Friends - at a Distance

They met for the first time in Rome, these two giants of small stature from the icy north, and it is as if they are still sounding each other out in the incidental music for Peer Gynt. They were never to get any closer.


Artistically, there was a closer kinship between them than either would admit. On the personal level, they had more respect than liking for each other. Their collaboration on Peer Gynt, which brought both of them fame, was not only their one joint effort. In actual fact they were not collaborating at all.

A strange friendship! The very fact that they become acquainted abroad, that they never meet frequently but when they do, it is just as often abroad as in Norway, doesn't that put the picture of two national poets in its right frame?

When the twenty-two-year-old concert pianist came to Rome on the wings of a long held dream, the playwright, who was 15 years his senior, had embarked upon an exile that was to last for 27 years.

The distance between them was not due solely to the difference in their ages.

At that time, in December 1865, Grieg was a talented young pianist with a few compositions to his credit, whereas Ibsen was already an experienced playwright.

Grieg nurtures a hope of becoming orchestra conductor at the Christiania Theatre at this time, and Ibsen is willing to give him his support. Unknown to both of them, however, the post of conductor has already been filled. Ibsen has lust completed Brand and is starting on Peer Gynt. He doesn't feel comfortable playing the role of a father to Grieg, though this seems to be what the young composer is seeking.

Grieg’s own father is at home in Bergen. He has forbidden his son to travel alone in Europe, but to no avail, whereas Ibsen no longer has such ties holding him back. Grieg is also beginning to turn to national romanticism for inspiration, white Ibsen is trying to rid himself of its influence. This last point is an important one. Ibsen's ironic depiction of national self-complacency in Peer Gynt is given its most powerful expression in Grieg's music for the scenes in the hall of the mountain king. Grieg himself writes that he has hit upon something that reeks of cow pats, exaggerated Norwegian nationalism and trollish self-sufficiency. He sounds far from enthusiastic; on the contrary it seems as though he composed the music out of indignation with Ibsen.

But this comes later, and might not even be true?

First we must try to envisage the young Grieg on his way south, on his "first flight to the Mediterranean," as he himself put it. None other than Hans Christian Andersen bids him farewell in Copenhagen with a poetic exhortation to "Flee with the soundness of youth for eternal Rome". With this trumpet call propelling him on his way, he hastens past Berlin, where his friend Rikard Nordraak is lying on his sickbed.

Flushed with success after several concert appearances on the way, he meets Ibsen the day following his arrival in Rome.

If we try to picture Ibsen, we won't be surprised that their friendship needs more sustenance than even the Roman spring can provide. Ibsen is no romantic young boy. He is taciturn and reserved, bitter about Norway and bitter about his own youth. He maintains strict working habits and rarely appears at social gatherings unannounced, to say nothing of uninvited. He seems shy and unapproachable, and more importantly, he has no interest in music! Perhaps he is trying to camouflage an admitted lack of insight behind his blatant contempt for musicians. In some indignation, Grieg writes in his diary that it is "strange that such a great man can be so tactless and, in one particular field, so limited." Thus the thrill of their first meeting.

It must be the attraction of opposites or some other deeper form of respect that leads Ibsen to pen the following verses in Grieg's album, which have since become so famous.

Orpheus with his golden lyre
Soothed the beasts, set stones on fire.
Stones our homeland has no lack of
Beasts it also bas a pack of.
Play so stones with sparks redound
Play so meadows peal with sound!

Eight years are to pass without any real attempt to pursue their friendship until Ibsen one day writes to Grieg proposing with sober flattery that he compose the incidental music for the first stage production of Peer Gynt. This is Ibsen's own idea, which he also elegantly sells to the Christiania Theatre on Grieg's behalf. However, it is the theatre that wants to produce the play. Ibsen himself has never thought of Peer Gynt as a stage play. Having deleted a considerable amount of material from the manuscript, which he consistently refers to as a "dramatic poem", he explains to Grieg in his letter precisely which parts should be accompanied by music. How truly unmusical is he?

Grieg himself seems to be in no doubt. In despair, he writes to Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, of whom he is genuinely fond, that he has now undertaken to write music for this "most unmusical of all subjects!" This is not an auspicious start to his collaboration with Ibsen. Worst of all, the commission costs Grieg his cherished friend-ship with Bjørnson. Grieg has to abandon work on their opera project Olav Trygvason to concentrate on Peer Gynt. Thus ends Bjørnson's dream of producing the great Norwegian opera, and years are to pass before he is able to forgive Grieg. Eventually, however, they are reconciled to the strains of Bjørnsonian arias. The relationship between Ibsen and Grieg is never characterized by such passion.

It may have been the financial aspect that tempted Grieg to take on the difficult task of composing music for Peer Gynt. Ibsen had demanded 400 spesiedaler or some 1,600 crowns from the Christiania Theatre - and he was willing to share the fee equally with the composer.

Ibsen is suddenly showing a streak of generosity as well! The dramatist in him realizes that it would be inconceivable to stage Peer Gynt without music. He may not be right, but such are his thoughts.

After learning of Ibsen's death in 1906, Grieg said that his icy exterior surely concealed a fervent love of humanity.

In all probability, the two men feel an affinity for each other which, because of the circumstances of their lives, never has a chance to grow into a natural friendship. Grieg has such respect for the "Great Poet" of the mid-1870s that he is undoubtedly rather flattered to be asked to be Ibsen's composer. Later he is to feign scepticism about many of his modern plays, claiming that they are cold and dry. At any rate Grieg had stronger personal feelings about the written word than Ibsen about music.

Peer Gynt is performed for the first time on 24 February 1876, but neither Grieg nor Ibsen is present. Although Grieg claims that Peer Gynt does not interest him, he never seems to be completely finished with the work. He cannot let go, but continues to rework the score, both for a new stage production and for the two orchestral suites. His many notes bear witness to a very carefully considered interpretation of the literary content of the play. He is particularly concerned about the instrumentation as a means of portraying lyrical and ironic moods, which can never be underscored precisely enough. Ibsen, on the other hand, shows hardly any interest in the new stage production at all. There is virtually no contact between the playwright and the composer as regards the revision of the work.

Later on the two men toy with the idea of adapting Olaf Liljekrans and The Vikings at Helgeland for opera, but nothing comes of this. Grieg, however, sets six of Ibsen's poems to music. When Ibsen hears these songs sung by the composer's wife, Nina, at a social gathering in Rome in 1884, he walks over to the couple at the piano, presses their hands in turn and exclaims with tears in his eyes: "This was true understanding..."

Again this inkling of shared warmth under a deep layer of ice and snow. And again, so typical that it should be revealed in sunny southern climes, rather than in their wintry homeland.

We know that Grieg visited Ibsen in Tyrol in the autumn of 1876, shortly after the premiere of Peer Gynt, that Ibsen held a speech for him at a gala banquet in Kristiania in November 1891, and that he visited Grieg at Grefsen Sanatorium two years later. We know little about what they said and felt. They wrote each other cordial letters, but they could make cutting comments about each other to a third party. There was a vast expanse of uncharted territory between them, an impassable chasm of distrust and reserve, which was not however great enough to negate the deep respect they secretly harboured for each other. They acknowledged each other's artistic greatness despite a feeling of alienation, but they never achieved a real closeness, despite their mutual regard.

Only in Peer Gynt were they truly able to be themselves - as friends.

Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.1 - 1993 No. 1
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