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8.550882 - GRIEG, E.: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Steen-Nøkleberg) - Improvisations on 2 Norwegian Folk Songs / 25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances

Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907)
Piano Music Vol. 2

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 Improvisations on two Norwegian Folk Songs, Opus 29, was composed in Lofthus in Hardanger in autumn 1878. The folk-songs upon which the improvisations are based, are taken from L.M. Lindeman's, Older and Newer Norwegian Mountain Melodies. The work was first published by Warmuth in Christiania (Oslo) in 1878. The order there is the opposite of that which was decided upon in the new edition, which came out the following year, at Peters. By comparing the folk-tune arrangements that are heard throughout the rest of this record, Opus 29 is a harmonious work with virtuoso intersections.

The 25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances, Opus 17, is originally a folk-tune memorandum from L.M. Lindeman's Older and Newer Norwegian Mountain Melodies. Three of the melodies Nos. 2, 13 and 19, are adopted without making any changes, while in the rest of them there are greater or lesser alterations made by repetition of separate paragraphs, and additions of preludes, postludes or interludes. Nos. 18 and 22 were later arranged for the string orchestra, (Opus 63 No.2), while Opus 17, was written in Bergen in 1869 and is dedicated to Ole Bull.

In the previous century, Lindeman's collection of folk-songs, piano arrangements from memoranda, which in essence were written by Lindeman, himself, was a source collection, which was embraced with great interest and affection by Norwegian composers. This collection contributed strongly to a growing awareness of the cultural heritage that the Norwegian people had amassed through the centuries, a cultural heritage representing the very national soul of Norway. At that time as well as today, Norwegian composers have borrowed prolifically from this collection, and it has since become a sort of folk-music reservoir that has generated innumerable arrangements, variations, rhapsodies and suites. On several occasions Grieg also used material from Lindeman's collection, as, for example, in Opus 24, 29, 30, 35, 51, 63, 64 and 74.

Even though the material in several of Grieg's early compositions seems to be taken from Norwegian folk-music, that is not the case. Opus 17 is the first work where he directly includes notes of Norwegian folk-music. With these arrangements he is setting a standard of comparison in relation to which more recent, as well as composers of his time, found themselves being evaluated. In this work Grieg has more or less taken over the folk-tune note by note. In some places he has made small rhythmic and melodic changes and has often added a prelude, interlude or epilogue, but the thing that makes Opus 17 a fascinating piece of music is the harmonic foundation which he gives to the folk-tunes. With his harmonic fantasy he tries to wring the innermost secrets from the melodies. In a letter to his biographer, Henry T. Finck, (17.7.1900), he reprimanded those critics who were of the opinion that his originality was limited to his use of folk melodies.

Grieg's encounter with he Norwegian folk-tunes, and particularly the folk- melodies' floating intervals (sotto voce leading notes, thirds and quarter notes) and modal twists, had a very inspiring influence on his harmonic fantasy. This comes through clearly in Opus 17, but even more so in the other great example of folk-music on this disc, the hitherto unpublished Nineteen Norwegian Folk Tunes, Opus 66. It has been said that the arrangement of folk tunes in Opus 66, represents the very essence of Grieg's piano music, where the harmonic possibilities are fulfilled in their highest form. The standard is a lot of chromatic, altered, partly indissoluble chords. Key plans, with relatively distant relationships, are set up against one another, but all of these means are only serving a higher goal. The core of the melodies, their soul, as it were, is going to be revealed, and harmony in particular is the means used to bring out the characteristic melodic feature in many of these folk-tunes. Grieg can, among other things, like in the last piece in the collection, Gjendines Lullaby, harmonize the leading note in G minor (sharp), with a B-7 chord, after an alternating dominant with lowered fifth interval, and in this strange way give the listener the feeling of a sotto voce dominating tone. For that matter the harmonic repertoire is very carefully fitted to each folk-tune's distinctive quality. Grieg's remark that "the realm of harmony was always his dream world", could hardly be more strongly expressed in any work for the piano, than in this collection. To his friend Julius Röntgen (1855 -1910), he wrote:

"I probably have put on paper some horrible chord combinations. To defend myself, however, I will say that they have not arisen from the piano but in my head. When you have the waterfall of Voering rushing beneath you, you do feel more free and daring than when you are down in the valley ."

The folk-tunes in Opus 66 are not taken from Lindeman's collection. It was Grieg's close friend and neighbour in Bergen, Frants Beyer, (1858 -1918), who recorded the melodies that were handed over to Grieg in 1896. The only exception is, Gjendine's Lullaby (No.19), which Grieg wrote in 1891 on Skogadalsbeen in Jotunheimen, for Gjendine Slaalien (1871 - 1972), who was a dairy-maid there at that time.

Probably, neither Opus 17, nor Opus 66, were thought of as works for the concert-hall. Nevertheless, in spite of the often intimate, almost introspective, expression in several of the pieces however, especially in Opus 66, they have continued to hold a place in concert repertoire, especially when they are performed with the fight amount of understanding of the characteristic rhythmic and harmonic universe into which they give us an insight. Grieg said, "Norwegian everyday life, fairy-tales, history, and above all, Norwegian nature, have had a powerful influence on my work ever since I was a lad." (Letter to Henry T. Finck 17.7. 1900) And there are very few of his piano works where we experience this closeness to Norwegian nature, people, and folklore more strongly than here.

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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