This is the twentieth essay in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
Edvard Grieg is the Nordic composer whose music is most well-known throughout the world. This is largely due to the music he composed for the theatre play Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, where evergreens such as the lovely “Morning Mood” and the absolute banger “In the Hall of the Mountain King” are to be found. A more complete work is his magnificent piano concerto, which is one of the most played in the world.
As the life of European artists of his time goes, Edvard Hagerup Grieg’s (1843-1907) story is conspicuously familiar. He was born into a bourgeoise family on the western coast of Norway in the city of Bergen. He grew up in a home with music, his mother starting to teach him piano when he was six years old. At the age of 15 Edvard met the famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull who recognized Edvard’s talent, and convinced his parents to send him to Leipzig, the centre of European music at the time, to study music. Though he enjoyed the many concerts there (the conservatory students had free access to the general rehearsals of the legendary Gewandhaus Orchestra), Edvard was never satisfied with the teaching in composition there, of which he later wrote: “Naturally, I did learn something there, but my individuality was still a closed book to me.”
Still, Grieg’s path to become a great composer continued. In 1861 he had his debut as a pianist at a concert in Sweden, and after a spell back in Norway, where he had some of his own music performed at a public concert for the first time, he went to Copenhagen in 1863 for further studies. Here he met Danish composer Niels Gade, a pioneer of the “Nordic sound” and a great name in Europe at the time, though less known today. Later he would often come back to Denmark and it was here Denmark that Grieg met Nina Hagerup, his first cousin, a soprano whom he married in 1867. Late in Grieg’s life he wrote of her:
“I loved a young girl who had a fantastic voice and an equally fantastic ability to convey [music]. That girl became my wife and my partner in life until this day. For me she has been – I dare say it – the only true interpreter of my songs.”
At a trip to Rome in 1869/1870 Grieg among others met the superstar pianist Franz Liszt and the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, who later invited Grieg to compose music for his play Peer Gynt. Grieg was generally spending a lot of timing touring through Europe as a conductor, but he preferred to spend his summers in Norway. In 1884 he bought a plot south of Bergen where he had a villa Troldhaugen (“Troll’s hill’) build. Later Troldhaugen would be the setting for Grieg’s famous piano piece “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” written to celebrate Grieg and Nina’s silver wedding anniversary.
Grieg’s relationship with Nina without doubt provided the inspiration for his (love) songs, but what about all his other music? Since his time in Leipzig Grieg had suffered from an illness in his lungs, which would kill him in the end, but unlike his great German source of inspiration Robert Schumann, Grieg had no major personal crises that shaped his artistic career. Rather, Grieg drew on his surroundings for inspiration: The Norwegian folk music and the landscape around Bergen where he grew up – some of the most dramatic in the world.
Like the slightly later composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), whom we have written about earlier, was in Finland, Grieg was a central actor in building a national identity for Norway. His dramatic piano concerto creates pictures of Norwegian mountains in the mind of the listener, while other of his works are filled with a radiant light, that can only come from the summers he spend in Norway, with their long days and short nights. Even more than the Norwegian nature, Grieg’s music is full of elements from Norwegian folk music: A lot of his piano music is more or less direct arrangements of tunes, but in almost all is music the influence is felt. Again, the piano concerto comes to mind: The opening motif in the piano in the first movement is a common element in the vernacular music, and so is the dance rhythm and harmonies in the final movement.
The music to Peer Gynt in its full length runs 90 minutes. It is now usually condensed into the form of two orchestral suites with highlights. In the suites the choir and solo singers of the original score are removed. This is a pity. Listen instead to this recording with Grieg’s own Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, where the Piano Concert in a minor also is to be found:
After this essay we will take a summer break and return in the autumn with more essays.
Text: Skjold Andreas Arendt