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6.110060 - GRIEG: Piano Concerto, Op. 16 / Symphonic Dances / In Autumn
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Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

In Autumn, Op. 11 • Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 • Symphonic Dances, Op. 64


“... We have experienced only displeasure and disapproval for the vulgarities and absurdities assembled under the pretext of the national Norwegian character ...” (Critic Edouard Bernsdorf on Grieg: String quartet in G minor, “Signale”, Leipzig 1878)


What could be so threatening about Edvard Grieg, a figure who enjoyed such great recognition throughout Europe? It can be said that he was a political icon for self-esteem and democratic radicalism, but there was also a perilous element of the avant-garde in his aesthetics. He questioned the concept of pure classical art.


Nature has always played a central rôle in Norwegian history and art, an intimate, authentic, tangible rôle but also a fiercely destructive one. The Polish-born researcher Nina Witoszek describes it as follows: “Nature is the erogenous zone of Norwegians”. Grieg found his natural inspiration in tumultuous autumn storms, waterfalls and the forces of nature, as well as in natural beauty, but not from picture postcards for tourists. The string quartet which caused Bernsdorf such displeasure was based on the song, Fiddlers (Ibsen). The central mood is derived from the expression “the terror and song of the waterfall”.


Art has often been viewed in terms of a defence against the unrestrained, barrier-breaking forces within us; a wider interpretation of the forces of nature. Art can define barriers for individuality, create order, bring insight. The Romantics started to break these barriers, portrayed their experiences of nature, pursued rapture and the wider context.


Grieg, however, evolved towards a more modern outlook: “To paint Norwegian nature, Norwegian folk-life, Norwegian history and Norwegian folk-poetry in music is just that for me, something in which I believe I can succeed”. He instinctively and directly endeavoured to embody the forces of nature in his music, and as such was a precursor of the twentieth century, when Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring provoked anger and scandal. With his Peer Gynt theatre music, Grieg wrote parodies, extravagance and the grotesque. He declared that the musicians should express utterly extreme characters, so that the music ceases to be music. Perhaps Grieg was an early ‘Barbarian’. His non-theatrical compositions also embodied this direct vitality, where creative forces concur with the destructive forces of trolls. Some found this to be absurd, out of control and without form. This, however, was a problem with which Grieg himself also struggled. He came from a background of rationalism and realism and also aspired to create idealistic music with balance and form. At one point in his life, he expressed a cosmopolitan creed so as to avoid being identified with national chauvinism.


Grieg’s views of Norwegian folk-music evolved. Initially he wanted to hone and refine it. In one of his later compositions for piano, Norwegian Peasant Dances, Op. 72 (1903), he intuitively approached the aesthetics within folk-music and avoided filtering it through a Romantic view of art. “How easy is it not to take their scent”, he wrote of the dances in Op. 72. A line can be traced from this new Grieg to the style of Béla Bartók and his adaptations of folk-music.


It would be negligent, though, to view Grieg or Bartók merely as Barbarian nature realists. So typical of Grieg are the heartfelt and honest subjective voice and the concise and poetic musical language which reach to the soul of the listener. Yet these simple and naive aspects could also be viewed as progressive and threatening by those defending “subtle art”. Grieg wrote in 1876: “And what about naivety? Has Ibsen chased it out the door? … pay heed to what I tell you: It is the most beautiful thing an artist can own”. Grieg’s bright naivism surpasses both dark, sublime Romantic hues and subdued Impressionism. Grieg’s modal harmonic sentiments most likely had an influence on French Impressionism. He expressed frustration at having had to learn orchestration in Germany, and believed that the French could embellish Norwegian music. Yet if Grieg’s West Norwegian nature is not always stormy, it could neither be described as diffuse and embodying the pastel shades of Impressionism. It is often bright, clear and pure. We can perceive Grieg’s refined and poetic play of colours as a positive surrender to nature, resembling the surrender to vitality. This perception of nature is resonant of modern times with our eco-philosophy, focus on the indigenous peoples of the world and the concept of a shared destiny with nature.


It is an interesting fact that the instrumentation for the overture In Autumn, Op. 11 (1866), was rewritten in 1887. It was most probably much improved from the draft in 1866 which Niels W. Gade referred to as “some trash”. The song, Autumn Storm, (Richardt) formed the musical material for this early composition. The words depict the autumn as a time of destructive death and decay, but also of harvesting and cyclical coherence. The coda is a Norwegian bacchanalian festivity, with a melody sent to Grieg by his brother. He believed it to be a harvest ballad, in which the farmers celebrate the harvest.


As a young composer and before really formulating his aesthetic, Grieg seems consciously or unconsciously to allow the forces of nature into his work. He was often known to make statements on academia: “How I detest this Conservatory in Leipzig”. The overture has a prologue and coda, main theme and secondary theme in the formally correct keys, connecting transitionary sections and an imaginative development section. Formally, all elements are in place. The music rushes frantically forwards, however, with an unending onslaught of ideas. This has inspired and aroused the enthusiasm of musicians and audiences, but also provoked confusion and criticism. In Grieg’s own words: “The peculiar in life was what made me wild and mad … dwarf power and untamed wildness … audacious and bizarre fantasy”.


The frequently performed, recorded and discussed Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868), most definitely also has this element of wildness. The overwhelming opening kettledrum roll followed by the cascading chimes on the piano can be associated with the myths of creation, or the big bang. Here is the young, newly wed artist with the world at his feet, but most of all Grieg sways us with inspired melody and inventive nature lyrics. The entire piano part is musically motivated, including the virtuoso element, and we begin to see a greater embodiment of folk-music. The main theme of the last movement is in the style of a Halling dance, where Grieg has rewritten the fifths, dissonances and echoing overtones from the resonant strings of the Hardanger fiddle.


Grieg had great respect for Johan Svendsen’s Norwegian Rhapsodies from the 1870s, where folk-melodies have been orchestrated for symphonic concert performances. Grieg completed his Symphonic Dances, Op. 64, in 1898, and Svendsen himself conducted the first performance. Grieg was highly appreciative of this well-orchestrated composition. The title denotes that the dances are irrevocably joined, as in a symphony. Each dance has the tripartite form of ABA, with direct use of Lindeman’s collection of Norwegian folk-melodies, initially Halling from Valdres, followed by a slower Halling dance, Hestebytaren as the andante movement. Then there is the scherzo movement with Springar from Åmot (in triple metre), and finally an extensive finale. Here, part B is based on a Brurelåt, a bridal melody, while part A takes a song: “Did you see my wife, up on the mountain, on the mountain? Black hat, red skirt and one leg longer than the other”. This type of folk humour is reminiscent of Hans E. Kinck’s burlesque short stories.


The tension between the Dionysian and the Apollonian examined by Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy may shed some light on Grieg’s character. He lived at a continuously fluctuating and fertile meeting-point between nature and culture, periphery and centre, popular nationalism and intellectual internationalism. If we read his letters, however, we see that this dichotomy was also difficult for Grieg; when at home he longed to travel, when travelling he longed for home. And he struggled with form, with inspiration and with finding his identity.


Tchaikovsky wrote the following in his Autobiographical Description of a Trip Abroad in 1888 after meeting Grieg:


“It is possible that Grieg’s genius is considerably less than Brahms’ … In return, he is closer to us, he is more understandable for us, more kindred, precisely because he is deeply human. When we listen to Grieg, we instinctively recognise that this music has been written by a person driven by an irresistible pull, by using music, to express a deeply poetical flow from nature of emotions and moods … how unfalteringly stimulating, new, original!”


The Dionysus in Grieg takes the form of a directly observed feeling for nature, where nature is purely nature, both the destructive storm and the life-giving idyll. As we listen, we can judge for ourselves whether Grieg succeeded in, as it were, painting Norwegian nature. With his focus on dance rhythms and folk-music, Grieg depicted the values of human fellowship. I believe he makes a significant statement about himself with the following words: “When alone, one cannot enjoy nature past a certain dimension without melancholy knocking at your door, but in fellowship with a friend, it is infinite, without limits”. Grieg’s music still forms close ties with and between listeners, regardless of nationality.


Bjarte Engeset

English translation: Susan Askvik

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