Edvard Grieg maintained that the main reason for his considerable song production was Nina - the cousin who was to become his wife.
Fired by the spirit of love, as he writes in a letter to a friend, he set to music some of the best poems by Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author of fairy tales, and with a sublime bouquet of songs - "Hjertets melodier" (Melodies of the Heart) - that love was declared.
Prior to this, the two young cousins had sat together at the piano. "We played Schumann's symphony in B Flat (Spring Symphony) for four hands and became engaged!" Secretly, because the parents on both sides were opposed to the relationship.
Nina's mother expressed her apprehension in very clear terms. Edvard is "nothing, he has nothing and he makes music which no one wants to be bothered listening to". The opposition only served to sharpen the two young peoples' interest in each other, and who can imagine a more beautiful engagement present than the music to "Jeg elsker deg" (1 Love But Thee). However, when he attempted to have them published, none of Copenhagen's music publishers dared to print the songs. Later they were published by hundreds of thousands.
Frustrated by resistance to his attempts to build a permanent orchestra in the capital, Grieg went to Hardanger in the summer of 1877 to shut himself away and compose in solitude. He brought with him a collection of poems by Aasmund Olavsson Vinje. As soon as he was installed in a quiet schoolhouse next to a brook, he read and was inspired by Vinje's poetry and composed "Langs ei å" (Beside the Stream). With the insight of self-awareness, he reflects the struggle of life in the image of a river carving its way beneath the overhanging trees. The song is through composed, and the piano part flows constantly with the river, reflecting the fluctuations which characterizes the strength of the river's twists and turns - so like life.
When Grieg talks of "grains of gold" from his first time in Hardanger, "Langs ei å" is part of what he is referring to. Three years later, after a dry spell in his work, he finds his way back to the poetry of Vinje, and the inspiration of the Hardanger landscape hit him with full force. Within 8 to 10 days he set 13 of Vinje's poems to music. The inspiration for Grieg of Vinje's poetry lies in the tension between longing and fulfilment, between dream and reality.
Vinje revealed a mastery of concrete words and images for tender feelings and sharp thoughts, words for longing and desire, for lost love and for love unattainable. His strength as a poet lay in his ability utter the unutterable, and texts such as the brilliant "Våren" (Last Spring) went straight to Grieg’s heart. In "Våren", there is a perfect unity between words and music, and the song marks a higher point in Grieg’s musical universe.
Grieg discovered the texts of German and Danish poets, as well Norwegians such as Ibsen, Bjørnson and Vilhelm Krag. This was the golden age of Norwegian poetry, and Grieg came to know almost all of the authors whose works he set to music.
Grieg was an avid reader and kept abreast of contemporary literature, especially poetry. In 1895 he came across "...an absolutely brilliant book, where the music seems already composed. I need only to write it down." Many years had passed since he had been so moved by a work of poetry. He became spellbound by a language so rich that the words were music in themselves. The poet was Arne Garborg.
His enthusiasm resulted in a large collection of songs from which he selected eight for a cycle. Grieg himself regarded these to be "...the best songs I ever wrote." Garborg heard the exquisite result at a concert where Eva Nansen performed, and wrote to the composer: "I am so proud, so unashamedly proud, that you were able to use these songs."
But when Grieg feared that the work would not be understood and recognized, it was due more to the language tone than the tonal language. New Norwegian (one of Norway's tow official languages) was not accepted at that time. Fortunately his fears were unfounded. The reception was overwhelming. "Haugtussa" is a richly faceted work where the poetry of nature and destiny are braided together in a unique manner. Drama-tic high points of expectation and ecstasy abound, as portrayed in "Møte" (The Tryst), while "Elsk" (Love) is full of doubts. The main character in the cycle, Veslemøy, recreates the hectic atmosphere of her meeting with "den galne guten" (the wild boy), when with clairvoyance she receives a warning that she will be forsaken and betrayed.
In the Nordic countries there is a special kind of lyrical song which is called a romance. It differs from the German lied, more resembling the English ballad from the 1800s. With its undramatic vocal line, stylized expression and relatively subdued piano accompaniment, the romance was an established form of expression when Grieg emerged. It suited his artistic disposition and his work in turn strengthened a Nordic tradition in which he excelled. Two of Grieg's romances, "Solveigs sang" and “Jeg elsker deg", have become international "hits". For the remainder of his 170 songs, only a handful are well known. Most are unfamiliar to the greater public who, if they invested time and patience, would be rewarded by exciting discoveries.