|About this Recording
8.570871-72 - GRIEG, E.: Orchestral Music, Vol. 5 - Peer Gynt (complete incidental music) / Foran sydens kloster / Bergliot (Malmo Symphony, Engeset)
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Malmö Chamber Choir
(Chorus Master: Dan-Oluf Stenlund)
Before a Southern Convent (Foran Sydens Kloster)
Peer Gynt: Synopsis
Young Peer Gynt has grown up in poverty in a Norwegian inland village. In the opening scene he tells his mother a fantastic tale about his dramatic encounter with a buck reindeer when out hunting in the mountains (Prelude CD 1, Track 1 and The “Buck-ride” CD 1, Track 2). Their heated dialogue ends with Peer heaving his mother up on to the roof of the mill-house and rushing off to the wedding at Hægstad (‘Halling’ CD 1, Track 3). There he has his crucial first meeting with a young woman called Solveig (‘Springar’ CD 1, Track 4). Her parents warn her to keep away from Peer, who is already at loggerheads with several of the wedding guests. The act ends with Peer slinging the bride Ingrid over his shoulder and carrying her off into the mountains (The Bridenapping. Ingrid’s Lament CD 1, Track 5).
Peer is soon bored with Ingrid; Solveig has touched him much more deeply. The country people try to hunt him down, and he revels in the thrill of the chase (CD 1, Track 6). On the run in the mountains, he meets three sexually provocative cow-girls (Peer Gynt and the Dairymaids CD 1, Track 7), and then a still more seductive creature (Peer Gynt and the Woman in Green CD 1, Track 8). Peer and the woman in green arrive in the realm of the trolls on the back of an enormous pig (Great men ride in style! CD 1, Track 9). The trolls give the intruder an increasingly unfriendly welcome, and the Mountain King finally has to call a halt to their threats (In the Hall of the Mountain King CD 1, Track 10). The woman in green turns out to be the daughter of the Mountain King himself, and she now dances for Peer (Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter CD 1, Track 11). Peer seems tempted to settle down in the Kingdom of the trolls, until he hears the Mountain King’s proposal to make him a real troll—via a few small adjustments to his eyes... He tries to escape, but the troll children angrily swarm around him (Peer Gynt chased by the Trolls CD 1, Track 12). He is saved only by the first rays of sunlight and the ringing of distant church bells. Yelling in terror, the trolls scatter; the palace collapses and Peer Gynt is left alone in the dark. We hear him thrashing about him with a big tree-branch as he encounters the invisible and baffling “Bøyg” (Peer Gynt and the Bøyg CD 1, Track 13).
Peer is now an outlaw and outcast. He has built himself a hut in the forest, and Solveig, making a courageous sacrifice, leaves her family to live with him there. But Peer soon has another visitor: the Mountain King’s daughter, who claims that the ugly child at her side is Peer’s. Confused, Peer abandons Solveig and sets off to travel in distant lands. Grieg’s only contribution to this act was music for Peer’s last meeting with his mother Åse, which is also used as the act prelude (Åse’s Death CD 1, Track 14 and 15). In the death scene there are close parallels with Peer’s buckride-fantasy as he imagines himself bringing Åse in a horse-drawn sleigh to St Peter.
The prelude to Act IV (Morning Mood CD 1, Track 16) introduces several scenes set in North Africa. Time has passed: Peer is middle-aged and well-off, though no less selfish and self-seeking. His yacht has mysteriously burst into flames and sunk, and he is stranded on the Moroccan coast. Two criminals are hiding nearby, trying to evade the soldiers of the emperor they’ve just robbed (The Thief and the Fence CD 1, Track 17). They flee without their booty, and Peer stumbles across it: a white horse and royal clothes in the middle of the desert! Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, he is soon hailed as a prophet and king, and does not find it necessary to explain that he is actually wearing the emperor’s clothes. Peer is entertained by Anitra, the daughter of the local Arab chieftain, and her attendants (Arabian Dance CD 1, Track 18 and Anitra’s Dance CD 1, Track 19). Spouting half-remembered literary phrases, he tries to seduce Anitra (CD 1, Track 20, Peer Gynt’s Serenade CD 1, Track 21, and Peer Gynt and Anitra CD 1, Track 22). But she outwits him, helping herself to his money and galloping off on the horse, leaving poor Peer stranded in the desert. At this moment the scene changes to a sunlit Nordic landscape, where Solveig, also by now middle-aged but sustained by her deep and faithful love, sits spinning (Solveig’s Song CD 1, Track 23). Meanwhile, back in Africa, Peer has made it to Egypt, where he encounters the Sphinx and the Statue of Memnon (Peer Gynt at the Statue of Memnon CD 1, Track 24). The act ends in satire, with Peer being crowned ‘Emperor of the Self’ in a surrealistic ‘lunatic asylum’.
Heading homeward, Peer is caught in a devastating storm at sea, depicted by Grieg in two programmatic instrumental pieces (Peer Gynt’s Homecoming CD 2, Track 1 and The Shipwreck CD 2, Track 2). Peer survives by hanging on to the ship’s capsized dinghy and beating back the cook and another passenger who try to join him. Back in his native Norway, Peer begins the slow and painful process of self-discovery. One of the ways Ibsen shows this is the famous ‘onion monologue’, where Peer peels off layer after layer but never finds the kernel. Solveig’s singing, too, contributes to his enlightenment (Solveig sings in the Hut CD 2, Track 3 and Track 4). Peer passes into a symbolic world, where the fire-damaged and fog-ridden forest landscape seems to embody his spiritual devastation (Night Scene CD 2, Tracks 5 and 6). Solveig, taking on an increasingly religious dimension, becomes the mirror in which the narcissistic Peer can finally see himself clearly (Whitsun Hymn CD 2, Track 7 and 8). The Button-moulder wants to melt Peer down and remake him into another man, but in the final scene he still gives Peer time to be cradled by the forgiving Solveig, like a son in his mother’s arms (Solveig’s Lullaby CD 2, Track 9).
Peer Gynt, Op. 23
Orpheus struck with his pure tones Souls into beasts, and fire from stones. Our Norway has a fair few rocks. And beasts here swarm about in flocks. So play! And make rocks burn like coals! Play! Pierce the beasts with human souls! (Henrik Ibsen to Edvard Grieg, 1865)
The text and music that meet in Peer Gynt have the deepest seriousness, the keenest irony and the freest flight of imagination—as when Peer and the buck reindeer shoot down through the air towards their reflection in the mountain lake: ‘Buck from the sky, buck from the earth, smash right into each other’. Performances of Peer Gynt can be dynamic collaborations between performers from hugely different backgrounds: actors, singers, children, folk musicians, classical musicians. The work is so all-embracing and makes such extreme demands that everyone can see themselves in the lost Peer. But the subject-matter can also uplift those taking part and inspire them to find common resources and new insights.
Peer Gynt was a child of its time, but also radical and innovatory—it feels bang up to date. Few other works in the history of theatre music embody such an explosive encounter between many different genres. This is no narrowly Norwegian tourist brochure. It speaks of the gravity of life, and of flight from the gravity of life, its duties and worries; it speaks of smiling through sorrow; it speaks of fantasy both as a vital force and as a lie. The literary historian Edvard Beyer (1920–2003) found in Peer Gynt both ‘fairytale and picture of folk-life; tragedy and fantastical, satirical, Aristophanic comedy; dream play and morality’.
The starting-point for this CD is Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. But Grieg himself said: ‘If you could attend a production of the play, you would see that my musical intentions become clear only in the context of the stage.’ We have therefore made a selection from the text—a process that has obvious limitations, since it inevitably lays stress on particular aspects. Even so, we hope that some of the dynamic between text and music will come through. The text is a fount of musical ideas: crescendos and diminuendos, pauses and accents, rich tone colours etc. These inspire a ‘musical’ approach even in the performance of the spoken words. The way the actors play on undercurrents in the text gives important cues to the orchestra. It was also vital to me to involve several folk musicians in this project. Folk musicians rarely have the chance to work with the sheer power and subtle nuances of a large symphony orchestra. They bring an aesthetic that Grieg was deeply engaged with, and they too influence the orchestra with their special sense of sound, pulse, rhythm and phrasing.
I am particularly fascinated by the huge range of tone-colours in Grieg’s music. For the scenes in the realm of the trolls, for example, Grieg often asks for strong accents on muted horns and ice-cold ponticello sounds from the strings (played with the bow close to the bridge). Such ‘screaming’, clashing colours are also found in the voice parts, both spoken and sung: ‘Who are you shouting to?’ ‘To the trolls!’ Grieg has a wealth of other techniques in his palette for softer and more poetic effects: in the music for the scenes in North Africa, for instance, all kinds of exotic sounds glitter like gemstones.
The orchestral score gives plenty of hints for the imaginative use of sound in performance. Another vital document is a 28-page letter Grieg wrote to Johan Hennum (1836–94), the musical director of the Christiania (Oslo) Theatre, who conducted the première in 1876. Since Grieg himself was not at the rehearsals, he wrote comprehensive instructions for Hennum, going beyond what was in the score. Not least, he asked for great courage in characterisation.
Grieg also used space in many creative ways in Peer Gynt, and we have tried to maintain this in our recording by placing the chorus, the actors and the folk musicians in several different places at different times, onstage and behind the scenes, just as Grieg noted in the score. This complicates things, but is crucial to bring out the multidimensional nature of the work.
Ibsen wrote his dramatic poem Peer Gynt in 1867, and seven years later (1874) he asked Grieg to compose music for it. Ibsen immediately went into detail about how he imagined the piece as a whole. Grieg made a start, but found himself struggling with what he felt was ‘a terrifyingly intractable subject […] The text is such that you really have to kill all thoughts of writing true music, and concentrate merely on the external effect’. Grieg was alive to the risk of producing more ‘special effects’ than ‘great art’, and—as usual—he was doubtful about achieving high quality in something ‘made to order’. In my opinion, the text forced Grieg to produce sounds, and indeed a whole aesthetic, that point far forward in time towards what would later be called impressionism, primitivism and modernism.
In the mid-twentieth century many critical voices were raised against Grieg’s Peer Gynt music. Hans Heiberg and John Horton, among others, claimed the music is ‘sugary’ and that it turns Ibsen’s bitter, timeless work into an ‘idyllic festival play’, stuck fast in the nineteenth century. Some of these critics based their opinions only on the orchestral suites, with no understanding of Grieg’s intentions in the theatre music as a whole. Performances had certainly given the impression of a folkloristic ‘costume drama’: the ‘Norwegian national play’. Ibsen himself had made cuts in the last part of the text, partly for reasons of length, and this shifted the stress at the end away from philosophic symbolism. Attitudes towards incidental music in general had also changed. The traditional long musical ‘numbers’ were now on their way out, being replaced by background music. New production techniques meant there was less need for scene-change music designed to cover onstage noise and stop the audience becoming bored. The definitive revolt against tradition was the 1948 version of Peer Gynt in Nynorsk [Note 1] by the director Hans Jacob Nilsen (1897–1957), with new music by Harald Saeverud (1897–1992). (Three movements from his Peer Gynt music are recorded on Naxos 8.557018.)
Today, Grieg’s music can of course limit a director’s experimental approach to the piece, and it is perfectly natural that the text should sometimes be performed without Grieg. But only a one-dimensional view could dismiss Peer Gynt as the lyrical Grieg hobbling the realist Ibsen.
Peer Gynt starts out as a humorous, folklike tale about Peer, an imaginative lad who had a difficult childhood in an inland Norwegian village. The prelude to Act 1, ‘At the Farm Wedding’, introduces us to the young, strong and seemingly healthy Peer. In the following dialogue, ‘The “Buck-ride”’, he spins an incredible yarn about a ride on a buck reindeer, full of wit, fantasy and childlike joie de vivre. Peer and his mother Åse are two of a kind: they both love adventure. But fantasy can also be an escape, or a lie. In Peer’s artistic temperament there is a mixture of egotism and megalomania. Peer leaves his mother on the mill-house roof and hares off to the wedding at Hægstad. And amid the dancing energy of the folk music, he meets Solveig for the first time. The dance melodies here are Grieg’s own, but they use two important forms from the tradition of Norwegian fiddle music: a rather masculine halling with two beats to the bar, and a more feminine springar in three-time.
Peer sets half of the wedding party at his throat, and then runs off into the mountains with the bride Ingrid. He soon becomes bored with her and wants to dump her: ‘The Devil take all women—except one… !’ (meaning Solveig). The music for ‘The Bridenapping. Ingrid’s Lament’ brings back the halling-like theme from the prelude, but faster and distorted, with diminished chords. The following descending octave motif on trumpets and muted horns will return in the next section of music, ‘Peer Gynt and the Dairymaids’, set to the repeated line: ‘Efter trold!’ - ‘To the trolls!’ The muted horn chords literally mutate the G major of the two dances into G minor. The climaxes later on, also in G minor, are reminiscent of other Grieg works in the same key, such as Den Bergtekne (The Mountain Thrall - Naxos 8.570236), his only completed String Quartet (Naxos 8.550879) and the Op. 24 Ballade (Naxos 8.550883; orchestration by Geirr Tveitt: Naxos 8.557854). Ingrid’s lament unfolds over a painful, pedalpoint D in the viola register, from the depths of her soul. Peer, too, is desperate, in his own way. But in the hunt that ensues, we see that Peer loves being harried by the country people. ‘This is life!’ he bellows, over and over again.
Now Peer enters the realm of the trolls, and the orchestral opening to ‘Peer Gynt and the Dairymaids’ is typical: loud, icy sounds on horn and strings. Grieg’s music gives the dairymaids almost the character of being dangerous huldre [Note 2] or witches, though Ibsen portrays them rather as sexually provocative human girls—‘If there aren’t any boys, a troll will do!’ In his letter to Hennum, Grieg said: ‘This is a risky piece, that will either make a really bad impression or be a complete hit—wild, devilish and sensual—all depending on how the performers sing and play. I think this is one of the places where the music ceases to be true music.’ […] ‘They must bring out the text clearly, and must not stand still for an instant, but must circle around Peer Gynt, wild with desire, just a little at first, then more and more.’ Grieg asked for a ‘savage and coarse’ sound, ‘really witchlike’, ‘absolutely diabolic’. ‘There will be problems with the singing, of course, because female singers reckon it’s beneath their professional dignity to sing this kind of thing, as it never wins them any laurels, and actresses may not have good enough singing voices. But get some life into it! That’s the main thing.’ In the mellifluous and pretty ‘Peer Gynt and the Woman in Green’ the dangerous supernatural forces are still there, but hidden under the surface nature-idyll. We hear Peer’s frisky leaps in the cellos and basses, while the more piercing oboe sounds after the soft flutes begin to reveal the troll behind the mask: the beautiful woman in green is in fact the daughter of the Mountain King—the ruler of the trolls. The oboe sonority will develop into an even more intense form later: in the pause towards the end of the ‘Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter’, where she strikes an ‘obscene’ pose. The stage directions to the short ‘Great men ride in style!’ read: ‘A gigantic pig comes running in with a stump of rope for a bridle and an old sack for a saddle. Peer Gynt vaults on to its back, clutches the woman in green in front of him, whips the pig and gallops off.’ Grieg asks for a completely wild tempo, and in the context of our recording this mini-movement acts as a kind of upbeat to the well-known ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. Here the chorus and troll children join in, threatening Peer more and more ecstatically until the Mountain King finally has to stop them. Witches who want to roast Peer on the spit or boil him in the pot have their knives whetted and ready, Ibsen tells us. Grieg himself was wittily dismissive of his music for the trolls’ realm: ‘I came up with something for the Mountain King’s hall that I literally can’t bear to listen to: it reeks of cow pies, exaggerated Norwegian provincialism and trollish selfishness!’ [Note 3] For the following ‘Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter’ he initially thought of using cowbells, as he mentioned in his letter to Hennum. They do not appear in the printed score, perhaps because in the 1870s cowbells were never found as a standard orchestral instrument. In this recording we use three cowbells from the Setesdal valley of central southern Norway to give colour to the troll-girl. Three of our soloist Kirsten Bråten Berg’s cows—Vendelin, Jåla and Sylvelin—had to get along without their bells for a few weeks! Xylophone and piano add to the exotic troll-sounds, along with special effects like col legno (striking the strings with the wood of the bow) and rim shots on the side drum. Grieg originally used this piece to end the Peer Gynt Suite no. 2, but decided it was too closely bound up with the stage action, and removed it from the suite. He called it ‘pure parody’. When the music stops, Peer says: ‘Both the dancing and the playing—may the cat claw my tongue—were utterly delightful.’ Once again we see how Peer loves ‘playing with fire’.
I find it natural to include children in the scene ‘Peer Gynt chased by the Trolls’; the orchestral score asks for ‘troll children’ here. They swarm around Peer, grabbing hold of him and biting him. The key (B minor) and the thematic material are the same as ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’, but here the tempo is a furious three-in-a-bar. Over a pedalpoint on G sharp, a distant bell sounds on D. In popular tradition, church bells and sunlight spell death for trolls: they ‘crack’. The stage directions say: ‘The trolls take flight in an uproar of howling and shrieking. The palace caves in; everything disappears.’ It is a clash of great powers. The shocking effect is reinforced when, after so much music in B minor, a unison B suddenly shifts down to B flat—which becomes the pedalpoint underpinning ‘Peer Gynt and the Bøyg’. The first time you hear this shift, it is as if the earth’s surface gives way and falls several metres, and we are in a new dimension. The stage directions say it is ‘pitch black’, and ‘Peer Gynt is heard slashing and beating about him with a big tree-branch’. The dynamic between Peer and the Bøyg is a kind of distortion of the meeting between Tamino and the Speaker in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Grieg wanted the wind instruments to be behind the scenes, with their backs to the stage and the bells of their instruments facing each other, to produce a completely unique sound. He later (1901) changed this, but not his statement that he had in mind a ‘terrifyingly garish, piercing sound’. He also said: ‘Of course, this is not a question of making music, but just of trying to make the chord sound as hollow and muffled as possible.’ Who or what is the Bøyg? Peer never gets a clear answer.
In the third act Solveig leaves her family to live with Peer: now an outlaw and outcast, he has built himself a hut in the forest. But he cannot bring himself to accept her, and ‘goes roundabout’, as the Bøyg has told him to. Grieg’s only contribution to this act was music for the last meeting between Peer and his mother Åse, before he sets off to travel ‘seaward […] and further still’. When ‘Åse’s Death’ is heard from afar, in the background as Åse dies, the audience has already heard it once, as the prelude to Act 3. This death scene has parallels with the ‘buck-ride’: fantasy and fairytales unite mother and son, with warmth and a smile. Peer imagines himself carrying Åse away in a horse-drawn sleigh to St Peter, and at first he is not aware that she is dying. The chorale, or funeral march, rises and falls in a sombre B minor. Peer’s ‘artistic’ daydream is set in contrast with the grave reality of death, with Åse’s suffering and fear, and with Peer’s own tragedy. But in spite of everything he gives his mother a relatively peaceful passing. Here, in a way, the text and the music exist on different planes. Grieg did not try to coordinate them in detail. He merely suggests when the music should begin and end. Nevertheless, the music and text do support each other, but in a different way in every new performance.
‘Morning’ (or ‘Morning Mood’), the introduction to the scenes on the Moroccan coast in Act 4, is closely related to the music for ‘Peer Gynt and the Woman in Green’. It uses the pentatonic scale—Grieg perhaps wanted that to sound Arabian. The climax in this nature-evocation comes early on, with ‘the sun breaking through the clouds at the first forte’. There are imitations of birdsong and wave-like flowing figures suggestive of nature. Grieg said that the piece was ‘to be treated as pure music’, and as such it has a unique place in the drama. There can be no doubt that ‘The Thief and the Fence’ is more character-painting theatre music than bel canto duet. The two criminals are on the run, trying to avoid capture: ‘Very fast tempo, and the whole thing must sound hushed and secretive.’ Grieg’s instructions in the orchestral score use words like ‘reciting’ and ‘almost whispering’. In these brief lines lie the essential problem of human heredity: ‘My father was a thief; his son must steal too’.
Grieg’s musical sound-world for the North African scenes is full of pizzicatos, fast accents and ricochet effects. This is music of elegant sensuality, redolent of sand and dust, of sun and gold. I interpret this as the Nordic barbarian Peer encountering civilisation. Both Grieg and Ibsen saw the southern countries as the home of culture. The stage directions say: ‘Peer Gynt in oriental attire is lounging on cushions. He drinks coffee and smokes a long pipe. Anitra and a bevy of girls dance and sing for him.’ The ‘Arabian Dance’, Grieg told Hennum, should sound ‘really Turkish’. We have used ‘Turkish’ percussion instruments here: an Arabian drum, special tambourines and triangle, and not least a lovely, tiny cymbal made of dense metal. Grieg called the following ‘Anitra’s Dance’ ‘a little darling’. Its melody is related to ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. Peer, by now middle-aged, who—in borrowed clothes and riding a borrowed horse – is lording it as a prophet and king in North Africa, has in reality become a reckless, opportunistic capitalist. He is full of platitudes and quotations, both in his dialogue with Anitra and in ‘Peer Gynt’s Serenade’. Like a peasant who fancies himself as Don Giovanni, Peer strikes up a tune on his Arab lute and uses everything he has learnt just for effect, trying to seduce Anitra. Grieg wrote to Hennum about this song: ‘It must sound half voluptuously passionate, half ironic’. Peer’s frisky leaps and over-the-top camel-riding bellydance fail to work: at the end of the melodrama ‘Peer Gynt and Anitra’ the whole thing turns out disastrously for him. She runs off with his gold, leaving him all alone in the sand. At which point the scene suddenly changes to the north, and a landscape of mountains and forests bathed in summer sunshine. It was this piece, ‘Solveig’s Song’, that Grieg composed first after he said ‘yes please’ to writing the music for Ibsen. It was ‘easy’, he said. The introduction on unison strings, muted yet strong and full of yearning, shows Solveig’s integrity and sense of purpose, her faithfulness and her timeless, steadfast love. Solveig ‘calls to her goats, spins and sings’. In ‘Peer Gynt at the Statue of Memnon’ we are back to the quiet sandy sounds that ended the scene with Anitra, and Peer (now in Egypt) face-to-face with culture: ‘Honestly, - I really thought the statue made a sound! It was ancient music. I heard the stone voice rising and falling. - I will make a note of it for the scholars to think about. (Writes in his pocket notebook:) “The statue sang. I heard the sound clearly, but I couldn’t quite catch the words. It was all an illusion, of course. - Nothing else of any importance to report today.”’ It is in Egypt that Peer finally lands up in a kind of surrealistic prison, a ‘madhouse’, surrounded by strange characters who highlight his egoism, derisively crowning the prostrate Peer as ‘Emperor of the Self’.
The dramatic, nature-painting, chromatic piece ‘Peer Gynt’s Homecoming’ is well known from the Peer Gynt Suite No. 2. Musically, it has parallels with Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, especially the Overture. Less famous is the following movement, ‘The Shipwreck’, which is mostly made up of theatrical effects. The wind machine we include here does not appear in the orchestral score, but it was often used in the theatre, and Grieg may have had this effect in mind: ‘The thing is, there are very few places where the music is just music—it certainly skates on the thin ice of caricature, and the characterisation often needs to be that crude precisely to make sure the audience understand what it’s all about.’
Peer survives the shipwreck by clinging to the keel of an upturned dinghy and fighting off anyone else who tries to clamber up beside him. But, all the same, he is now slowly beginning to develop self-awareness. The grave, muted G-minor song ‘Solveig Sings in the Hut’ has an important function at this point. The key of G minor usually appears whenever Grieg goes really deeply into existential questions. The song becomes the catalyst for the necessary process of Peer’s redemption: ‘One who has remembered,—and one who has forgot.’ Solveig sings to her ‘beloved boy, so far away’, which also hints at her symbolic role as ‘mother’ in the final scene.
In the ‘Night Scene’ the offstage chorus is cast, surrealistically, as ‘balls of thread‘, ‘withered leaves’, ‘sighs in the air’, ‘drops of dew’ and ‘broken straws’. Ibsen’s stage directions must also have sparked the imagination of Grieg the sound-artist: ‘Night. A blasted heath. Pines devastated by fire. Charred treetrunks for miles. White mists here and there above the forest floor.’ The text takes us deep into a world of symbolism: it is as if the landscape gives concrete natural form to Peer’s spiritual ruin. Grieg underscores this sense of the unreal by, among other things, asking that the chorus, the organ and the voice of Peer’s dead mother Åse be in different offstage locations.
When we see Solveig again, it is in a religious light, with (Ibsen says) a ‘hymnbook wrapped in her headscarf’. Grieg suggested that the chorus’s offstage ‘Whitsun Hymn’ should be ‘performed like peasant hymn-singing’, ‘in a dragging, country way’. The hymn was not included in all of his various reworkings of ‘Solveig’s Lullaby’, but personally I feel that this version with the hymn is particularly inspired, for example in the long sequence of quiet chords after the words ‘Sleep, sleep’. The orchestral sounds here may bring to mind distant bells, and point forward to the sound-fantasy Klokkeklang (Ringing Bells), Op. 54 (Naxos 8.557854). Originally Ibsen had the doomladen voice of the Button-moulder at the end of the lullaby, but Grieg moved it earlier, before Solveig sings. The scene is full of premonitions of death. We are not sure how long Peer has left to him. There are associations with religious consolation, and perhaps also with Goethe’s Ewigweibliche - the ‘Eternal Feminine’. The aged Peer is cradled by Solveig like a boy in the arms of his mother. Grieg also discusses the accompaniment’s rocking pulse in his letter to Hennum, where he asks for a diminuendo in every bar. This highly symbolic final scene is open to various different interpretations. If Peer Gynt is seen as a work about how it is possible to move beyond narcissism, then Solveig is an absolutely essential mirror for Peer: she says that Peer was always himself in her faith, hope and love. Many of Grieg’s cradle songs set texts associated with death, perhaps reflecting Grieg’s own grief at the death of his baby daughter. He told Ibsen that it was precisely here, in the closing scene, that he felt he had given of his best.
Ibsen’s ethical and philosophical perspective was important to Grieg: ‘the performance of Peer Gynt can do some good just now in Christiania (Oslo), where materialism is on the up and is trying to choke everything we find best and most sacred; I think we need to hold up a mirror to all this egotism, and Peer Gynt is just such a mirror.’ Some Ibsen scholars have expressed surprise that the arch-realist Ibsen should have given the ending such an irrational religious slant. For us as performers, personal experience of this ending is as important as theories about it. We can only try to present it with dedication and insight so that you as a listener can have your own ‘meeting’ with this music, and perhaps feel yourself, too, reflected in it.
Foran Sydens Kloster, Op. 20 • Bergliot, Op. 42
Get moving! You can do it, I’m sure; broad, clear music that costs you nothing; read the sagas and put yourself in the mood! (Björnstjerne Björnson to Edvard Grieg, 1872)
In the early 1870s, just before he composed the Peer Gynt score, Grieg had done a lot of work on other dramatic music. He was living at that time in Christiania (Oslo), where he collaborated with the writer and public figure Björnstjerne Björnson (1832–1910), who was an important inspiration: ‘He did not understand music, but he believed in what I was trying to do, and that gave me courage.’ Both works to Björnson texts on this recording took shape in 1871, though Bergliot was completed only in 1885. Before a Southern Convent was intended to be a scene in a larger work, based on Björnson’s epic poem Arnljot Gelline. Like Grieg’s planned opera Olav Tryggvason (also to words by Björnson), it was never finished. Grieg dedicated this scene to Franz Liszt: ‘You well understand the connection in my mind with Liszt,’ he wrote to his friend, the Danish composer August Winding (1835–99): ‘Do you remember when we stood before that convent by the Arch of Titus in Rome, and what unforgettable times we spent out there?’ Originally Grieg was going to dedicate Before a Southern Convent to another Danish composer, Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann (1805–1900), but he learnt that Hartmann had already set the same text himself. Grieg often conducted this work on his concert tours, and from what he said in his letters we can tell that he valued it highly. Today it is seldom performed, at least partly because it uses somewhat unusual forces, with two soloists and a female chorus. The action of Arnljot Gelline takes place in the time of St. Olav. [Note 4] Ingigerd, a chieftain’s daughter from Jämtland, [Note 5] has seen her father killed by the outlawed warrior-hero Arnljot because he refused to give Ingigerd to Arnljot as a peace offering. Arnljot captures Ingigerd, but then, out of pity, lets her go free. Ingigerd feels attracted to Arnljot, and is now tormented by a sense of guilt, confusion and despair. In this ‘fourth song’ she is at a convent gate in a southern land, where she is interrogated by the prioress or another eminent sister. At the end a chorus of nuns inside the convent bids her welcome into the grace of God. We can perhaps sense that this piece was conceived as part of a larger work. Here too there are parallels to Tamino’s meeting with the Speaker in The Magic Flute. The contrast between the two characters is clearly drawn in Grieg’s music. The nun asks question after question, always to the same melody and harmony, until for her last lines, emotionally moved, she modulates up a major third, supported by a dramatic double-bass tremolo: ‘Your lover, how was it that you lost him?’ Ingigerd’s outpouring of her feelings drew from Grieg extremely varied instrumentation and harmony.
Later Grieg said: ‘When I had written Before a Southern Convent, Björnson—who easily got excited—was beside himself with enthusiasm.’ Their collaboration had struck a spark and Grieg immediately started work on the melodrama Bergliot, about a Viking woman married to the archer-chieftain Einar Tambarskjelve. The text is based on Harald Hardråde’s Saga, as written down by the poet and historian Snorre Sturlason (1179–1241/42) in the Heimskringla. [Note 6] Harald Hardråde has lured Einar into an ambush, and Bergliot sees both her husband and her son lying murdered. In rage, she tries to incite Einar’s men to revenge; but towards the end she becomes resigned, reconciling herself to her fate. As in Arnljot Gelline, the underlying theme is the conflict between paganism and Christianity. By 1871 Franz Liszt had already composed four of his six melodramas, the first of them also named after a woman: Lenore (1860). But, as compared with Liszt, Grieg allowed music and melody to come much more to the fore, while still giving the text room to speak. The first performance of Bergliot was at the Kristiania [Note 7] Theatre on 3 November 1885, with the Norwegian actress Laura Gundersen (1832–98) in the title role. Grieg dedicated the work to Gundersen, and for the many performances he conducted he always took great care to find the right actor to do justice to the part. He also had faith in the piece itself, even if he saw melodramas as inherently problematic: ‘I’d be the last to stick up for melodrama as an art-form, but if this poem Bergliot is to be set to music at all, it must be done as melodrama. There’s no other way.’ In twentieth-century Norway the work was particularly associated with the famous actress Johanne Dybwad (1867–1950), whose renditions were monumental and highly stylised. The score is pervaded by Grieg’s gift for psychological insight in characterisation, and modern interpretations that take a more realistic and subjective approach have a compelling strength of their own. My experience of performing Bergliot in concert is that it catches the audience in a grip that is deeply moving, and speaks to us powerfully in our lives today.
The Norwegian sung texts and English translations can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570871.htm
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