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Ragnar H. Ragnar “A school is people - not buildings.”

This is the second article in a series of three about prominent Icelanders who emigrated to the West and returned to Iceland.

By Bryndís Víglundsdóttir

Ragnar H. Ragnar (I22144) was born in 1898 in Laxárdalur, Þingeyjarsýsla, in northern Iceland. He received a good primary education at home besides beginning at an early age learning to play the organ. There was much music in his home while he was growing up. His father played the organ and accordion and had an excellent singing voice.

Ragnar H Ragnar Portrait
Ragnar H Ragnar Portrait

During Ragnar’s formative years, people from his valley, as from most areas of Iceland, were leaving, going West to America. They were promised a better life there than was possible in Iceland. The young Ragnar decided that whatever America had to offer was worth the journey. He decided to go there, and in 1921, he landed in Canada. Soon after he arrived in Winnipeg, he studied piano and music theory with Jónas Pálsson, pianist and composer. He also took courses in choir conducting and music history. Later he studied with Eva Clare, head of the music department at the University of Manitoba.

As early as 1923, he began teaching piano in Saskatoon but settled a year later in Winnipeg, where he had both private students in piano and conducted various choirs for more than a decade. During that period, he led the reorganized Icelandic Male Voice Choir, 1937 - 1942, giving concerts in Winnipeg and other Icelandic settlements in Manitoba and North Dakota. When North Dakota celebrated its 50th anniversary, there were festivities in Bismarck, and Ragnar conducted the Icelandic Male Voice Choir, singing mostly Icelandic music!

In 1936 Ragnar began teaching and conducting in Mountain, North Dakota in addition to his work in Winnipeg, and in 1941 he moved south of the border. His reputation as a fine pianist travelled. He was often commissioned to perform or accompany other artists, including the tenor Sigurdur Skagfield, the famous opera soprano Maria Markan, and sister and brother Pearl and Pálmi Pálmson, both renowned violinists in Canada at the time. On these travels, he got acquainted with his numerous countrymen in the Icelandic settlements of North Dakota. Among the many good friends he acquired during these years was Kristján N. Júlíus, best known as Káinn.

During the first months of WWII, Ragnar decided he wanted to help fight the Nazis. He enlisted in the US Army and was accepted even though he was older than most of the other fellows. He underwent rigorous training at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and was sent to Iceland in 1943, where he was the liaison and confidant to the American authorities stationed in Reykjavík. Later in his life, Ragnar sometimes remarked that he learned real discipline and organization through his military training.

While Ragnar served in Iceland, he conducted a choir formed by people from Þingeyjarsýslur who had moved to Reykjavík. There he met Sigríður Jónsdóttir (I22128) from Gautlönd in Mývatnssveit. They were married in 1945 and moved to Gardar, North Dakota, and soon Ragnar began teaching music in the Icelandic settlements.

One of the many good people Ragnar met and associated with while he was stationed in Iceland was a man by the name of Dr. Victor Urbancic, a refugee from Austria. He had fled to Iceland with his wife and children, which was a blessing for the cultural life of Iceland. Ragnar told Dr. Urbancic that one day soon, he would like to move to Iceland and teach music there. Becoming a music teacher in Iceland at that time was not promising.

There was, however, an interesting situation in Ísafjörður, a township in the Westfjords. In that little town, there was one music teacher, composer, and choir director, Jónas Tómasson, who had kept the fire burning for years. He was more than ready to retire but had not found anyone to take over his work. In a letter from Dr. Urbancic to Jónas, Ragnar is mentioned as a good candidate for Ísafjörður.

A year passed until Jónas wrote a letter to Ragnar, offering him a series of jobs, all in music. There was an opening in the grade school as well as in the high school. There was interest in establishing a music school where sound teaching and playing the piano would be offered. We had no singing instructor in Ísafjörður, and then there is my choir, the Sunnukór, wrote Jónas. We need someone here who can direct the Sunnukór, where people can sing complicated music: Cantatas, Requiems and such music as a good director finds for them. There is no shortage of work here; in fact, there is more than enough!

Jónas and Ragnar sent letters back and forth and debated several issues. There was no question that Ragnar had a burning desire to start teaching and forming musical education as he was being asked to do. Sigríður and Ragnar moved back to Iceland, settled in Ísafjörður, and began their work. Giving their work any justice in words would take a very thick book, indeed. Ragnar taught music in the schools of Ísafjörður, and besides that, he had a large group of students, young and not so young, who were studying at the newly established music school of Ísafjörður.

Ragnar and Sigríður
Ragnar and Sigríður

The days were long. The lessons were given in the private home of Ragnar and Sigríður. He taught piano, and she taught music theory at their dining room table. Often the family couldn't have supper until late in the evening. The choirs often had their rehearsals in that same home. On Sunday afternoons, students and teachers gathered there, everyone wearing their Sunday clothes, and the students played what they had been practicing. Everyone played, not just the best. The students did not take tests. At the end of each lesson, Ragnar would write a comment to the students, a clear, honest critique, always encouraging them to do their best and be committed. During these Sunday meetings, refreshments were always served, baked, and provided by Sigríður.

Ragnar once wrote that all teaching should be to educate, educate, educate! Not only did he teach his students music, but he also encouraged them to read literature, mind their manners and appearances, and become educated people.

He used American music books, not German, as was done in Iceland at that time. He was of the opinion that the American books and the teaching approach were more appealing to children than the German style, so he asked the small bookstore owner in Ísafjörður to order the American books. Other piano teachers in Iceland began to order books from Ísafjörður since Ragnar H. Ragnar considered them far better than the German ones!

Ragnar himself was a pillar, such a role model as we seldom see in the educational environment or, for that matter, anywhere. Hundreds of his students remember him, Sigríður, and their home with gratitude and bless their memory. One of his famous quotes says: “A school is people - not buildings.”

Let's honor the memory of this outstanding Icelander who went West and on his return to Iceland, worked relentlessly to make a life for his countrymen beautiful, focused, and fulfilling.


  • Björn Teitsson, Year Book of the Historical Society of Ísafjörður, 1998; and

  • Conversations with Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson, son of Ragnar and Sigríður, composer and former rector of the Iceland University of the Arts.


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