About this Recording
8.557991 - GRIEG, E.: Orchestral Music, Vol. 3 - Symphony in C Minor / Old Norwegian Romance with Variations (Malmo Symphony, Engeset)
English 

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Vol. 3: Symphony in C minor

 

No symphony has been hedged about with so many reservations as the twenty-year-old Edvard Grieg's 'forbidden' Symphony in C minor .

But there were no such reservations about our work in recording it! From the first bar we were caught up in its positive, youthful energy, and by the potential of its many fresh musical ideas. We had to respond with the same energy, sincerity and courage as we felt radiating from the notes. Some Grieg scholars have asserted that the second theme of the first movement is 'pretty uninteresting in its scalic motion'. This very theme fascinated us deeply by the originality of its shape, and we felt that we must play it at a high temperature, with great generosity, expressiveness and innate rubato. Other scholars have complained that the elegiac E flat minor epilogue-theme introduced by the oboe upsets the first movement's formal balance. Immersed in the music, we felt that this original idea of Grieg's could create a unique tension at the end of the exposition, full of expectation and underlying unease. It is by no means easy to play the Symphony : the performance must be full of youthful energy, elegance and musicality, living rubato and a strong feel for its harmonic shifts and nuances of colour. The Finale demands a virtuosically fast tempo, and the Intermezzo needs a very particular character of its own.

During the Symphony 's 113-year enchanted sleep, scholar after scholar – Dag Schjelderup-Ebbe, David Monrad Johansen, Folke Törnblom, Johanne Cederblad, Sverre Jordan , John Horton among others – wrote about it disparagingly: it was 'clumsy', 'stiff', 'barely out of school', and not Norwegian enough.

Grieg said that he was challenged to compose the Symphony by the Danish composer Niels Gade (1817–90), when they met by chance just outside Copenhagen in 1863. The challenge may also have implied, indirectly: 'Write something of real worth' . After finishing his studies in Leipzig , Grieg had spent a year back in his native city of Bergen without finding any particular impetus, and at this point he had gone in search of wider experience to the Nordic metropolis of Copenhagen , the native city of the distinguished Dane Gade himself. The Symphony 's first movement was finished in two weeks, and the rest within a year, on 2 May 1864. Parts of the work were performed five times in the following years: in Copenhagen in 1864 and 1865, in Christiania (now Oslo ) in 1867 and in Bergen in 1865 and 1867, but none of these performances included all four movements. Grieg himself was the conductor only in Copenhagen in 1865 and in Christiania two years later. We do not know exactly when it was that Grieg famously wrote on the cover of the manuscript score: 'må aldrig opføres. E.G.' – 'must never be performed.' Probably it was in the autumn of 1867, or later.

A few more of Grieg's statements about the Symphony have come down to us: 'The Symphony was complete and the middle two movements had already been performed by Euterpe . [Note 1] But it never satisfied me and I therefore did not allow it to be published in its entirety or performed. The two inner movements can be found as Op. 14 , for piano, four hands.' And: 'I did indeed orchestrate Op. 14 , yes, I heard them too (the two middle movements of the Symphony ) many years ago in Copenhagen . They sounded OK; but under no circumstances will I publish the score now, because that work belongs to a bygone Schumann-period in my life'. The fact that Grieg published the two middle movements as Two Symphonic Pieces ( Op. 14 , for piano duet) shows that he cannot have been entirely dissatisfied with the Symphony .

There has been much discussion of the Symphony 's style, all too often based on the question: what are its unoriginal or unsuccessful features?

Beethoven was absolutely central in Grieg's concert experiences during his time in Leipzig . There are quite clear connections between Beethoven, the classical style and Grieg's Symphony . Beethoven's Fifth has the same orchestral forces (Grieg uses trombones from the third movement onwards), movements in the same keys, and – most people would probably feel – the same idea of per ardua ad astra : 'through struggle to victory'. There are also parallels with Beethoven's Third Symphony (the Eroica ), German Romantic influences from Mendelssohn and Schumann are equally obvious. The Adagio is perhaps closest to Mendelssohn, while the Intermezzo is probably more Schumannesque (think of his Fourth Symphony ), without the litheness of a Mendelssohnian scherzo.

Similarly evident are influences from Gade, whose Symphony No. 1 , Op. 5 ('On the fair plains of Zealand '), also in C minor, introduces a 'Nordic' Romanticism through the use of Danish folk-tunes. Grieg's opening Allegro has fanfares like Gade's, the trio section of his scherzo-movement (the Intermezzo ) is also in A minor, and the theme and form of the Adagio are reminiscent of Gade's Andantino . We know that Grieg was impressed by Gade's 'Nordic tone', which had been successful in Germany . Gade became conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but was forced to give up his post by the Prusso-Danish War in 1848. Another Danish composer, J. P. E. Hartmann (1805–1900), was a 'Nordic' inspiration for Grieg as well, though in Grieg's view symphonic music was not Hartmann's most important contribution. Over the years Gade focussed less on specifically national ideas, and he warned Grieg several times not to become too one-sidedly folky-nationalistic, which (he felt) might produce something more like 'Northern Lights than music'. Grieg thought that Gade later became too weakly Mendelssohnian, and he founded Euterpe to present a fiery new alternative. Even so, Grieg often expressed great respect for Gade.

Scandinavianism, with its focus on Nordic heroes of the past and romanticizing of 'folk culture', was almost literally 'torpedoed' by the later war between Prussia and Denmark (1864), when the other Nordic countries did not help Denmark . In the second half of the nineteenth century the most important thing in Norway was to define what was specifically Norwegian, as part of the struggle against the union with Sweden . Obviously Norwegian national qualities are not yet prominent in the Symphony , but in the trio section of the Intermezzo , Grieg had for the first time used part of a folk-tune: ' Astri, my Astri' , in a partly modal harmonization. Scholars have also found halling and springar dances [Note 2] in the Symphony , but that is rather more questionable. The third movement is more of a mazurka than a springar .

Another much-discussed question has been the extent to which the Symphony is 'Griegian', often with the conclusion that it is not yet 'free', but that we can still sense Grieg in it to some extent. For me, it is a young Grieg – the Grieg of 1864. What else would it be? Griegian characteristics are already present: sudden changes, a lot of chromaticism in the inner parts, and even the so-called 'Grieg-motif' – the three-note falling phrase heard most famously at the start of the A minor Piano Concerto ( Naxos 8.557279). I also feel that all the influences behind the music are pretty self-evident, without diminishing it. I do not find any unoriginal copying or imitation. On the podium I experience this music as an original achievement from a time of creative ferment in the life of a daring young composer.

It was Grieg himself who began the tradition of reservations about the Symphony , with his 'must never be performed'. The Norwegian composer Harald Sæverud (1897–1992) felt that the note scribbled on the score was a qualified prohibition, caused by particular conditions at the time; and that Grieg had great symphonic gifts, but Norway's provinciality and the pressure to focus on 'national values' prevented the development of his symphonic career. Most people associate the note on the score with Grieg feeling unself-confident after hearing the First Symphony of his slightly older compatriot Johan Svendsen (1840–1911) in October 1867. Grieg found in Svendsen's Symphony 'the most sparkling genius, the boldest national tone and a really brilliant handling of the orchestra'. Perhaps Grieg had dreamed of being the first Norwegian national romantic symphonist, but now realized that was Svendsen's domain. Grieg probably did not know about the Symphonies that Otto Winter-Hjelm (1837–1931) had written in 1861 and 1862. He may also have had a youthful ambition to take over Gade's mantle of respected 'Nordic' symphonist, but then he came to feel that the genre of the symphony was not the right road for him. Neither was the Norwegian public very used to symphonies, and it would have been difficult to 'win the people' with them. Limitations in Norwegian orchestras were probably another factor. Grieg was largely a performing musician, dependent on his 'image', his reputation. He would not have wanted people to associate him with the style of this Symphony . We know too that he was more self-critical than most: he destroyed many early works.

Above all, however, Grieg felt that the really essential thing was to be himself, genuinely and completely, to find his own individuality. 'My own individuality was still a closed book to me,' he said of his youth. The summer after the Symphony was finished he spent walking in the mountains with the famous violinist-composer Ole Bull (1810–80), and it was around the same time that he also became friendly with Rikard Nordraak. Thanks to these men 'scales' fell from his eyes: it was in being Norwegian that he could find himself.

There was a lively debate surrounding the Symphony 's rebirth in 1980. The Bergen Festival wanted to perform it, initially in 1978, in connection with the opening of the new concert hall 'Grieghallen', but the Bergen Public Library would not release the manuscript score. The reason given was respect for Grieg's wishes, and that a performance could damage Grieg's reputation. In 1980/81 the subject reared its head again, this time almost with a flavour of cold war politics and international espionage: the Russian conductor Vitaly Katayev had acquired a photocopy of the score from a Norwegian scholar and performed and recorded the Symphony in the Soviet Union in December 1980 . Katayev asserted that Grieg had the potential to be a great symphonist, and that it was a pity he had written just this one. It then became a 'national issue' to bring about a performance and recording in Norway as soon as possible, and on 30 May 1981 the Symphony was played in Bergen, with a live Eurovision TV relay.

The composer Arne Nordheim (b. 1931) was only half-joking when he suggested it was significant that Grieg had never burnt the score, even though it was often very cold at his house at Troldhaugen. Nordheim also argued that a performance 'would give us a more complete and accurate picture of Grieg', and 'enrich his reputation rather than harming it'. The same ideas led to the Symphony 's publication in 1984, as part of the twenty-volume edition of Grieg's complete works that appeared between 1977 and 1995. After the performance many reviews, with almost nationalistic enthusiasm, declared that the Symphony proved Grieg's command of large-scale form. The myth that this was his Achilles-heel was now squashed. Critics were in general extremely positive about the piece, happily discussing how full it was of Griegian/national characteristics. It was said that many mature and famous symphonists had written weaker works. Some critics, though, still had a reservation or two.

These days the Symphony is not performed that often. This is something like its tenth recording, but still critics and scholars often express reservations, even if most people are more positive about it than tended to be the case before 1980. Very few feel, on moral grounds, that the work should not be performed. There is a strong argument that today we have the right to investigate things of which artists themselves were not wholly conscious. Myself, every time I look at Grieg's handwritten 'must never be performed' it makes me stop and think. But the energy in the Symphony makes me want to devote all my musical skill to it – also to be able to say: 'Edvard, listen to this, listen to this: is this not good music?'

The Old Norwegian Romance with Variations , Op. 51 , is a sister work to the Ballade in G minor, Op. 24 (Naxos 8.550883; orchestration by Geirr Tveitt: Naxos 8.557854), but much lighter in tone and not so autobiographical. It is built on the kjempevise (heroic ballad) melody 'Sjugur og Trollbrura' ('Sjugur and the Troll-Bride') from Hallingdal, one of the valleys of central Norway northwest of Oslo . Grieg had made an earlier harmonization of it in his collection Norway's Melodies (154 folk-song arrangements published in 1875), with a revised version in his Six Norwegian Mountain Melodies (published 1886). The Old Norwegian Romance with Variations was published for two pianos in 1890, and for orchestra in 1906. Johan Halvorsen had conducted the first performance of the orchestral version on 21 February 1904, but Halvorsen, Grieg's wife Nina, his friend the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (1855–1932) and Svendsen all felt that it was too long, and it was cut before publication. Grieg wrote to Svendsen in 1905: 'It is certainly a difficult piece to make something well-integrated out of. I imagined it as a kind of drama and I hoped you would share my conception, especially of the latter half, which demands a freer, more subjective handling of tempo. Musically speaking, variation-works like this can easily fall apart in performance, but – I bet a certain Johan Svendsen can stop that happening!' Grieg certainly wanted to show how great a potential there was in such a folk-tune: 'Yet how magnificent the kjempevise melodies are! It is as if the deepest harmonies lie latent in them, longing for a way to see the light of day.' As with the Ballade , Grieg follows Brahms's model in his Haydn Variations by making the first variation non-melodic, almost a harmonic skeleton. The ending, too, resembles the Ballade : both works arrive at a chorale-like climax, then burst out in a diabolic, tempestuous dance towards 'catastrophe', before the melody nostalgically returns. But the Romance remains the Ballade 's uncomplicated sister.

In Grieg's Symphony we hear Beethovenian heroic qualities not least in all the brass fanfare motifs, often used by way of transition. We find a similar use of fanfares as transitions in, for example, the Piano Concerto in A minor . In the much-performed Homage March from Sigurd Jorsalfar this ceremonial and regal heroic quality in fanfares comes to the fore. The March as it originally appeared in the incidental music ( Op. 22 , first performed on 10 April 1872) had neither fanfares nor trio section, but when Grieg published Three Orchestral Pieces from Sigurd Jorsalfar , Op. 56 , in 1893, the March had grown. The play itself was very successful with the public, and Grieg often took these three pieces on his concert tours abroad. His comments dismissing them as 'occasional pieces' and 'more rubbish' we can take only half seriously. But the music was much discussed and George Bernard Shaw was particularly critical of it. This was one of Grieg's many collaborations with the writer and public speaker Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910), who was said to have made Grieg a democrat. Despite its nationalism, Bjørnson's play about Sigurd Jorsalfar [Note 3] in many ways problematizes the idea of heroism. In The King's Hall , the movement that introduces Act 2, can be seen as a portrait of the two royal brothers: Sigurd with his calling to the crusades, and gentle, home-loving Eystejn. This was originally a Gavotte for violin and piano from 1867. Borghild's Dream is from a scene change in Act 1: 'Before the curtain rises, calm music begins, and as the curtain goes up, it depicts her troubled sleep with quiet and weary pauses, then builds into a powerful sense of dread; she screams, wakes, and gets up…' In the play, the Homage March portrays the reconciliation of the two all-too-human and quarrelsome royal brothers. Before the famous cello quartet Sigurd says : 'How much greater you are than me, brother!'

It is important to be aware of the radical politics – emphasizing democracy and liberty – of the Norwegian nationalist movement before independence in 1905. The fight for national freedom was also a fight for Norway 's individual identity, and for the right to an independent language and culture. Beethoven, composer of Fidelio , was probably something of a lifelong inspiration to Grieg in this. The builders of the Norwegian nation chose to take as their foundation the down-to-earth rural culture, much more than blood-soaked heroic historical deeds. Grieg too over the course of his life seems to have become less and less keen on straightforward ideas of heroism. Increasingly he worried that a one-sided focus on what was 'national' in his work would close people's ears and hearts to its essentially musical qualities: 'As a modern artist my aim should be universality, or, more exactly, individuality. Being national should follow because the individual is national, and then it is no burden.'

Bjarte Engeset
Translated by David Gallagher

[Notes]
[1] A society for the promotion of Nordic music, co-founded by (among others) Grieg and his composer-friend Rikard Nordraak (1842–66) in Copenhagen in the winter of 1864/65.
[2] Norwegian folk-dances with two and three beats to the bar respectively.
[3] Sigurd Jorsalfar – Sigurd the Crusader ('Jerusalem-farer') – was king of Norway from 1103 to 1130, ruling jointly with his older brother Eystejn until 1122; Sigurd led the crusade which gave him his nickname in 1107–11.

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Cover painting by Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928)

Naivism came naturally to Nikolai Astrup. Growing up in the vicarage in Jølster, a tiny mountain community just off the west coast of Norway , he saw himself as a future artist at the age of twelve, and for future use he collected all his childish drawings and first attempts at painting. Always, his concern and reason for becoming an artist was the overwhelming experience of nature and of a connection to all things alive, the way he saw it as a little boy. Being an extraordinary talent, according to his art teachers Harriet Backer and Christian Krohg, he learned all the skills of a naturalist painter in his two years of studies in Backer's private school in Oslo (then Christiania), and half a year with Krohg in Colarossi, Paris. Indeed, he had discarded naturalism even before he went to Paris , without finding satisfactory means and methods in the neo-romanticism he encountered in Oslo . He needed a way that could reflect the authenticity of his childhood experience, and felt that the source must be the pictorial notes in his own childish work.

In Paris , in the art of Henri Rousseau, not yet recognized by the public but much appreciated by artists of the Salon des Indépendants, he found a confirmation of what had been his profound intuition. The primitive naive, uncorrupted by academia, could indeed be turned into valid and great art, without losing its primordial power. So, in Paris , after learning all a painter's skills, he became a true primitive, the primitive he had been in his heart all along. He felt the imagery of his native vicarage world calling, and, in a frenzy to apply his new confidence, broke off his Paris studies and went home, to stay.

Being short of money, Astrup had an excuse to return and live again in the realm of his youthful visions. His notebooks from these first years trying out a new method are interesting: he carried the little books in his pocket at all times, and made notes of what to paint next. Here, it is what he saw as a child, and the way he saw it, that was his concern. His vision was a blend of mysteries of spring light, farm animals, country people, ancient rites and folklore. In these years, before his first show in 1905, in conflict with his father over being an artist and a pagan with a taste for brandy, rather than a clergyman like most of his ancestors, and in conflict with most of the farmers for being an outsider, he created many of his most important works, such as "Spring Evening in the Garden".

Coming into the public eye with his 1905 exhibition in an Oslo gallery, in the year of Norway 's final independence as a nation, his primitive interpretation of nature and farm life, of land and people, of tradition and belonging, immediately made him a celebrated "national" artist. Critics saw his art as an authentic product of a Norwegian soil. The way that his dialogue with contemporary European symbolism and the still unknown naivism had made his art possible, was not recognized. With an elegant and stylized French art soon becoming the new paradigm in Norwegian art, following Matisse and Lhote, so remote from Astrup's intensely private struggle within his own heart, Astrup has remained an outsider in the eyes of the critics. And yet his art, highly personal as it is, also belongs to a European birth of modernism.

Øystein Loge

 


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