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Edvard Grieg and “Peer Gynt”

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Edvard Hagerup Grieg (June 15, 1843–September 4, 1907) was a Norwegian composer and pianist who is widely considered one of the leading Romantic era composers. Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, on June 15, 1843. His parents were Alexander Grieg (1806–1875), a merchant and vice consul in Bergen; and Gesine Judithe Hagerup (1814–1875), a music teacher and daughter of Edvard Hagerup. The family name, originally spelled Greig, has Scottish origins. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Grieg’s great-grandfather traveled widely, settling in Norway about 1770, and establishing business interests in Bergen. Edvard Grieg was raised in a musical milieu. His mother was his first piano teacher and taught him to play at the age of six. Grieg studied in several schools, including Tanks Upper School, and Tanks School. In the summer of 1858, Grieg met the eminent Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who was a family friend; Bull’s brother was married to Grieg’s aunt. Bull recognized the 15-year-old boy’s talent and persuaded his parents to send him to the Leipzig Conservatory then directed by Ignaz Moscheles. Grieg enrolled in the conservatory, concentrating on the piano, and enjoyed the many concerts and recitals given in Leipzig. There he studied piano with Moscheles and composition with Carl Reinecke. He especially enjoyed the organ, which was mandatory for piano students.

In the spring of 1860, Grieg survived a life-threatening lung disease, pleurisy and tuberculosis. However, throughout his life, his health was impaired by a destroyed left lung and considerable deformity of his thoracic spine. He suffered from numerous respiratory infections, and ultimately developed combined lung and heart failure. Grieg was admitted many times to spas and sanatoria both in Norway and abroad. In 1861, Grieg made his debut as a concert pianist, in Karlshamn, Sweden. Also, while in school, the young composer saw the premiere of his first work, his String Quartet in D minor, performed in Karlshamn. In 1862, he finished his studies in Leipzig and returning to Norway held his first concert in his home town, where his program included Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata. In 1863, Grieg went to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he met his future wife, and stayed there for three years. He met the Danish composers J. P. E. Hartmann and Niels Gade. He also met his fellow Norwegian composer Rikard Nordraak, composer of the Norwegian national anthem, who became a good friend and source of inspiration. Nordraak died in 1866, and Grieg composed a funeral march in his honor.

In 1867 Grieg produced his first set of miniature pieces for piano, the Lyric Pieces, which consists of eight short movements in contrasting moods. On June 11, 1867, Grieg married his first cousin, Nina Hagerup. Shortly after their wedding, the couple moved to Oslo, where Grieg supported them by teaching piano and conducting. The next year, their only child, Alexandra, was born. In the summer of 1868, Grieg wrote his Piano Concerto in A minor while on holiday in Denmark. Also in 1868, Franz Liszt, who had not yet met Grieg, wrote a testimonial for him to the Norwegian Ministry of Education, which led to Grieg’s obtaining a travel grant. Edmund Neupert gave the Grieg’s concerto its premiere performance on April 3, 1869, in the Casino Theater in Copenhagen. Grieg himself was unable to be there due to conducting commitments in Christiania, as Oslo was then named. Grieg’s daughter Alexandra died in 1869 from meningitis. Grieg and Liszt met in Rome in 1870. On Grieg’s first visit, they went over Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 1, which pleased Liszt greatly. On his second visit, in April, Grieg brought with him the manuscript of his Piano Concerto, which Liszt proceeded to sight read. Liszt also gave Grieg some advice on orchestration. In 1874–76, Grieg composed incidental music for the premiere of Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, at the request of the author. The first performance in 1876 was a resounding success and made Grieg into a national figure overnight.

Grieg had close ties with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Harmonien), and later became Music Director of the orchestra from 1880–1882. In 1884 Grieg accepted a commission to write a piece to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of the Norwegian philosopher and playwriter, Ludvig Holberg. The resulting Holberg Suit is a five-movement piece for piano written in the manner of an eighteenth-century dance suit. Several months later he arranged it for string orchestra. By 1885 Grieg had established a considerable reputation and built himself a house at Troldhaugen near Bergen, where he lived for the rest of his life. Over the next twenty years he managed to establish a pattern of composing in the spring and early summer, fitting in a walking holiday in late summer and then spending the autumn and winter on lengthy concert tours. In 1888, Grieg met Tchaikovsky in Leipzig. The Norwegian government awarded him a pension. In the spring 1903, Grieg made nine 78-rpm gramophone recordings of his piano music in Paris. In 1906, he met the composer and pianist Percy Grainger in London. Grainger was a great admirer of Grieg’s music and a strong empathy was quickly established.

The impulse to travel never left Grieg and even in his final years he continued with grueling concert schedules around Europe. In the last year of his life he visited Berlin and Kiel; he was making plans to leave for England when was taken ill. Edvard Grieg died in the late summer of 1907, aged 64, after a long period of illness. Following his wish, his own Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak was played in an orchestration by his friend Johan Halvorsen, who had married Grieg’s niece. Some of Grieg’s early works include a symphony, which he later suppressed, and a piano sonata. He also wrote three violin sonatas and a cello sonata. As Grieg grew older, however, he became increasingly conscious of the musical potential of his own country’s folk-culture and began to promote Norwegian nationalism by writing pieces based on traditional popular music. Grieg wrote songs in which he set lyrics by poets Heinrich Heine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, Hans Christian Andersen, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Grieg shied away from the larger forms of musical expression, such as the symphony and opera, but in his preferred field, as a miniaturist, he is without equal. His use and development of Norwegian folk music in his own compositions put the music of Norway in the international spectrum, as well as helping develop a national identity, much like Jean Sibelius and Antonín Dvořák did in Finland and Bohemia.

The following works by Grieg are contained in my collection:

The Bridal Procession Passes By, op. 19 (from Scenes from the Folk Life, 1872).

Evening in the Mountains and At the Cradle, op. 68, nos. 4 and 5 (from Lyrical Pieces, 1898).

In Autumn, Concert Overture, op. 11 (1866).

Lyric Suite, op. 54 (from Lyrical Pieces, 1891).

Norwegian Dances, op. 35 (1881).

Of Holberg’s Days (or From Holberg’s Time), op. 49 (Holberg Suite, for string orchestra; 1885).

Peer Gynt (1876): Suites No. 1, op. 46 (1888), and No. 2 (1893), op. 55.

Piano Concerto in am, op. 16 (1868).

Sigurd Josalfar, op. 56 (1872): Suite (1892).

(4) Symphonic Dances, op. 64 (1898).

Two Elgiac Melodies for String Orchestra, op. 34 (1881).

Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (The Well Wishers Are Coming), op. 65 (from Book 8 of Lyric Pieces, 1894).

—material taken, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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