Classical Composer Profile: Edvard Grieg
by Betty Fry
Listening to Grieg’s famous ‘Piano Concerto in A minor’ as I am now, I have to agree with those who say that it is deservedly recognized as one of the finest specimens of the piano concerto repertoire. And yet Grieg was never fully satisfied with this masterpiece, and continued to refine it over many years.
It was mainly written during one of the most stable and tranquil periods in the composer’s life, the summer of 1868, a year after his marriage to Nina Hagerup, and two months after the birth of their child, Alexandra.
He had taken them for a holiday to Zealand in Denmark, and by the end of that vacation this Piano Concerto was fully sketched. His confident and relaxed frame of mind at that time is reflected in the Concerto’s second movement.
It opens with a beautiful melody rising and falling on subdued strings. A solo horn calls before the piano enters, its utterly romantic theme cascading down the keyboard. The orchestra responds, and the music builds up to a resounding climax before returning to the original lyrical mood, the piano gently dissolving into trills at the end.
Edvard Grieg was descended from Alexander Grieg, a Scotsman who settled in Bergen in the mid 18th century. He prospered, acquired a fishing fleet, twice married Norwegian girls, became British Consul, and changed his name to Grieg to make it easier for Norwegians to pronounce.
By the time his great grandson was born, the Griegs were respected and well-to-do citizens, and had become closely involved in the musical life of Bergen.
Like many leading composers, Edvard Grieg was first taught music by his mother, an accomplished pianist. The Norwegian violinist Ole Bull persuaded Edvard’s parents to send him to Leipzig, where he contracted pleurisy, which permanently undermined his health. He also found the teaching at the Conservatoire pedantic and dull.
Leipzig was followed by three happy years in Copenhagen where he worked with the Danish romantic composer Niels Gade.
Rikard Nordraak, the composer of the Norwegian National Anthem, also became a close friend, and through him Grieg came to appreciate the peasant songs and dances of his native land. In their unusual harmonic structures and strong rhythms he found his own personal idiom as a composer. Nordraak was a committed nationalist who steeped himself in Norway’s heritage. His passionate nature inspired Grieg to produce a Norwegian musical style, and together with other compatriots, they founded a music society, ‘Euterpe‘ which was completely dedicated to promoting Norwegian musicians. For centuries, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland enjoyed a complex relationship. At various times they have ruled over one another, and only in the 20th century did they all become independent. During Grieg’s lifetime, Norway was ruled by Sweden; but in middle-class Norwegian homes such as his, Danish was spoken, and Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, was the cultural hub of Scandinavia. However the Norwegian nationalist movement was growing and Grieg embraced his own country’s cultural heritage with enthusiasm.. In 1905, two years before his death, Norway finally gained its freedom when the Swedish King, Oscar II, abdicated the Norwegian throne.
Sadly Nordraak died very suddenly in Berlin, and Grieg was so grief stricken that there were fears for his life. But when at last he recovered he returned to Scandinavia to embark upon his life’s mission.
He married his cousin, the soprano Nina Hagerup, whom he had also met during the idyllic years in Copenhagen, and theirs became a lifelong musical partnership. She was the inspirer and interpreter of many of his songs, and for nearly forty years they were to travel throughout Europe together giving innumerable concerts and recitals.
The death of his only child in 1869 at just eighteen months, and earlier his friend Nordraak provided harrowing experiences for him to draw upon when composing Death of Ase in 1875. Such personal sorrows probably tinged the music for his episode in Peer Gynt where the wandering hero finally returns home only to find his mother ‘Ase’ on her deathbed..
Three solemn notes form the basis of the music. Dark harmonies and even darker, heavier sounds from the strings perfectly evoke a scene of private grief and regret.
Grieg’s work was admired by composers as widely different as Liszt, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky – who met the Norwegian and described him as a man ‘of uncommon charm, blue eyes, not very large, but irresistibly fascinating.’
Apart from his famous ‘Piano Concerto in A minor‘, and a symphony in his youth, Grieg wrote no large concert works. He was happiest writing in the smaller forms of music – piano pieces, chamber music and songs for his wife for example, rather than symphonies or concertos.
As a result he is often referred to as a ‘miniaturist’, although this is by no means a criticism, and does not make him any less a composer, for his work is always beautifully crafted and wonderfully tuneful, with many touches of harmony and rhythm.
Some of Grieg’s finest and best loved work is the incidental music he composed for ‘Peer Gynt’, written by Norway’s greatest dramatist Henrik Ibsen. The play deals with serious social and political issues, and is a fantasy in which the hero of the title roams far and wide getting involved in one adventure after another. Eventually returning home an older and wiser man to Norway, and his sweetheart Solveig.
At a more profound level the play is about learning by experience, and is a comment on what Ibsen believed were mankind’s strengths and weaknesses.
In 1938 the German composer Werner Egk used the story as the basis for an opera. But at that time the Nazis were maintaining tight control over all art, and the opera was banned, as Hitler’s administration saw it as a political satire on their regime.
The first performance of ‘Peer Gynt‘ with Grieg’s incidental music took place in February, 1876 in Christiana (now Oslo) and was a big success.
In one of the stories within the play Peer Gynt encounters a group of Arabian girls at an oasis who hail him as a prophet. One of them entertains Peer with an alluring dance, and they soon become lovers. But Peer comes to regret his encounter when the beguiling Anitra makes off with all his belongings.
The seductive charm of the music of ‘Anitra’s Dance’ which I have playing for me now, is conveyed by the unusual combination of stringed instruments and a triangle. Sensuous chords give the dance a more sinister atmosphere, and I can sense Peer yielding to the lady’s charms.
The music for this act perfectly suggests Arabian nights and Anitra swaying, swirling, and seducing the hapless Peer. The dance ends as it began with a quietly ethereal chord on the violins as Anitra skips away inviting Peer to follow.
Grieg made up two Suites (groups of pieces) from his incidental music to Peer Gynt especially for concert performance, and among the other tunes in these Suites are the well known and popular pieces In the Hall of the Mountain King‘, and the hauntingly beautiful ‘Solveig’s Song‘.
Grieg was a musical patriot, and like many other nationalist composers, turned for inspiration to native folk song and dance, and this flavour flows steadily through nearly everything he wrote. He enjoyed the short but intense spring among the mountains of Norway, and his deep love of both the beautiful landscape and colourful folklore of his homeland is constantly reflected in his music.
Harold Saeverud also wrote music for ‘Peer Gynt‘. At the first performance of his music someone remarked “Grieg would turn in his grave”. To which comment he replied with some amusement, “Only if he were lying on his good ear,” referring to the fact that Grieg was deaf in one ear.
In 1882 Grieg wrote ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen‘ for his wife Nina to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, which was spent at their mountain home, Troldhaugen, to which Grieg and his wife were so attached that they arranged to remain together, and close to it, after their deaths. Their ashes are sealed into a cliff face overlooking the house.
By the time of this celebration Grieg was a famous national figure in Norway and the couple received gifts from all over the country, including a Steinway grand piano. In the evening, Grieg sat down at the new piano and played the lovely tribute to his marriage.
The music begins as a jaunty march, is followed by a gentle swaying section, and then the march returns, resuming the jovial mood and proceeds merrily to its conclusion. It clearly expresses his most personal thoughts, and from it one can conclude that he was generally a very happy man.
It is also one of his ‘Lyric Pieces‘ which he later arranged as a piano duet, and gives me now a perfect note on which to end.