Author: Harald Herresthal
Harald Herresthal is a professor
at the Norwegian State Academy of music in Oslo.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is the
greatest composer Norway has fostered. In retrospect one may
wonder how a country with neither national freedom nor a long
tradition of art music could have produced a man of such genius.
Up to 1814 Norway had been totally subject to Denmark, with
Copenhagen as its cultural center. From 1814 to 1905 it was
forced into a union with Sweden. The first half of the eighteenth
century was a time of poverty in Norway and it was some time
before it could assert itself among its Scandinavian brothers.
But for the highly gifted these are perhaps the ideal conditions
for providing impetus and nurturing growth.
In the autumn of 1858, Edvard
Grieg, then only 15 years old, went to the Leipzig Conservatory
to study music. His teachers were among the most eminent in
Europe, and four years later he left the Conservatory as a
full-fledged musician and composer. In the years up to 1866,
Grieg lived in Copenhagen, leaving it only to make brief study
trips. There he sought the advice of the famous composer Niels
W. Gade, who encouraged him to compose a symphony. The work
was performed several times, but Grieg later refused to acknowledge
it. "Never to be performed," were the words he wrote on the
score. Nevertheless, a few years ago the symphony was again
performed and it was later recorded. This fruit of Grieg's
early years was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and it
provides today's listeners with a broader view of Grieg's
artistic and musical development.
The symphony demonstrates that
Grieg had acquired considerable technical skill, and new works
flowed easily from his pen. The Piano Sonata and the Sonata,
op.8, for Violin and Piano, from 1865, are of very high quality.
Grieg's style was based on the
German romantic tradition of music but bit by bit national
awareness developed within him, coupled with a growing need
to create a typical Norwegian style of music. His friendships
and discussions with other young Norwegians also furthered
this development. In Copenhagen Grieg had met Rikard Nordraak
(1842-1866), whose patriotism reached its fullest expression
in the choral setting of Norway's national anthem. As a composer
he had not attained Grieg's level, but he had strong views
on how to create music based on the old folk melodies.
When Edward Grieg settled in Christiania
(now Oslo) in 1866, he was influenced by the composer Otto
Winter-Hjelm (1837-1931). Winter Hjelm saw clearly how the
elements of folk music could be used to create a national
type of music along grander lines.
Another composer worthy of mention
in this connection is Ludvig Mathias Lindeman (1812-1887),
whose collection of Norwegian folk melodies formed an important
basis for Grieg's further development. Later, Grieg went in
search of folk music in its native environment, the written
notes of folk music could only imperfectly reproduce the special
atmosphere and the almost magical rhythms and harmonies that
the folk musicians could coax out of their instruments.
In the hope of making his living
as a musician in Norway, Grieg initially had to concentrate
on playing and teaching music in Oslo. Composing was largely
relegated to the summer holidays, but during these years Grieg
exhibited a considerable capacity for hard work. It was thanks
to him that a concert society with both choir and orchestra
was established in the capital, a society which provided him
with valuable experience in the art of instrumentation. In
the autumn of 1868, Grieg put the finishing touches to his
first great masterpiece, the Piano Concerto in A minor. With
the passing of time it has become almost synonymous with Norway.
It is now a part of the international repertoire of piano
music and is played constantly throughout the world. Every
time it is performed, the concerto evokes in both performers
and audience strong associations with Norway. Though patterned
to some extent on European models, Grieg has succeeded in
bringing these together with elements of Norwegian folk music
and his own personal conceptions of Norwegian nature and the
Norwegian character. His musical style has become identical
to the Norwegian intonation.
Even in Grieg's lifetime those
who heard his music gained the impression that it was strongly
linked to the landscapes and way of life of the people around
him. His first biographer, Aimer Gronvold, helped to strengthen
this impression through a situation he once described. When
Gronvold, one summer day in the 1880s, sailed past the little
settlement of Ullensvang in Hardanger on the local steamer,
he caught sight of the small figure of Edvard Grieg, striding
along beside the fjord at Lofthus. Picking a path through
rocks and scree he made his way towards his destination, a
small knoll with a wooden cabin specially built for him to
compose in. It boasted but one tiny room, and was poised on
the edge of the fjord, in the midst of the exquisite beauty
of Ullensvang, with the dark, deep fjord below, and the glittering
ridge of the Folgefonna glacier on the other side of the water.
Grieg returned there every summer, and sometimes in the winter
too, to seek the peace and tranquillity he needed for his
work. In the heart of this matchless amphitheater of nature,
surrounded by the most sublime and majestic scenery in Norway,
Grieg placed his grand piano and his writing desk. Here he
sat, like an Orpheus reborn, and played in his mountain fastness,
among the wild animals and the rocks. His music came from
the depths of rural Norway, where the quick and resonant tones
of the Hardanger fiddle met his ear, and the Hardangerfjord's
shifting moods enchanted his eye. Gronvold concluded that
there was an intense and indissoluble relationship between
the environment he lived in and the music that he created.
It is almost impossible to listen to Grieg, be it in a concert
hall or a drawing room, without sensing a light, fresh breeze
from the blue waters, a glimpse of sparkling glaciers, a recollection
of the steep mountains and of life in the fjordland of western
Norway, where Grieg was born and dearly loved to roam.
times and bad
But this romantic image of the
composer, and of his art and environment was only half the
truth. Success did not come easily to Grieg. His life was
a struggle where he encountered both success and adversity.
In the 1860s he worked hard to support both himself and his
family as a choir and orchestral conductor, as a music teacher
and as a performer. In these fields he was successful, but
it took time to win the recognition of other musicians and
of the public. His harmonies seemed dissonant and unorthodox
to a public still striving to understand Beethoven and Mozart.
Grieg could not spend long periods in such an environment
without being destroyed as an artist. The Norwegian school
of painters, with Hans Gude at its head, had taken the obvious
consequence of this several years before. Every summer they
sketched and planned in the Norwegian mountains. But with
the advent of the autumn, they packed their bags and went
to Dusseldorf to complete and sell the paintings. At regular
intervals Bjornson and Ibsen had to do the same, gathering
new impulses and appreciation in Germany, Italy and France.
This was how Grieg chose to work too. He decided to compose
in his own country, but he also needed the inspiration of
the European centers of music. If he was ever to be able to
live off the proceeds of his own production, he needed a broader
musical market than Norway and Scandinavia could provide.
The 10 volumes of Lyric Pieces
-- printed at Peters publishing house in Leipzig -- with their
simple, intimate mood images, played a major part in making
his name known and loved in every piano-playing home in Europe.
Even in his own lifetime, his compositions for the piano earned
him the name, "The Chopin of the North."
In 1869 Grieg, on a state stipend,
left for Italy. His encounter with Franz Liszt and the artistic
circles in Rome gave him fresh inspiration and self-confidence.
Fired with new energy and enthusiasm he returned to Christiania
in 1870. There he initiated a fruitful cooperation with Bjornstjerne
Bjornson, who for many years had been waiting for a composer
who could write Norwegian music that would expand and bring
to life his poems and dramas. The poem "Before a Southern
Convent" for soprano, contralto, ladies' choir and orchestra
(1871) was the first fruit of this cooperation. Inspired by
its success Bjornson, in the same year, started on the dramatic
poem "Bergliot" which with its rugged realism inspired Grieg
to attempt a far more daring musical language than previously.
In the spring of 1872 Bjornson and Grieg presented the result
of yet another cooperation, the scenic drama "Sigurd Jorsalfar."
The conscious search for national roots and identity in Nordic
antiquity was continued in "Olav Trygvason." The idea was
to create a monumental musical drama, but Bjornson never completed
more than the first three, acts. The work remained a fragment,
but Grieg's music gives us some idea of what a magnificent
national opera, and perhaps a major opera composer too, were
thus lost to Norway. The project was abandoned, but Grieg's
dramatic talents were put to a new test when Henrik Ibsen
asked him to write the incidental music to "Peer Gynt." This
was no easy task for Grieg, but the music he wrote became
one of the major works of the 1870s. In Grieg's own lifetime
the "Peer Gynt" music scored a resounding international success
thanks, not least, to the two orchestral suites which made
the music accessible in the concert hall.
and the artists' grant
In 1874 Grieg was awarded an annual
artists' grant, and could support himself without needing
to teach or to conduct. He returned to his home town of Bergen.
The framework now seemed ideal for a productive period in
his life. Instead, it was a time of both personal and artistic
crisis. A period of depression, and Grieg's struggle to overcome
it led, nevertheless, to the creation of profound and gripping
works of a high quality. The ambitious Ballad in G minor for
piano and string quartet reflects the turmoil in his soul
and his struggle to perfect both form and content.
As the years went by, Grieg composed
more slowly, and each new work came to fruition only after
a long and painstaking process. This was when he wrote "The
Mountain Thrall" for baritone, two horns and strings, and
most of the Vinje songs were composed at this time. Later
came the Norwegian Dances for piano duet and the famous Holberg
suite for strings.
From 1880 to 1882 he conducted
the Harmonien orchestra of Bergen, but he later resigned all
his official posts.
In 1885 Grieg moved into his new
home "Troldhaugen," outside Bergen. Here he and his wife Nina
lived for the rest of their lives. The last twenty years of
Grieg's life were mainly spent on composing and on extensive
concert tours in Europe. The latter were scarcely beneficial
to Grieg's ailing health, though they added to his fame as
a composer. Among the works created in this period were the
Sonata for Violin and Piano in C Minor and the memorable Haugtussa
songs, set to the words of Arne Garborg. Of singular interest
were Norwegian peasant Dances and Tunes, op. 72, marked by
a harmonic boldness which was in advance of its time. The
same could be said of his last major, completed work, Four
Psalms for mixed choir, freely arranged from old Norwegian
Church Tunes (1906). The arrangements of folk tunes which
he completed later in life demonstrated his almost unique
ability to understand the very essence of the folk melody.
Grieg's music became immensely
popular. Around the turn of the century, it was performed
the world over, not only in the great concert halls, but in
cafés and restaurants everywhere. Such overwhelming
public success accorded badly with the traditional image of
the struggling and impoverished artist, and the way in which
the performers of light music took over Grieg's many harmonic
innovations was subsequently used against him. In connection
with the 59th anniversary of Grieg's death, in 1957, critics
asserted that his name had steadily lost its significance
within the sphere of classical music. But since then the pendulum
of history has swung back again, and this time to Grieg's
advantage. Many of the romantic musical works are now undergoing
a renaissance, and Grieg's compositions are among them. His
works are still performed in concert halls throughout the
world, and the number of Grieg recordings is increasing noticeably.
Works long considered to be relative insignificant have been
rediscovered by a new generation of musicians.
A number of music researchers
have pointed to the significance of Grieg's later works on
the French impressionists' search for a new world of sound.
When Maurice Ravel visited Oslo in February 1826 he said:
" The generation of French composers to which I belong has
been strongly attracted to his music. There is no composer
to whom I feel a closer affinity -- besides Debussy -- than
Grieg." Bela Bartok, who attempted to renew musical style
in the twentieth century on the basis of folk music, also
received important impulses from Grieg's piano adaptations
of such melodies.
Edvard Grieg's goal was to create
a national form of music which could give the Norwegian people
an identity, and in this respect he was an inspiration to
other composers. But the greatness of his works lies not just
in this , but in the fact that he also succeeded in expressing
thoughts and emotions which could be recognized everywhere;
music which people could identify with. Grieg's music transcended
national boundaries. Viewed in this perspective, it is evident
that he was far more than just a national composer.
and Edvard Grieg, 1886
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