Edvard Grieg – the greatest Norwegian composer


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 centre. 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 Edvard 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 had initially 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 Grønvold, helped to strengthen this impression through a situation he once described. When Grønvold, 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 tranquility he needed for his work. In the heart of this matchless amphitheatre 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. Grønvold 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 west Norway, where Grieg was born and dearly loved to roam.

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 Düsseldorf to complete and sell the paintings. At regular intervals Bjørnson 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 ten 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 Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, 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 Bjørnson, 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 Bjørnson 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 Bjørnson 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.

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 50th 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 relatively 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.” Béla Bartók, 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.

The International Edvard Grieg Society
The observance of the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Edvard Grieg in 1993 was Norway’s largest ever cultural undertaking. A special committee was given the task of organizing and coordinating anniversary activities and events. Nationally, the objective was to make Grieg´s music accessible to all age groups and backgrounds. On the international level, Norway set out to rekindle interest in a music great who was one of the world’s most played composers during his lifetime.

Grieg had a genius ability to create perfect melodies rooted in the national folk tradition of Norway. He was an innovative harmonist and became a model for many European composers. The secret behind Grieg´s world fame lay in his ability to create new piano music that could be played by amateurs in homes all over the world.

Over the course of the 20th century Grieg´s music faded from the minds of musicians and the public, and his popularity among the masses was often used against him. Grieg´s most popular works were heard daily at spas, in cafes and as the accompaniment to silent films. In some circles he was regarded as nothing more than a composer of entertaining music. A few works nevertheless remained standing as standard works in the international concert repertoire. This was particularly true of the Peer Gynt Suite, the Piano Concerto in A Minor, the violin sonatas and selected songs and piano pieces.

Against this background one of the most important tasks during the anniversary year was to present the full breadth of his production and show unknown sides of Grieg.

When the Grieg Committee began its first soundings to find out which countries and institutions were interested in observing the 150th anniversary, they discovered that Grieg´s name had a far stronger resonance than expected. “It was an experience to hear the tunes my parents played every day when I was a child,” said one of the French concert organizers. His response explains why the anniversary assumed global proportions. Grieg´s piano works were brilliant teaching literature, and had, alongside Czerny´s etudes, maintained their obligatory place in piano teaching throughout the entire first half of the 20th century. For many, the Grieg jubilee was a reawakening of old memories and forgotten musical experiences. To their surprise, the older generation had to admit that the music had not lost any of its freshness and ability to touch and gladden the hearts of audiences. For young people, the encounter with Grieg was a strong and intense experience because to them, Grieg´s music was a new musical discovery.

In Norway, a number of Grieg observances aimed at day-care centers and schools were organized, and all of the national music institutions staged various events. Abroad, concerts and conferences were scheduled in association with universities and music colleges. New books and articles brought to light new information about Grieg and his music. Many composers were also commissioned to write music for the anniversary and several national and international record companies decided to release complete recordings of Grieg´s works. The release of historic Grieg recordings on CD had an impact on the discussion concerning the interpretation of Grieg. Many television and radio stations throughout the world made generous use of the many recordings made during the anniversary year.

The Grieg anniversary committee has registered Grieg observances in 39 countries outside the Nordic countries, and in addition to the more than 1,000 Grieg events that took place were countless radio and TV programmes. During the Grieg Week in Paris it was even possible to hear Grieg´s music played over the loudspeakers at one of the underground stations. There were so many activities and events that at the height of the Grieg celebrations, the suggestion was even made in jest that 1994 should be a Grieg-free year. But neither 1994 nor the following year were Grieg-free. Quite to the contrary, new recordings of single and collected works are still being made. Moreover, the teaching project “Grieg in the Schools” was so successful that it has taken on a life of its own. Originally, the programme was aimed at Norwegian schoolchildren, but as an experiment it was brought to Berlin, where it was called “Grieg in der Schule”. In 1996, more than 1,000 children in Berlin took part in the programme, which in addition to Grieg´s music provides general information about Norway. Other countries have expressed an interest in using this special school project.

The effect of the Grieg year is perhaps most evident at Grieg´s home, “Troldhaugen”, which following the construction of a concert hall and new Edvard Grieg Museum, has been equipped to deal with the international influx of visitors. In the course of a single morning during the summer months, as many as 4,000 people from all over the world come to Troldhaugen, brought here by the desire to experience the music of Norway’s greatest composer. Concert performances of Grieg´s music have accordingly become an important part of Troldhaugen museum’s offerings to the public.

Interest in Edvard Grieg and his music is not only manifested in the heightened interest in his home. The rediscovery of Edvard Grieg in the international music arena has prompted a number of groups and individuals to form Grieg societies. This was part of the reason Bergen Municipality, Hordaland County, Friends of Troldhaugen and The Oslo Grieg Society joined forces to found The International Edvard Grieg Society, in order to coordinate and create a worldwide “Grieg network”. (The address is Troldhaugveien 65, N-5040 Paradis, Norway. Tel. +47 55 91 07 10, fax: +47 55 91 13 95.)

The existing Grieg societies have different activity and ambition levels. There are now Grieg societies in Oslo, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico, London, Boston, New York and Tokyo. Some of them work quietly and are more like private clubs, while others try to be a broad professional forum for Norwegian music. In November 1996, in connection with the publication of Grieg et Paris, a Grieg society will be founded in the French capital. The Oslo Grieg Society staged a successful competition for young composers in 1995 that drew a large number of international participants and is planning new competitions in the years to come. The German Grieg society in Münster (Deutsche Grieg-Gesellschaft) organized its first Edvard Grieg Days in May 1996 with concerts and lectures, with a new conference planned in 1997.

It was therefore important to establish an international Grieg society in Bergen to coordinate and inspire the formation of new Grieg societies, which have bloomed spontaneously since 1993.

The first task of The International Grieg Society will be to serve as a central source of information on new research findings, provide information about new recordings, and maintain contact with members and national Grieg societies through regular publications. A number of tasks beckon in the long term. There is a continuous need for written information about Grieg in other languages than Norwegian, and many of the national Grieg societies established will be able to contribute information and do research on the significance of Grieg in their countries.

The Grieg network´s objective will be to spread information about Grieg´s music through the written word and music. But it is completely in keeping with the spirit of Grieg for the network not to limit itself to this work. Part of its job will also be to distribute information about Grieg´s artistic attitude and perception of art. When he was abroad, Grieg always emphasized that he was an artist from Norway. He used himself and his music to show what Norway stood for in the cultural sphere. In Paris, the French flocked to the Salon to see Fritz Thaulow´s winter pictures and Adelsten Norman´s paintings of Norwegian fjords and mountains. Through Munch´s playbills and Ibsen´s plays, the public expanded their knowledge about this unknown, exotic country on the northern fringes of Europe. The qualities and potential strengths of Norway were further reinforced by the exploits of polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen in the Arctic Ocean. These experiences coalesced, evoking positive images of Norway when Grieg´s spirited rhythms resounded in concert halls. Norwegian cultural achievements had a significant impact on Norway’s reputation abroad.

But Grieg was no chauvinist. He was completely dependent on impulses from abroad in creating a Norwegian style of music, and he urged Norway to keep up with international trends through regular performances of new works from other countries.

The Grieg societies now being established abroad should therefore not only promote Grieg´s music, but be a network and an instrument for disseminating knowledge about the entire spectrum of Norwegian music.

The author Harald Herresthal is a professor at The Norwegian State Academy of Music.