J.S. Bach and Handel’s Messiah and Israel in Egypt, where the internationally known countertenor Robin Blaze also performed.
The repertoire of Schola Cantorum is wide-ranging and varied but prominent are the works of the renaissance, baroque, romantic and contemporary music including numerous premier performances of works by Icelandic contemporary composers. In other words, music that covers the greatest part of the music history from many parts of the world.
Schola Cantorum was appointed Official Music Group of the City of Reykjavík for the year 2006 and nominated for the Nordic Music Prize in 2007.
In 2013 Resonus Classics released an album featuring Schola Cantorum singing a selection of choral music by the celebrated Icelandic composer Hafliði Hallgrímsson (1941- ). The album is made up entirely of world premiere recordings.
Schola Cantorum has given concerts in Norway, Finland, Italy, Spain, Germany and France and has also won prizes in international competitions in Picardy, France in 1998 and Gorizia, Italy in 2002.
In 2002 Schola Cantorum participated in the performance of Hrafnagaldur Óðins (Odin‘s Raven Magic) together with the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. The piece has been performed in Iceland, Norway and France and was very well received.
The choir can also be heard on Icelandic singer Björk‘s album, Medulla, where the choir, along with other performers, forms the vocal landscape of her work. The album is unique, as it does not include any instruments, only voices. The choir also performed with Björk in concerts in Reykjavík, London and Paris.
In December 2011 a group of 8 singers from Schola Cantorum travelled to Japan to perform at the opening of a branch of Louis Vuitton Fashion House in Osaka, as the company had requested a first-rate Scandinavian choir.
It is safe to say that Schola Cantorum has proven its worth in Icelandic cultural life with ambitious work. In addition to the aforementioned the choir has since 2009 given weekly lunchtime concerts in Hallgrímskirkja during the summer for the exclusive purpose of introducing foreign travellers and Icelanders alike to Icelandic choir music. These concerts are quite popular and have received great attention in the last summers.
In August 2013 the choir gave an impressive concert with the works of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. This outstanding performance resulted in the nomination of Schola Cantorum for the Icelandic Music Awards 2013. The choir looks forward to many aspiring projects in the year 2014, along with the popular lunchtime summer concerts.
Hörður Áskelsson was born in Akureyri in the north of Iceland in 1953. He studied music in Akureyri and Reykjavík, before moving to Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1976 to study at the Robert Schumann Hochschule. He graduated as organist and cantor in 1981 summa cum laude. After a year as organist in the Neanderkirche in Düsseldorf Áskelsson moved to Reykjavík, where he has been organist and cantor of Hallgrímskirkja since 1982. In the same year he founded the Motet Choir of Hallgrímskirkja and was instigator of the founding of the Friends of the Arts Society of Hallgrímskirkja; choir and Friends are twin cornerstones to the artistic activities in the church. In 1987 he established the Festival of Sacred Arts, since then a biannual event on the cultural scene in Iceland. In 1993 he founded the Summer the Organ concert series and in 1996 Áskelsson founded the chamber choir Schola cantorum, which has already become one of Iceland’s most respected choirs.
Hörður Áskelsson has received much recognition, and with his choirs he has participated in various music festivals and international competitions, winning prizes in Cork, Ireland 1996, Noyon, France 1998 and Gorizia, Italy 2002. He has conducted many oratorios, often with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and premiered a number of Icelandic compositions. His performances have been recorded for radio and television and issued on numerous CDs. A recording of the oratorio Passía by Hafliði Hallgrímsson conducted by Áskelsson and released by the internationally renowned record company Ondine has received outstanding reviews in BBC Music Magazine, Gramophone, International Record Review and other media.
Hörður Áskelsson has also been a teacher of the organ and choir conducting at the Iceland National Church’s Music School and in 1985-95 he was lecturer on liturgy at the University of Iceland Faculty of Theology. In the year 2000 Áskelsson was musical director of the events held to celebrate the Millennium of Christianity in Iceland. In 2002 he received both the Icelandic Music Prize and the Culture Prize of the newspaper DV for his outstanding activities in the year 2001. He was appointed Municipal Artist of Reykjavík in 2002 and received the Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon in 2004. From 2005-2011 Hörður Áskelsson has been Church Music Director of the National Church of Iceland.