Norwegian Pride: The Music of Edvard Grieg
'Its taste in the mouth, both strange and delightful, is of a pink bonbon filled with snow.' This famous assessment of Edvard Grieg's music was made in April 1903 by Claude Debussy, writing under the pen name 'Monsieur Croche'. His opinion was not altogether untouched by an extra-musical agenda, having begun his article by noting that Grieg was 'the Scandinavian composer who showed such a lack of sympathy for France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair.' Grieg had indeed taken the side of Captain Dreyfus, convicted of treason but later exonerated, and although it's hardly to his credit Debussy didn't approve.
His patronising evaluation of Grieg's work may well have done something to compromise an appreciation of his music. Although the ever-popular Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 16), the Peer Gynt suites (Op. 46 and Op. 55) and some of the ten volumes of Lyric Pieces have achieved currency, many great scores are still waiting to be rediscovered. And just as the immediate appeal of Tchaikovsky's music can make it seem 'easy', Grieg's naturalness and simplicity have been subject to misinterpretation. 'A skilful musician more concerned with effects than true art' was Debussy's dismissive conclusion!
This denies, of course, the individuality of Grieg's output. His works can be highly affecting, and some are astonishingly modern when viewed in the context of the folk music awakening that reached its climax with Bartók. Debussy may have been reluctant to acknowledge any musical debt to Grieg, but Grieg's later works were highly significant for the French Impressionists. When Maurice Ravel visited Oslo in 1826, he said: "The generation of French composers to which I belong have been strongly attracted to his music. There is no composer to whom I feel a closer affinity, besides Debussy, than Grieg."
It was Norwegian folk music that was of greatest importance to Grieg's own artistic development. Born in June 1843 in Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, he first studied the piano with his mother. The famous Norwegian violinist and composer, Ole Bull, recommended a period of study in Leipzig and that same year, aged fifteen, Grieg began attending the conservatory there. The four years that he spent in Leipzig inspired little nostalgia, and he later recalled sourly that "the atmosphere seemed to dull my vision". It must have been with some relief then that he moved to Copenhagen in 1863.
Grieg stayed there for three years, during which time he met the Danish composers Johan Hartman and Niels Gade. The Op. 7 Sonata in E minor, his only sonata for solo piano, was written in just eleven days in 1865 and is dedicated to Gade. An early work in four movements, it isn't wholly characteristic of Grieg. It is inspired and well-crafted though, so after many years of undeserved neglect it's good to see it taking its rightful place among the romantic piano sonata repertoire once again. Incidentally, a recording from 1903 exists of Grieg playing this piece, and proves just what an accomplished pianist he was.
Grieg also met a fellow Norwegian composer while in Copenhagen, one who became both a friend and a source of great inspiration. It was Rikard Nordraak, composer of the music for Norway's national anthem, who first introduced Grieg to the glories of Norwegian folk music. Nordraak died a few years later, but Grieg's sense of national identity had been well and truly awakened. He completed the famous piano concerto in 1869, and took it to Rome to show Liszt (himself a champion of nationalism in music). Liszt's response was enthusiastic: "Carry on", he said. "You have what it takes, don't let anyone frighten you!"
Liszt had seen Grieg's potential and realised how important he would become for Norway. The concerto was his only complete work in this medium (a second was begun in 1882, but never completed) and it has, over time, become almost synonymous with Norway. It is often compared to Schumann's Op. 54 Concerto, in the same key, and both have similar ideas (for example the opening descending theme) and a similar musical style. Grieg was inevitably influenced by his German training, and the hands of Brahms and Chopin are detectable, but his own musical voice is unique in his use of Norwegian folk music.
Raising National Consciousness
Before long, Grieg was collaborating with leading dramatists such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Henrik Ibsen, producing incidental music for Sigurd Jorsalfar (Op. 56) and Peer Gynt (Op.23). For all his Nordic patriotism, he was acutely aware of the need to avoid isolationism and to be open to other cultures. The Latin world, in particular, acted as a counterbalance to the single-minded German art that he had encountered in Leipzig. From the 1880s onwards Grieg toured extensively, conducting numerous orchestras outside Norway until his failing health forced him to slow down at the end of the 1890s.
As his career progressed he became acutely aware that his fame rested disproportionately on just two of his early works, the piano concerto and Peer Gynt. (The music that he wrote for the latter was a resounding international success, thanks, not least, to the two orchestral suites which made the music accessible in the concert hall.) The very works that Debussy had damned with faint praise drew the attention of audiences and performers away from more representative works, and in many ways this is still true today although we can now draw on recordings to achieve a greater understanding of his oeuvre.
Like his friend Percy Grainger, who I wrote about last year, Grieg has often been criticised as a composer who struggled to handle large-scale movements. It's certainly true that he excelled as a miniaturist in many genres, but suggestions that he simply 'stitched together' melodies to make them go further are unfair. Listen, for example, to the way in which he transforms the duple melody in the third movement of the piano concerto into a triple-time waltz. Whilst perhaps not as skilful as Brahms in terms of thematic development, there is a clear sense of melodic development throughout this fine work.
The best of the Lyric Pieces, with their simple, intimate mood images and distinctly Norwegian flavour, exemplify Grieg's miniaturist approach and have much to offer the enterprising amateur pianist. They played a major part in making his name known and loved throughout Europe (short character pieces were very much in vogue in the late nineteenth century and Grieg was a master of the genre, writing sixty-six during the course of his career). In jest, he once wrote in a letter to the German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen: 'I have been lyric once again. Can't you please cure me of this affliction?'
Grieg grew almost irritated by the huge popularity that the Lyric Pieces achieved, and although they are (in most cases) worthy of this attention we certainly shouldn't overlook such works as the striking and surprisingly modern Funeral March (written in 1886, in memory of Rikard Nordraak) or Slåtter (Op. 72). These transcriptions of Norwegian peasant dances were first collected and penned by Johan Halvorsen, before being adapted for the piano by Grieg. Their starkness presages Bartók, and Grieg manages to create idiomatic and pianistic pieces while retaining their folksy, fiddle-like character.
Among the other works composed in this period were the Op. 45 Sonata for Violin and Piano and the Op. 67 song-cycle Haugtussa. The moving Impressions (Op. 73) represent something of a farewell for Grieg, and his final work was the Four Psalms (Op. 74) written in 1906. He died the following year, and his funeral drew thousands out on the streets of his hometown. His and his wife's ashes are entombed in a crypt near his house, Troldhaugen. (He once said that Nina could "sing like a bird", and she was in part his inspiration for the one hundred and fifty songs that he wrote for solo voice and piano.)
Grieg's goal had been to create a national form of music which would give the Norwegian people an identity, and in this respect he was an inspiration to other composers. But the greatness of his writing lies in the fact that, at the same time, he succeeded in expressing thoughts and emotions which could be recognized everywhere. He wrote music which people could quickly and easily identify with, music which transcended national boundaries. His writing came from the depths of rural Norway, and while it is at one with the people and landscapes around him Grieg was far more than just a national composer.