“Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights. I only wanted… to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.” – Edvard Grieg
Though not quite the household name that many of his great contemporaries have come to be, Grieg is a composer well worth taking the time to know. That’s not to say that Grieg’s music is little known; in fact, I’d venture a guess that few have written so many pieces instantly recognizable to people that have never heard the composer’s name. His music is unpretentious, authentic, and highly evocative; to me at least, conjuring up images of alpine vistas and snowy mountaintops (perhaps I’m hearing Grieg’s musical depictions of the landscapes of his native Norway). One of Grieg’s greatest achievements was to put his home country on the map musically, much like Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Dvořák did for theirs.
Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, and began studying the piano at age 6. He came from a musical family who were supportive of his interest in music, and with scant opportunity for a first class musical education in his home country, he left to study at the Leipzig Conservatory. Having received a formal education premised on German compositional methods, Grieg soon yearned to create his own musical voice more true to his national identity – a biographical thread he shares with Tchaikovsky, who incidentally was a great admirer of his music. With this in mind, he moved to Copenhagen upon the completion of his musical studies, where he began to immerse himself in all forms of Norwegian culture, including folk songs, plays, poetry, novels and dances.
Even if he had written nothing else, I think Grieg would warrant a place in history for his incredible Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16, which is surely one of the best ever written (as well as gaining in 1909 the distinction of being the first piano concerto ever to be recorded). Before listening to it, for anyone so inclined go back and listen to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, which Grieg had heard played by Clara Schumann in Leipzig in 1858, and see if you can hear the influence on Grieg’s masterpiece. Its creation marks the confluence of both his formal education in traditional compositional methods, and his exploration of Norwegian culture, with various themes being inspired by a Norwegian folk dance called the Halling, and a folk tune played on a Hardanger fiddle, a traditional Norwegian instrument resembling a violin. When you listen to it, remember too the unthinkable feat of Liszt playing this piece unrehearsed! It’s no wonder that a despairing Clara Schumann once remarked “Liszt played at sight what we toil over and at the end get nowhere with.” Here it is played by Khatia Buniatishvili and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev – it’s a little longer than the clips I usually post, but well worth listening to in full.
Grieg’s music was notable for its use of parallelism (the parallel movement of two or more harmonic lines, or in other words a progression of chords with the same intervallic structure) which would later influence French impressionists like Debussy and Ravel. For some mysterious reason, this technique seems to lend itself well to depicting specific concepts as abstract musical tableaus that are nonetheless highly relatable to the listener. Indeed Debussy often attached very specific descriptive titles to a number of pieces employing this technique (such as La Mer, Nuages, and even his famous Clair de Lune), and similarly much of Grieg’s music always calls to my mind vivid pictures of nature. Perhaps after all that’s what makes Grieg such a great composer: that the subject matter which inspired him is so palpably woven into the fabric of the music. Per Brevig, the founder of the Edvard Grieg Society, put it well when he said “His music was a reflection of the environment in which he lived: Nature, light, blue waters, glaciers, mountains, and fjords.”
Here are some more of my favourite Grieg pieces:
Våren (“Last Spring”), Op. 33, No. 2, played by the Modern Times Orchestra
Peer Gynt, Op. 46, No. 1 – Morgenstemning (“Morning Mood”), played by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by James Galway
Peer Gynt, Op. 46, No. 4 – I Dovregubbens hall (“In the Hall of the Mountain King”) played by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Neeme Järvi
Skogstillhet (“Peace of the Woods”) Op. 71, No. 4, played by Håkon Austbö
While I’m writing an entry on the subject of great national champions of music, I wanted to also include some music from one of my mum’s favourites: Antonín Dvořák. Incorporating folk elements from music from Moravia and Bohemia, Dvořák created a national idiom for Czech music with his strikingly original and lyrical style. Below are two of my favorite pieces of his:
Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, No. 2, played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jose Serebrier
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, “From the New World” – 2nd Movement, played by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan