About this Recording
8.550881 - GRIEG, E.: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Steen-Nøkleberg) - Piano Sonata / 4 Piano Pieces / Moods / Humoresques

Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907)
Piano Music Vol.1

Edvard Grieg, was born in Bergen, on the west coast of Norway. He showed a strong interest in music at very early age, and after encouragement by violinist and composer, Ole Bull (1810 -1880), he was sent to the Conservatory in Leipzig at tile age of fifteen to receive his music education. At the conservatory he received a fundamental and solid training, and through the city's active musical life, he received impressions, and heard music, which would leave their stamp on him for the rest of his life, for better or for worse. Even though he severely criticized the conservatory, especially towards the end of his life, in reality he was recognised as a great talent, and one sees in his sketchbooks and practices from the Leipzig period that he had the freedom to experiment as well. He had no basis for criticizing the conservatory or his teachers for poor teaching or a lack of understanding.

From Leipzig he travelled to Copenhagen with a solid musical ballast and there he soon became known as a promising young composer. It was not long before he was under the influence of Rikard Nordraak, whose glowing enthusiasm and unshakeable that the key to a successful future for Norwegian music lay in nationalism, in the uniquely Norwegian, the music of the people folk-songs. Nordraak came to playa decisive role for Grieg's development as a composer. Nordraak's influence is most obvious in Grieg's Humoresker, Opus 6, considered a breakthrough. In the autumn of 1866, Grieg settled down in Christiania (Oslo). In 1874 Norway's capital city was the centre for his activities. During this time he also created the majority of the works which laid the foundation for his steadily increasing fame.

In spite of his poor health he had had a defective lung ever since childhood Grieg was constantly on concert-tour as pianist or a conductor, always with his own works on the programme. After his last concert-tour 1907, Grieg wrote to his friend Frants Beyer:

"This Tour has been strange. The Audiences have been on my Side. In Germany I have received more acclaim for my ART than ever before. But the Critics both in Munich and in Berlin have let me know in no uncertain terms, that they think I am a dead Man. That is my punishment for my lack of Productivity in these last Years, which my wretched physical condition has caused. It is a hard and undeserved Punishment - but I comfort myself with the thought that it is not the Critics, who govern the world" (Letter to Frants Beyer 5th March, 1907)

More clearly than anything else, this letter shows a trend which Grieg experienced in his later years in relation to his music. It was also a development which would continue internationally until long after his death. Within the musical "establishment", there was an increasing number of people who gradually became more critical towards Grieg's music as well as his abilities and talent as a composer. In the meantime his popularity among the average music-loving audience increased in inverse proportion. Grieg experienced some of the greatest demonstrations of his general popularity during the last years of his life, when, in spite of his greatly weakened health, he was continually on concert-tour, in popular demand by concert-managers from all over the world. The critics, however, were sceptical and to a point condescending, and there is no doubt that Grieg felt hurt by their attitude:

"I cannot be blamed if my music is played in third-rate hotels and by school-girls. I could not have created my music any other way, even though I did not have my audience in mind at the time. I suppose this popularity is all right, but it is dearly bough. My reputation as a composer is suffering because of it, and the criticism is disparaging".

From early on Grieg was labelled a composer of the small forms His indisputable lyrical ability and talent were never doubted, but apart from some very few works such as the Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 16, and the String Quartet in G minor, Opus 27, Piano Sonata in E minor, Opus 7, the three Violin Sonatas, Opus 8 in F major Opus 13 in G major and Opus 45 in C minor, and the Cello Sonata in A minor, Opus 36, he was not able, in spite of his many and desperate attempts, to feel at home with the "large form".

He felt that this was a shortcoming, and unfairly blamed his education at the Leipzig Conservatory. Nevertheless, he also showed that he could master these forms when on rare occasions he found raw musical material that could be reworked and treated within the traditional sonata-form. The only problem was that the musical material to which he felt closest and by which he was most fascinated, was of another quality and character.

Grieg's encounter with Norwegian folk-music, and his assimilation of essential features from this music, released certain aspects of his own creativity that soon led to his music being, for many, identical with folk-music. By some, he was considered more or less simply an arranger of folk-music, and that hurt him very deeply:

"In my Op. 17 and 66, I have arranged folk-songs for the piano, in Op. 30, I have freely rendered folk ballads for the male voice. In three or four of my remaining works, I have attempted to use Norwegian songs thematically. Arid since I have published up to 70 works by now, I should be allowed to say that nothing is more incorrect than the claim from certain German critics that my so-called originality is limited to my borrowing from folk-music. It is quite another thing if a nationalistic spirit, which has been expressed through folk-music since ancient times, hovers over my original creative works. (Letter to Henry T. Finck, 17.7. 1900)".

Much of the instrumental Norwegian folk music is built up of small melodic themes, almost units, which are repeated with small variations in appoggiatura and sometimes with rhythmic displacements. Sections are then joined together to form larger units. We seldom find any true development as it is understood in traditional classical music. It gradually became clear to Grieg that he felt the greatest affinity to this music. This becomes especially clear to us through his piano music. That is why it also became so difficult to distinguish between what in Grieg's works came originally from folk-music, and what was his own composition. This must also have been especially difficult for foreign critics and audiences.

In Grieg's music there are two features which particularly attract our attention, rhythm and harmony. In many instances Grieg's rhythm in his piano compositions, is often taken from the folk-dance, as well as from compositions which are not based upon folk-music. He placed great emphasis on the rhythmic, and considered it paramount in the presentation of his works which have dance as the point of departure. He was of the opinion that in order to be able to play one of his compositions, one had to know, and feel, the dance rhythm. Characteristic of the understanding of the rhythmic, is the story about the meeting between Grieg and Ravel in Paris in 1894 at the home of William Molard:

"While the bright-eyed company discussed music, Ravel quietly went over to Molard's piano and began to play one of the master's Norwegian Dances. Grieg listened with a smile, but then began to show signs of impatience, suddenly getting up and saying sharply: "No, young man, not like that at all. Much more rhythm. It's a folk-dance, a peasant dance. You should see the peasants at home, with fiddler stamping in time with the music. Play it again! And while Ravel played, the little man jumped up and skipped about the room to the astonishment of the company."

Harmony is extremely central. Often it is the harmony itself which is the basis for the composition. Grieg pointed this out emphatically in letter to his biographer, Henry T. Finck:

"The realm of harmony, has always been my dream-world, and my relationship, to this harmonious way of feeling and the Norwegian folk-songs, has been a mystery even for me. I have understood that the secret depth one finds in our folk-songs, is basically owing to the richness of their untold harmonic possibilities. In my reworking of the folk-songs Op. 66, but also otherwise, I have attempted to express my interpretation, of the hidden harmonies, in our folk-songs."

Grieg's interest in harmony became obvious to others already during his practice while attending the Conservatory. At that time it was first and foremost a desire to experiment. Later, harmony became his way of bringing forth the very "soul" of the folk-tunes. Among other things, he deliberately used unfamiliar, radical chord progressions in order to suggest the vague tonality (sot to voce semitones, vague thirds) such as one finds in many of the folk-songs, a melodic characteristic which would otherwise be impossible to achieve with an instrument like the piano. His instrument was primarily the piano. From his earliest years to his last concert-tour the year he died, he performed as a pianist with his own compositions. He was not a virtuoso, but his intimate familiarity with the piano allowed him to present his own music in such a way as to leave a deep and lasting impression upon everyone who heard him play. According to contemporary reports he had a marvellous ability to bring out the best, the very essence, of his own piano pieces. When he took his place on the platform, the atmosphere became electric, and the critics emphasized his refined touch, tone quality, and the complete absence of superficial gestures.

Grieg's compositions contributed very modestly to the development of piano technique. Most of his piano pieces are technically speaking within the abilities of competent amateurs. This, together with musical characteristics which seem to have a stimulating and refreshing effect, contributed to the fact that he was one of the most played, and respected composers in Europe, admired if not by the critics, then at least by the majority of those interested in music.

Grieg's compositions occurred simultaneously with the epoch of the piano. Music and piano playing in the average home were at a peak during the last half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of this century. Cyril Ehrlich has calculated that in 1910 alone, more than 600,000 pianos were produced. To know how to play the piano was part of general education in most middle class families, especially for girls. No wonder the music publishing house C. F. Peters "hoisted the flag" in London and Frankfurt every time Grieg delivered a manuscript for a new album of piano pieces. It is also understandable that Grieg sometimes experienced the demand for new piano pieces as a strain. There were also times when he felt that the production of piano pieces was a sort of bribe, or indulgence, to make sure that the publishing house issued his other works as well. In general, however, Grieg had an excellent relationship with his publisher in Leipzig. He was particularly close to Dr. Max Abraham (1831 - 1900), who was promoted to editor in 1863. This is clearly shown by the abundant correspondence that has been preserved. Verlagsbuchhandlung C. F. Peters Bureau de Musique, was the full name of the publishing house that acted as Grieg's exclusive publisher from 1890, agreeing to pay him 4000 Marks every year, a sum which was adjusted to 6000 Marks in 1901. In return, Grieg was to offer Peters all his future compositions with rights for all countries, for a certain fee.

Grieg experienced a great deal of adversity during certain periods of his life, but he also had more success than most other composer colleagues of his time. Nevertheless, he never lost feelings of unrest at not having developed his talent to the full degree, or having left something undone, something unfulfilled inside. Throughout his whole life, Grieg was a restless soul. He never felt completely at peace anywhere. When he was in Bergen, he longed for Kristiania, and when he was there he longed for Copenhagen and the continent. When he was abroad, he longer to be back home, but no sooner had he arrived in Bergen before he felt oppressed and restless and wanted to go off again. There were perhaps only two places where he really felt at home and satisfied: one, on the concert-platform, the other, in the Norwegian mountains, especially Jotunheimen. When he encountered his audience, or the powerful and free nature of the western part of Norway, he felt whole and complete.

Grieg's Piano Sonata in E minor, Opus 7, was composed during the course of eleven days, in the spring of 1865, the period of his first Violin Sonata, Opus 8 in F major. He tells us that he took both works with him to the Danish composer, Niels W. Gade (1817 -1890), who at the time was one of Europe's most famous authorities on music. Gade showed great interest in the compositions, proof of which is seen by the fact that he emptied four decanters of water while he went through them; Gade drank large amounts of water when he was inspired. It is not surprising that the Piano Sonata, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in 1866, was dedicated to Gade. Wilhem Hansen in Copenhagen published a parallel edition in 1880. In 1887, on the other hand, a new and revised edition was published by Breitkopf & Härtel and Edition Peters. There are some fundamental changes made in the new edition, when compared to the first edition, a fact that is important to point out because today both editions are in use. The Hansen edition, from 1880, has been printed innumerable times in this century without taking into consideration the fact that Grieg himself revised the 1887 edition. On one of the records to follow in this series, Einar Steen-Nøkleberg plays the original version of the second movement, with its very different dynamics, and the last movement (where Grieg in the revised edition omitted 25 bars in the exposition).

One sees strong similarities between Grieg's sonata and Gade's Piano Sonata, Opus 28, on the one hand, and compositions by the Danish composer J.P.E. Hartmann, (1805-1900) on the other. Nevertheless, more important, we also find his strong personal harmonic and melodic traits, especially in the last movement, where we notice that the melodic material is emphatically subordinated to the harmonic, a trait which would influence so much of Grieg's music later on. The special melodic twist in the folk-song that is expressed very clearly in the Humoresques, Opus 6 the last piece on this record is not quite so clear in the Piano Sonata. No matter how hard he tried, Grieg never managed to create a uniform synthesis of his folkloric interest and inclination, and the classic cyclical forms, even though he was quite close in his Violin Sonata in G major, Opus 13. This may have been one of the reasons why he did not feel comfortable with the compositional form, and framework of the sonata. At times he regarded this as a set-back. For posterity, it is more correct to look at his cyclical compositions as proof that it is impossible to unite a folk-music principle, which is built up of repetitive patterns without real development; with a classical or romantic form principle, where the thematic-dramatic development is in focus. At the same time it is this conflict between the two spheres that makes Grieg's cyclical compositions so distinctive, fresh, and, even today, so alive.

The Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak, EG 107, was composed in Rome, in April 1866. Grieg started working on the funeral march immediately after learning of Nordraak's death. In his diary, for the 6thApril, 1866, he wrote: "Nordraakis dead! - he, my only friend, my one great hope for our Norwegian art! Oh! How dark it has become around me all of a sudden!" Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866), was, through a short but important phase, one of Grieg's closest friends, and most essential sources of inspiration, a guide who helped Grieg to find his personal style. The first time Grieg really became acquainted with Nordraak was in Copenhagen in 1864. Together with the Danish friends, C.F.E. Hornemann, (1840-1906), Louis Hombeck (1840 - 1906) and Gottfred Mathison-Hansen (1832-1909), they formed a phalanx directed against what to them was a conservative and rigid music establishment. This alliance resulted in the founding in 1865 of the music society Euterpe, where several Norwegian and Danish composers of the younger generation had their works performed for the first time.

It makes sense that the funeral march in memory of Rikard Nordraak, is on the same record as the Humoresques Opus 6, which are dedicated to Nordraak. On several occasions, Grieg emphasized that Nordraak's importance to him could not be exaggerated: "It is truly so: through him and only through him I saw the light ...He was a Dreamer, a Visionary, born without the ability to bring his own Art, up to the same Level as his Vision...1 tried to find a way to express some of the best in me, which was thousands of miles from Leipzig and its atmosphere, rather, this "best" lay in love of the fatherland, and appreciation for the great, melancholic nature of western Norway, but I did not know, and would - perhaps - never have become aware of this, if I had not through Nordraak, been led to self-observation. We see this by the dedication of the Humoresques Opus 6, to Nordraak, where the direction of this development is clearly shown" (Letter to Iver Holter 9.2.1897). It is still doubtful if Nordraak as a person had the influence that Grieg himself ascribes to him in his retrospective view more than thirty years later. Nordraak was probably more of a catalyst for Grieg, than a force of musical influence. Grieg's craftsmanship, competence and artistic development were far ahead of Nordraak's at the time they became acquainted in Copenhagen in 1864 and 1865. Furthermore, Humoresques is really the first work where what would later become known as the Griegian element, was clearly expressed for the first time. What is presented here as pure and authentic folk-tunes is not, after all; everything is his own, but at the same time genuinely Norwegian. The Humoresques excited a response already from contemporaries. Grieg himself, tells about Gade's reaction: " As a youth, (1865), I showed him my piano humoresques and he went through the entire manuscript without uttering a word. Then he started making low grunting sounds, the grunts increased in strength, till finally burst out: 'Tell me now Grieg, is this supposed to be Norwegian?' Modestly and with hurt feelings, I said: 'It is professor"' (Letter to Iver Holter 8. 1. 1897)

Grieg wrote his first published work for piano, Four Piano Pieces, Opus 1, between 1861 and 1863. In these pieces, we meet the capable and talented conservatory pupil who has a compulsion to express his originality. He has not as yet learned how to achieve this expression, and still does not seem to have a clear idea about what his personal style is. Later in his life he regretted the publishing of these piano pieces, a fact which seems incomprehensible to us today, because Opus 1, shows us a composer who has full command of his craft, as well as an aesthetic ballast, that promises great things for the future. The piano pieces are dedicated to his piano teacher at the conservatory in Leipzig, Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel (1808 -1880), a person to whom Grieg would later refer with great devotion. These compositions reveal significant influence from Mendelssohn and Schumann as well as Chopin, whom it is well known he idealised. Nonetheless, it is of greater interest here that we find harmonic progressions and melodic twists that were later integrated into his personal style. Grieg himself gave the first performance of Nos. 1, 2 and 4, as his graduation examination from the Conservatory in April 1862, while No.3 was first written down in Bergen in 1863. Moods, Opus 73, is his last work for the piano. According to Grieg, it was simply: "... a Booklet of Piano Pieces to bring in money. It was supposed to be Bait for Peters in Leipzig to get him to print two Scores for the Orchestra without complaining ...They are Norwegian Pieces that are a few years old, which I like, but which have not cost me blood." (Letter to Gottfred Matthison-Hansen 29.8.1905) The pieces were written from 1901-05, but one of them, (No. 5, Studie, Hommage à Chopin), is based on sketches that date as far back as 1867. Very interesting, are the folk-tune inspired pieces, (Nos. 4 and 7), and the last one is almost impressionistic in the tone quality and harmonic treatment.

Einar Steen-Nøkleberg
The Norwegian pianist Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, an early winner of the German High School Piano Competition. Other prizes include the Norwegian Piano Competition in 1972, and in 1975 the Norwegian Critics Prize for Best Performance, awarded after a performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto at the Bergen Festival. In 1976 he was honoured for the Norwegian recording of the Year for a recital of music by Norwegian Baroque composers. Other awards include the Grieg Prize in 1985 and in 1992. From 1975 to 1981 Einarsteen-Nøkleberg was professor of piano at the Hanover Musikhochschule and in recent years has enjoyed an international career, with recitals throughout Europe, in the United States of America and in the former Soviet Union. His performances of the piano music of Grieg are regarded as particularly authoritative.

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