About this Recording
8.553781 - GRIEG: Songs

Edvard Grieg (1843 -1907) Songs

Edvard Grieg (1843 -1907) Songs

Edvard Grieg showed an early interest in music. At the age of fifteen he was sent to the Conservatory in Leipzig on the suggestion of the violinist and composer Ole Bull (1810 -1880). The city, home of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and with a Conservatory founded by Mendelssohn, was strongly characterized by the German romantic spirit and made an immediate impression on the young Norwegian composer. Here he acquired a solid technical foundation and although he later expressed his reservations about the education he had received, his sketch-books and exercises from his time in Leipzig show that in his lessons with Richter, Hauptmann and Reinecke he still had freedom to experiment and that his talent was recognised. There was no real basis for Grieg's later criticisms of the teaching he had received.


After completing his studies in Leipzig, Grieg settled in Copenhagen and there soon came under the influence of Rikard Nordraak, whose enthusiasm and firm belief that the future of Norwegian music lay in its national folk-music traditions was a significant influence on Grieg's development as a composer. The influence of Nordraak can best be perceived in the Humoresque, Opus 6, which may be seen as a break-through for Grieg as a composer. The same year his famous collection of songs, Hjertets Melodier, Opus 5 (Melodies of the Heart) settings of words by Hans Christian Andersen, was published. In the autumn of 1866 Grieg established himself in Christiania (Oslo), which remained until 1874 the centre of his activities. It was in this period that he built the foundation of his increasing fame.


Griegwas early categorized as a composer of smaller forms. His indisputable lyrical powers were never questioned, but, with the exception of a few works such as the Piano Concerto, Opus 16, the String Quartet in G minor, Opus 27, the Piano Sonata in E minor, Opus 7, the three Violin Sonatas, Opus 8, Opus 13 and Opus 45 and the Cello Sonata, Opus 36, he was generally unable to come to terms with larger forms. Grieg felt this as a shortcoming and blamed, 'without justification, the education he had received in Leipzig. Nevertheless he was able to show that he had also mastered these more extended forms when, all too seldom, he found musical material that could be adapted and treated within the framework of traditional sonata form. The material that attracted him, however, was of a very different kind.


Grieg's encounter with Norwegian folk-music and his assimilation of substantial features from it set free his creative powers and suggested to many that his music was, in effect, synonymous with folk-music. Some saw him simply as an arranger of folk-music, a conclusion that hurt him deeply, since Grieg in his own works very rarely used real folk-tunes. It is quite another matter that many of his compositions have attained the status of folk-music.


Harmonic substance is very central to all Grieg's music and it is the harmony that is often the starting-point of a composition. Grieg underlined this strongly in a letter to Henry T. Finck:


The empire of harmonies has always been my dream-world and the relationship between the harmonic way I feel and the Norlvegian folk-tune has even for me always been a mystery. I have realized that the secret depth one can find in our folk-tunes is caused completely by their richness in unimagined harmonic possibilities. In my adaptations of folk tunes in Opus 66 and elsewhere I have tried to express my interpretation of the hidden harmonies in our folk-songs.


Grieg's own instrument was the piano and it was principally his ten books of lyric pieces, with other compositions for the piano, that brought him contemporary international fame. His songs, with a few exceptions, faced greater difficulties in winning acceptance, in spite of relatively frequent concert performance. It was only in the Nordic countries that they were regarded as equal in quality and hence equal in quality to the instrumental works. Grieg himself believed that the lack of interest in his songs outside Scandinavia was due to the relationship between the public or the singer and the text itself, or, more precisely, to problems arising from the translation of the Norwegian and Danish texts he used. Apart from the first two collections, Four Songs, Opus 2, and Six Poems, Opus 4, nearly all his songs are settings of texts in these languages. Only once, later in life, did he turn again to German poetry, namely in Six Songs, Opus 48.


Grieg wrote, in all, more than 180 songs. Apart from the first ones, which may be regarded as apprentice attempts at the German Lied, nearly all belong to the Nordic tradition of song, a style that Grieg was instrumental in developing. One of his models was Halfdan Kjerulf, who in his settings of the work of Norwegian poets established a pattern that Grieg continued to develop. Grieg claimed that Kjerulf understood how to strike the national strings, not by borrowing from folk-song but by his association with folk-type melodies, simple and unaffected in form. Nordic song is characterized by strophic or varied strophic settings, with a melodic treatment that has its ideal in folk-song, which in its use of declamation and in its accompaniment has the primary purpose of expressing the intentions of the poet, as perceived by the composer. This is why Grieg always took a close interest in the manner of interpretation of his songs and explains his frequently expressed dissatisfaction with many singers. In a letter to his friend Frants Beyer in 1895 he wrote:


The devil take all singers. Now, when Nina does not sing any longer, I understand for the first time how lucky I have been, but now comes the time when, like Diogenes, I have to search for a human being who understands how to continue where she left off. In Germany I do not .find it. It must absolutely be here in the Nordic countries. Both in London and in Paris the public would rather listen to the original Norwegian text sung with understanding by a Scandinavian than a bad translation sung by one of their own people. Unfortunately, however, in Norway all these young virgins have no idea at all about their own literature.


In his diary of 1906 Grieg writes even more openly:


What are singers? Nothing but vanity, stupidity, ignorance and dilettantism. I hate them, every one of them. 'Also your wife?', one will ask, but I answer: 'I am sorry, but she is lucky enough not to be a singer'.


In Grieg's opinion the singer should principally be at the service of the poet and the poem and for him his wife Nina was the ideal interpreter of his songs. Her ability to convey small variations in rhythm and mood from strophe to strophe with music that is more or less the same from verse to verse was, with her understanding of the texts, the key to public appreciation and understanding.


The present recording includes many of Grieg's best and most well known songs. The two earliest, To brune Ojne (Two Brown Eyes) and leg elsker Dig (I Love but Thee) come from Hjertets Melodier, Opus 5, (Melodies of the Heart), all with words by Hans Christian Andersen. The songs were published in 1865 and they are certainly full of his love for Nina, to whom he had recently become engaged. Fire digte, Opus 21, (Four Poems), settings of poems from Bjornson's The Fishermaiden, were written at a period of strong artistic development. In the 1870s Grieg made a number of settings of texts by Bjornstjeme Bjornson, among others the melodrama Bergljot, Opus 42, the incidental music for the play Sigurd lorsalfar, Opus 22, and the operatic fragment Olav Trygvason, Opus 50, in addition to settings of various poems. The collaboration with Bj0mson was intense, inspiring and stonny. Using Bjornson's historical drama Olav Trygvason as a starting-point, they planned to create a Norwegian national opera. The project came to nothing and when Grieg preferred to write music for Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt there was a rift between the two men. The four poems from The Fishermaiden were published in 1873. These, with Fra Monte Pincio (From Monte Pincio) and Prinsessen (The Princess), were all written in the years from 1870 to 1872. Fra Monte Pincio was published in 1884 in the collection Romancer (eldre og nyere), Opus 39, (Romances (Old and New)), while Prinsessen was published in 1871 as Grieg's contribution to a collection of works by Nordic composers, Fra nordiske komponister.


Margretes Vuggesang (Margaret's Lullaby) is from the collection Romancer, Opus 15, written and published in 1868. This song, the first in the collection, was the first of Grieg's settings of Ibsen. In the years that followed he set a number of other texts by the great Norwegian playwright, from which he drew inspiration for some of his finest songs. The two songs from Peer Gynt, solveigs Sang (Solveig's Song) and solveigs Vuggesang (Solveig's Cradle Song) need no further introduction. It was the first of these, in particular, that brought Grieg's name before an international public. The two songs from seks digte, Opus 25, (Six Poems by Henrik Ibsen), En svane (A Swan) and En Fuglevise (A Bird-song) were written in 1876, the year of the first performance of Peer Gynt. Grieg arranged these, with Fra Monte Pincio and Vtiren, for orchestra in 1894-95.


I Liden hfljt deroppe (Upon a Grassy Hillside) is also from Opus 39, a collection that includes songs from the period from 1869 to 1884. This song is Grieg's only setting of a poem by Jonas Lie and was written in 1884, the year of publication. Unlike other poets represented in the present collection, John Paulsen is today exclusively remembered because of the settings of his verses by Grieg and by other composers. Paulsen was a close friend of Grieg and the present collection includes three settings from Grieg's Fern Digte, Opus 26, (Five Poems by John Paulsen). These are uneven in quality, but among the best are Med en Primula veris (The First Primrose) and leg reiste en deilig sommerkvaeld (I Walked One Balmy Summer Eve). The songs were published in 1876, their year of composition Almost twenty years later two further collections of settings of Paulsen were published, Opus 58 and Opus 59 From the second of these, Elegiskedigte (Elegiac Poems), comes Til En II (To Her II) These songs may not be among Grieg's best, but the next collection, Digte, Opus 60, (Poems by Vilhelm Krag), occupies a high position among his songs Mens jeg venter (On the Water) is a good example of Grieg's inspired treatment of Krag's neo- romantic poetry The settings of Paulsen and of Krag were published in 1894.


Thirteen years earlier Grieg had published a collection that belongs among the very best of his songs This is Tolv melodier, Opus 33, (Twelve melodies to Poems by A. O. Vinje) Varen (Spring) and Ved Rondane (At Rondane) were written in 1880 and published in the following year. In the first of these familiarity with the text is essential for its interpretation. The title in German and in English is often given as Letzter Friihling or Last Spring, a title used by Grieg in a letter of 1900 to his biographer Henry Finck in an attempt to clarify the content of the poem.


Grieg's friendship with the Danish poet Holger Drachmann resulted in a series of songs, often variable in quality Foraarsregn (Spring Showers) was written in the autumn of 1887 and published two years later in the collection Sechs Gedichte, Opus 49, (Six Poems by H Drachmann) It is one of the most successful songs, notable for its treatment of the accompaniment The collection Sechs Lieder, Opus 48, (Six Songs), settings of German poets, is more even in quality The first two songs, Grufl (Greeting) and Dereillst, Gedanke mein (One Day, O Heart of Mine)he composed in 1884, while the remaining settings were made five years later Here Grieg turns away from the Nordic song and towards the German Lied, without departing from a more or less strophic treatment of the poems He dedicated this collection to the singer Ellen Nordgren (Ellen Gulbranson), with whom he gave several recitals in the later years of his life She was later to make her career in the music of Wagner.


@ 1996 Oyvind Norheim

Close the window