Edvard Grieg | Biography


Edvard Grieg
‘A pink sweet stuffed with snow’. Debussy’s dismissive description of Grieg’s music captures the essentially miniaturist nature of much of the Norwegian composer’s art. Yet the famous Piano Concerto demonstrates that Grieg was also able to handle large forces and expansive forms. His music is always Romantic but never sentimental, and his adventurous rhythms and daring harmonies can often be traced to the influence of Norwegian folk music. It was the virtuoso ‘folk’ violinist, Ole Bull, who first encouraged Grieg to compose in a characteristically Norwegian style. Although Grieg received a formal musical education in Leipzig, Norwegian folk music remained central to his work. Indeed, the distinctive flavour of his music can be attributed to his desire to reconcile ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ influences.  Grieg wrote no operas, but his music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – which consists of much more than the two famous suites – occasionally reaches Wagnerian intensity. Wagner’s music was a continual fascination for Grieg, although he was often critical of the older composer’s work. During his student days in Leipzig, Greig saw Wagner’s Tannhaüser fourteen times, and in 1876 he attended the premiere of the Ring Cycle, sending back six very balanced reports of the inaugural Bayreuth Festival. Grieg later embarked on his own operatic project, based on Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s play Olav Trygvason (1889). The work was never completed, but the music that survives shows a heavy reliance on Wagner’s declamatory vocal style. The subject matter is derived from Scandinavian mythology, another clear link to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Peer Gynt is in many ways the opera Grieg never wrote. Ironically, in the light of the fame it brought him, he found the composition of this music incredibly difficult. Ibsen’s play seemed to him a most unmusical subject. When working on the famous ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ he confessed ‘I can’t stand to listen to it because it absolutely reeks of cow pies… and trollish self-sufficiency!’ He intended it to exude ‘exaggerated Norwegian nationalism’ to match the irony of Ibsen’s play. However the music took on a life of its own and the irony was soon lost. ‘Morning Mood’ has also lost its original connotations through continual re-appropriation, even being used to advertise the reviving qualities of instant coffee. It was originally meant to be a description of sunrise in the Sahara desert. If it sounds more like sunrise in the fjords, that’s because the melody is based on the four notes to which the sympathetic strings of the Hardanger fiddle, Norway’s national instrument, are tuned. These sympathetic strings lie beneath the bowed strings and give the instrument its particular resonance. Norwegian fiddle music was a continual source of fascination. Grieg’s work with this music included piano transcriptions of Johan Halvorsen’s collection of Norwegian peasant fiddle dances. These are generically known as slåtter, and there are four basic types: the halling (two beats in the bar), gangar (two groups of three), springar (three beats) and the bridal march. These forms appear throughout Grieg’s work. The finale of the Piano Concerto, for example, is a halling. The F major Violin Sonata recreates the distinctive sound of the Hardanger fiddle, while the G major Violin Sonata is based on springar forms. The Norwegian identity of Grieg’s music hasn’t always been fully appreciated. On one occasion he met Liszt, who enthusiastically sight-read the Piano Concerto. On reaching the dramatic finale, Liszt cried out ‘That’s the real Swedish article!’ Grieg is unlikely to have minded though, as he intended his music to embody Scandinavian, rather than specifically Norwegian, cultural values. His most celebrated piece for solo piano, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen was originally called The Well-wishers are Coming and written to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The title was later changed to mark the composer’s silver wedding celebrations in 1892. (Troldhaugen was the name of his villa in Bergen.) The sheer scale of the anniversary celebrations demonstrated Grieg’s immense importance to the Norwegian people. Five thousand well-wishers besieged the Griegs, the fjord teemed with boats and Grieg was presented with a Steinway grand piano. The marriage of Edvard and Nina Hagerup Grieg had stood the test of time, but with ups and downs along the way. Their daughter, Alexandra, died when she was only one year old, after which Grieg consoled himself by making piano arrangements of Halvorsen’s Slåtter. Family troubles also influenced the introspective Ballade in G minor of 1876. This apparently reflected the composer’s grief at the death of his father and the stress caused by the suspicion that Nina was having an affair with his brother, John. In the early 1880s Grieg himself had an affair, with the painter Leis Schjelderup. She was living in Paris, but he resisted the temptation to visit her there and went instead to Bayreuth for the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal. Eventually he and Nina were reconciled and their marital problems forgotten. Interestingly, the piano piece Erotikon was written for Nina during these troubles. She continued to sing Edvard’s songs in public, with him at the piano, as though nothing had happened. Erotikon, however, sounds rather more affectionate than erotic. An intriguing aspect of Grieg’s musical style is its harmonic ingenuity. His distinctive use of harmony and timbre anticipates the impressionistic effects of the composer who likened his music to a pink sweet. Grieg’s use of repeated open fifths in the accompaniment textures of his piano works, most notably Bell Ringing, was also ahead of its time. The idea would reappear again in Western classical music almost a century later with the minimalist experiments of American composers like Steve Reich.