Edvard Grieg: A True Cultural Giant

It's about time we laid to rest the misconception of Edvard Grieg as an irresolute little pipsqueak. Although he was only five feet tall and rarely weighed more than 105, spiritually he towered above most of his contemporaries. On the whole, Grieg was a man of many contrasts.


He was an eloquent speaker and such a superb stylist that he could have been a writer. A man of strong political convictions, he was a radical who prophesied the Russian Revolution, believed that the tsar should be shot, and refused to perform for the Russian nobility while other members of society were being slaughtered. In Norway he gave concerts for the benefit of workers who had been injured in industrial accidents.

Grieg took a fervent interest in the Dreyfus affair, and his views on the subject were published all over Europe. This triggered some furious reactions: he received nasty letters, his life was threatened, and Debussy even called him an ‘enemy of France’.

He distinguished himself in the Norwegian cultural community in many ways, such as by championing New Norwegian - one of Norway's two official languages, derived from local dialects. He described Arne Garborg's poetry, written in dialect, as a ‘world of unborn music’.

Edvard Grieg was fond of domestic pleasures, but had no real home of his own. This fondness was not shared by his wife, Nina, who preferred staying in hotels and was happiest when they were travelling. They did not move into their own home, Troldhaugen, on the outskirts of Bergen, until 1885. Grieg loved Norway, but he suffered terribly from the cold at Troldhaugen. Thus, with the exception of four winters, they left Bergen for a warmer climate when darkness, rain and snow descended on the country. Grieg once wrote to a friend. "... a Norwegian artist is a strange bird with his monotonous song: away! away! and home! home! With this song life passes!"

He enjoyed conducting, but was too nervous to attend the first performance of his piano concerto in A minor. He loved children, but was to remain childless after his daughter Alexandra died only one year old. He detested singers and pianists, appreciated good vintage wines, and had a passion for oysters. And he demonstrated an almost wanton love of his native country in his music. But happiness always seemed to elude him.

Edvard Hagerup Grieg was born on 15 June 1843 in Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, and died there on 4 September 1907. One of his ancestors was a Scottish merchant named Alexander Greig, who emigrated from Aberdeen to Bergen in 1779. Grieg came from a long line of music-lovers on both sides, and he began taking piano lessons at the age of six. At school he was taunted with shouts of "Mosak! Mosak!" after having revealed a slight acquaintance with the work of a composer named Mozart. He himself began to compose a little when he was 12 or 13, and the oldest of his compositions that have been preserved date back to 1857.

The charismatic Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull was a friend of the family. When he heard one of the compositions Edvard had written in 1858, the boy's fate was sealed. Bull decided that he was to be sent to Leipzig, and at the tender age of 15 Edvard Grieg left home to study music in Germany. Although Grieg learned to love Schumann, he was otherwise displeased with his composition studies. When he finished the programme in 1862 - interrupted only for a few months by a serious lung infection - he went to Copenhagen in 1863 and to Rome in 1865-66 to continue his studies.

His stay in Copenhagen was to have a particularly significant impact on his life. That was where he met Rikard Nordraak, a young composer who shared his ideas and his ardent faith in a distinctive, Norwegian music tradition, and who spurred Grieg on in his development of a personal musical idiom. “I'll never forget that moment. Suddenly it was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes and I knew what I wanted to do. It wasn't exactly what Nordraak wanted, but I believe that he showed me the path to my inner self," Grieg wrote after their first meeting. His teacher in Copenhagen, Niels W. Gade, encouraged him to write a symphony. Symphony in C Minor, composed in 1863-64, reflects the influence of German Romanticism, which Grieg was later to reject. He conducted several performances of the work until he heard his friend Johan Svendsen's first symphony in 1867. Disheartened, he wrote "Must never be performed" on the tide page of his oven symphony. The symphony was rediscovered and given a "new" premiere in 1981 at the Bergen International Festival.

Grieg found his own distinctive style in Copenhagen, as evidenced by the three works he composed there in 1865: Humoresques for piano, the work that marked his break-through as a composer, Piano Sonata in E Minor and Violin Sonata in F Major. These were soon followed by two of his major works, Violin Sonata in G Major and the famous Piano Concerto in A Minor.

From autumn 1866 to 1874, Grieg lived in Kristiania (now Oslo), where he earned his living by teaching music and conducting. He was one of the founders of the Music Society in 1871, and of a music academy, which only survived for a year. In 1867 he entered into what was to be a stormy marriage with his cousin Nina. Two years later he received a scholarship that enabled him to travel to Rome to study. There he met Franz Liszt, who, after sightreading Grieg's piano concerto, encouraged him to follow his own independent path and not let himself be daunted.

The piano concerto, composed in 1868, soon became enormously popular, and is still one of the most frequently performed works of its kind. A work that is permeated by Norwegian folk music, the concerto reveals Edvard Grieg's mastery of melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration.

Grieg was not the only one who was seeking a national identity. Many of the composers of the day based their style on the folk music of their native countries. However, despite the fact that Grieg derived inspiration from Norwegian folk music, he was not given the recognition he deserved in his oven country. On the Continent he was a highly feted pianist, in Denmark he was acclaimed as a composer. While his life in Kristiania was difficult, he took pleasure from his collaboration with poet and playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who was director of the Christiania Theatre and for whose works Grieg composed incidental music.

In 1874 Edvard Grieg was awarded an annual composers’ grant and moved to Bergen for a few years. There he composed one of his best-known works, the incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

In the autumn of 1875 both of Grieg's parents died, and his marriage began to falter. This was a painful, but very important period, during which he wrote some of his best works, such as Ballade in G Minor and the Ibsen songs.

Grieg was a prolific letter-writer and opened his heart in his correspondence with his friends and with Nina. A great deal can be read between the lines in the letters that have been preserved; for example, he rarely mentions Nina in letters to his friends. After Grieg's death, Nina herself burned many of the letters they wrote to each other. Large gaps in the correspondence cast a veil of mystery over significant events, such as the fateful year of 1875-76, when Grieg was in the throes of an emotional struggle that was to prove so fruitful from an artistic point of view.

He was also given an opportunity to demonstrate his stylistic ability in 1876, when the newspaper Bergensposten sent him to cover the opening of the first festival in Bayreuth, featuring the premiere of 7he Ring of the Nibelung. Grieg wrote six excellent, knowledgeable articles on Wagner and his powerful work, which he characterized as "doubly remarkable because it is miles ahead of our time." However, he also made cutting remarks about other composers, calling Max Reger a German plumpudding and the insufferable Richard Strauss a superficial virtuoso.

Grieg himself was considered exotic by the composers of his generation. He is often described as one of the boldest harmonists of the day, but he never experimented merely for the sake of experimentation. He was unquestionably a source of inspiration for Debussy and Ravel, and on one occasion Ravel even asserted that he had not composed a single work that was not influenced by Grieg.

At the end of the 1870s he lived in Lofthus in Hardanger, a place that was close to his heart, where he composed String Quartet in G Minor, The Mountain Thrall and other works. During this period, he also frequently went abroad on concert tours, and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. He lived in Bergen again from 1880 to 1883, where he composed most of the Vinje songs and Norwegian Dances for Piano Four Hands. For the first two years, he was conductor of Harmonien, the orchestra of the Music Society. When he resigned the post in 1882, he had 27 øre in his pocket, and Harmonien’s accounts showed a balance of 8.92 crowns. In the meantime, however, it had become a much better orchestra.

Grieg was never willing to lower his artistic standards, and this created many difficulties for him. However, although he was uncompromising all his life as regards the high ideals of art, he never lost sight of his human values. "One must first be a human being. All true art grows out of that which is distinctly human." On a personal level, Grieg's life was marked by inner struggle and marital difficulties. One of the main causes of the latter was that Nina was "the artist's wife". She was a singer, and an invaluable source of inspiration to her husband for 35 years – in his words, "she is the only true interpreter of my songs".

Nina Grieg was not a great concert singer, but she had a high, clear soprano voice. She was completely devoid of airs, and her performance was characterized by an intimate lyricism rather than brilliant virtuosity. After a time she stopped singing in public, while her husband's fame continued to grow. He appeared as a pianist or conductor in all the cultural metropolises of Europe, and his music was enormously popular. At the turn of the century, Grieg admitted that he was aware of Nina's talent and that he regretted not having done more to promote her career. In 1883 Edvard left Nina and travelled around alone in Europe. He went back to her after six months, however, at the urging of his closest friend, Frants Beyer. Except for the youthful and distinctive Holberg Suite (1884) the years between 1883 and 1886 were an artistically unproductive period.

After his return the Griegs began to build Troldhaugen, and moved into their new home in 1885. Despite Nina's shortcomings as a homemaker, they were considered perfect hosts, and they received guests from all over the world. This soon proved too much for Grieg, who had a small cabin built down by the water's edge where he could work undisturbed. The housekeeping was haphazard, but the Griegs and the Beyers, who lived on the other side of the sound, devised an ingenious communication system. When the Griegs hoisted the flag, it was a signal to Frants and Marie to row across with the necessary food and beverages. Incidentally, on boat excursions, Grieg furnished the wine, and Beyer brought the food.

Edvard Grieg's health began to fail at that time, and it deteriorated steadily during the last ten or fifteen years of his life. Most of the works he composed from then on were small-scale pieces. This may be the reason Grieg is often called a miniaturist, but Piano Concerto in A Minor alone demonstrates his stature as orchestrator. During this period he composed his many volumes of Lynt Pieces, as well as larger-scale works, such as Violin Sonata in C minor and the unique cycle of songs Haugtussa (Mountain Maid).

Grieg's adaptations of Norwegian folk tunes occupy an important place in his production, and the last three collections, Nineteen Norwegian Folk Songs, Norwegian Peasant Dances and Four Psalms are among the finest of all of Grieg's compositions. The epoch-making Norwegian Peasant Dances in particular were to influence the work of Stravinsky, Bartok and Delius, but Grieg himself lamented the fact that they did not gain wider popularity.

Grieg's popularity quickly faded after his death, the events of his life and his music overshadowed by the First World War and the advent of the new music. Even in his native Norway he was long considered a kind of genteel folk musician or an overly romantic drawing room composer. Today he has regained his rightful place as a giant in Norwegian music history, a pioneer in modem music, and a versatile artist of great originality. There is growing appreciation of Grieg's music in other countries as well, and it is the hope of the Norwegian music community that the events held during the anniversary celebrations will lead many to view Grieg with new eyes - or, rather, to listen to him with new ears. It is well worth the effort!

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