Jun 152015


Today is the birthday (1843) of Edvard Hagerup Grieg, Norwegian composer and pianist. He is widely considered one of the leading Romantic era composers, and his music is part of the standard classical repertoire worldwide. His use and development of Norwegian folk music in his own compositions put the music of Norway in the international spectrum, as well as helping to develop a national identity, much as Jean Sibelius and Antonín Dvořák did in Finland and Bohemia, respectively. Grieg is regarded as simultaneously nationalistic and cosmopolitan in his orientation, for although born in Bergen and even buried there, he traveled widely throughout Europe, and considered his music to express both the beauty of Norwegian rural life and the culture of Europe as a whole. He wrote, ‘the traditional way of life of the Norwegian people, together with Norway’s legends, Norway’s history, Norway’s natural scenery, stamped itself on my creative imagination from my earliest years.’ Within Norway he is widely celebrated as a national icon: Norway personified.

Grieg was born in Bergen. His parents were Alexander Grieg (1806–1875), a merchant and vice-consul in Bergen; and Gesine Judithe Hagerup (1814–1875), a music teacher and daughter of Edvard Hagerup. The family name, originally spelled Greig, has Scottish origins. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Grieg’s great-grandfather, Alexander Greig, traveled widely, settling in Norway about 1770, and establishing business interests in Bergen.

Grieg was raised in a musical milieu. His mother was his first piano teacher and taught him to play at the age of six. Grieg studied in several schools, including Tanks Upper School, Tanks School and the N.P.S, Norwegian Private School. In the summer of 1858, Grieg met the eminent Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who was a family friend; Bull’s brother was married to Grieg’s aunt. Bull recognized the 15-year-old boy’s talent and persuaded his parents to send him to the Leipzig Conservatory, the piano department of which was directed by Ignaz Moscheles. Grieg enrolled in the conservatory, concentrating on the piano, and enjoyed the many concerts and recitals given in Leipzig. He disliked the discipline of the conservatory course of study. He did, however, like the organ instruction, which was mandatory for piano students. In later life he noted that he left the conservatory “as stupid as when I entered it.”

In the spring of 1860, he survived a life-threatening lung disease, pleurisy, and tuberculosis. Throughout his life, Grieg’s health was impaired by a destroyed left lung and considerable deformity of his thoracic spine. He suffered from numerous respiratory infections, and ultimately developed combined lung and heart failure. Grieg was admitted many times to spas and sanatoria both in Norway and abroad.


On 11 June 1867, Grieg married his first cousin, Nina Hagerup, a lyric soprano. The next year, their only child, Alexandra, was born. Alexandra died in 1869 from meningitis. In the summer of 1868, Grieg wrote his piano concerto in A minor while on holiday in Denmark. Edmund Neupert gave the concerto its premiere performance on 3 April 1869 in the Casino Theater in Copenhagen. In 1868, Franz Liszt, who had not yet met Grieg, wrote a testimonial for him to the Norwegian Ministry of Education, which led to Grieg’s obtaining a travel grant. The two men met in Rome in 1870. On Grieg’s first visit, they went over Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 1, which pleased Liszt greatly. On his second visit, in April, Grieg brought with him the manuscript of his piano concerto, which Liszt proceeded to sight read (including the orchestral arrangement). Liszt’s rendition greatly impressed Grieg, although he gently pointed out to him that he played the first movement too quickly. Liszt also gave Grieg some advice on orchestration, (for example, to give the melody of the second theme in the first movement to a solo trumpet).

Grieg had close ties with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Harmonien), and later became Music Director of the orchestra from 1880 to 1882. In 1888, Grieg met Tchaikovsky in Leipzig. Grieg was struck by the sadness in Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky thought very highly of Grieg’s music, praising its beauty, originality and warmth.


Grieg was awarded two honorary doctorates, first by Cambridge University in 1894 and the next from Oxford University in 1906. Straight after the ceremony at Cambridge he rushed to the post office and sent a telegram to a friend, a physician in Bergen who shared his surname. He signed his telegram ‘Doctor Grieg’.

In the spring 1903, Grieg made nine 78-rpm gramophone recordings of his piano music in Paris; all of these historic discs have been reissued on both LPs and CDs, despite limited fidelity. Grieg also made live-recording player piano music rolls for the Hupfeld Phonola piano-player system and Welte-Mignon reproducing system, all of which survive today and can be heard. He also worked with the Aeolian Company for its ‘Autograph Metrostyle’ piano roll series wherein he indicated the tempo mapping for many of his pieces. Here Grieg plays his ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.’


In 1906, he met the Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger in London. Grainger was a great admirer of Grieg’s music and a strong empathy was quickly established. In a 1907 interview, Grieg stated: “I have written Norwegian Peasant Dances that no one in my country can play, and here comes this Australian who plays them as they ought to be played! He is a genius that we Scandinavians cannot do other than love.”


Grieg died in the late summer of 1907, aged 64, after a long period of illness. His final words were “Well, if it must be so.” The funeral drew between 30,000 and 40,000 people out on the streets of his home town to honor him. Following his wish, his own Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak was played in an orchestration by his friend Johan Halvorsen, who had married Grieg’s niece. In addition, the Funeral March movement from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 was played. Grieg was cremated, and his ashes were entombed in a mountain crypt near his house, Troldhaugen. The ashes of his wife were later placed with his.

Some of Grieg’s early works include a symphony (which he later tried to suppress) and a piano sonata. He also wrote three violin sonatas and a cello sonata. Famously he composed the incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt – which includes the well known “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Later he incorporated this music into two suites which is how most concertgoers know them now. To a degree “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” have suffered from having been played too much as background music for cartoons, advertisements, and the like. Over the course of the 20th century Grieg’s music faded from the minds of musicians and the public, and his popularity among the general public was often used against him. Grieg’s most popular works were heard daily at spas, in cafes, and as the accompaniment to silent films. In some circles he was regarded as nothing more than a composer of entertaining music. This seems to me to be a great shame. Grieg’s music is used and re-used constantly because it is good music, and people like it. His melodies are a delight, and his harmonies are surprisingly original. Maybe it is because these pieces have been played so much that in some minds their originality is lost. But these are the snobbish, petty and ignorant minds of those who deride the popular as cheap and trivial, because they assume that if it is popular it must be shallow. I despise this attitude.

In an 1874 letter to his friend Frants Beyer, Grieg expressed his unhappiness with “Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter,” one of the movements he composed for Peer Gynt, writing “I have also written something for the scene in the hall of the mountain King – something that I literally can’t bear listening to because it absolutely reeks of cow-pies, exaggerated Norwegian nationalism, and trollish self-satisfaction! But I have a hunch that the irony will be discernible.”

Peer Gynt, Op. 23 is the original incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play, written by Grieg in 1875. It premiered along with the play on 24 February 1876 in Christiania (now Oslo). Later, in 1888 and 1891, Grieg extracted eight movements to make two four-movement suites: Suite No. 1, Op. 46, and Suite No. 2, Op. 55.

When Ibsen asked Grieg to write music for the play in 1874, the latter enthusiastically agreed. However, it was much more difficult for Grieg than he imagined. “Peer Gynt progresses slowly,” he wrote to a friend in August 1874, “and there is no possibility of having it finished by autumn. It is a terribly unmanageable subject.”

“The more he saturated his mind with the powerful poem, the more clearly he saw that he was the right man for a work of such witchery and so permeated with the Norwegian spirit,” his wife wrote of him and his music. Even though the premiere was a “triumphant success”, it prompted Grieg to complain bitterly that the Swedish management of the theater had given him specifications as to the duration of each number and its order: “I was thus compelled to do patchwork … In no case had I opportunity to write as I wanted … Hence the brevity of the pieces,” he said.

For many years, the suites were the only parts of the music that were available, as the original score was not published until 1908, one year after Grieg’s death, by Johan Halvorsen. Various recordings have been made of this music. Some recordings that claim to contain the complete incidental music have 33 selections; the recording conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud is split into 49 items. Both recordings include several verses from the drama, read by actors. The original score contains 26 movements.

Quite often Grieg played only his own compositions in concert. However, for in Oslo he decided to end with a composition by Beethoven. As was usual, the following day, the concert reviews were published in newspapers. It should be remembered that Grieg, as many talented people, had a number of critics whose main task in life was to tear him down. One of them who had an especially strong dislike for Grieg’s music, wrote a humiliating article about the concert. The piece which drew particular attention of the critic was the last one (the Beethoven); he disliked that the most. The critic said venomously that the composition was simply ridiculous and absolutely unacceptable. Having read the critical article, Grieg called the critic on the phone and said: “this is Beethoven’s spirit disturbing you.”

Grieg once wrote: “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights. I only wanted… to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.” It surprises me sometimes how humble greatness can be.


I thought it reasonable to add a recipe for Fårikål, a mutton and cabbage stew that is the unofficial national dish of Norway. Making it is about as simple as it gets. Take about 1 kg of lamb (bone in) and hack it a large-ish pieces. Shank, shoulder, and/or neck are ideal. Take 1 kg of green cabbage and cut it into wedges with most of the core attached so that the leaves stay together. In a heavy lidded casserole layer the meat and cabbage, starting with a layer of meat, then alternating until the ingredients are used up. As you make the layers sprinkle black peppercorns and some salt between them, and finishing with a layer of cabbage. Cover with water or light stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently over low heat for 2 to 3 hours. Check periodically to make sure the water does not boil away completely. You should have a thick, rich gravy at the bottom and the meat should be falling from the bones. Serve with boiled potatoes and Norwegian flat bread.

Separated at birth?  Both great minds !!