Norwegian-American Women of Distinction: Nina Hagerup Grieg

Nina Hagerup Grieg (1845-1935)

Jill Beatty, Daughters of Norway

Photo: Courtesy of Bergen Public Library

Photo: Courtesy of Bergen Public Library

We are familiar with the great composer Edvard Grieg, but what of his wife Nina? Nina Hagerup Grieg (1845-1935) was a Danish-Norwegian born in Haukeland, near Bergen, Norway. At the age of eight she moved with her family to Denmark. Her father was Edvard Grieg’s uncle Herman Hagerup, and her mother was the celebrated Danish actress Adelina Werligh. As a young man, Edvard Grieg’s goal was to compose Norwegian music, but he knew that he had to go abroad to work in an environment that would offer him a better chance to be a composer. So he went to Copenhagen in 1863, the only Scandinavian city with a rich cultural life on an international level. In Copenhagen other composers became his friends and influenced him in his work. The time in Denmark was a happy one for Edvard Grieg and he became lifelong friends with several people. The most important was his first cousin Nina Hagerup. Nina and Edvard had grown up together in Bergen, until she moved with her family to Copenhagen. Nina was an excellent pianist herself, but first of all it was her beautiful voice that fascinated Grieg. Nina was a concert singer; she studied singing under Carl Helsted. Although her voice had lost much of its power because of an illness, she retained and enhanced her gift of vocal interpretation. Grieg was so charmed by his cousin that they were secretly engaged in 1864. Their engagement was not well received by the two families. Grieg’s father warned his son against the commitments of marriage and starting a family. He said he would not be able to support a wife and a family when his income came from conducting, piano-playing and composing. Nina’s mother’s criticism was much harsher. She said: “He has nothing, he cannot do anything, and he makes music nobody cares to listen to.” Despite their parents’ objections, in the spring of 1865 they announced their engagement. Grieg gave Nina an engagement present in the form of four songs with texts by their good friend, Hans Christian Andersen (Melodies of the Heart, Op. 5), including his most famous song, “Jeg elsker Dig” (I love you), a declaration of his passion for Nina. In spite of the true love between Edvard and Nina, neither of their parents was present at the couple’s wedding on June 11th, 1867.

Photo:Courtesy of Bergen Public Library

Photo:Courtesy of Bergen Public Library

After being married they settled in Christiania (later called Oslo), Norway. They had both hoped for and expected a family full of children. In 1869, their only child, a daughter, Alexandra, died at the age of one from meningitis. Around this same time Nina suffered a miscarriage. After the funeral of Alexandra, Grieg wrote; “It is hard to watch the hope of one’s life lowered into the earth, and it took time and quiet to recover from the pain, but thank God, if one has something to live for one does not easily fall apart; and art surely has—more than many other things—this soothing power that allays all sorrow!” Music did provide the vehicle to deal with his despair. His parents both died in 1875, and this, coupled with the realization that he and Nina would never be able to have children, set in motion a period of intense grief. He poured this sadness into his most ambitious piano piece, Ballade in the form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song in G minor, Op. 24. He said that it was written “with my life’s blood in days of sorrow and despair.” Finding such relief was not as easy for Nina. Although she gave occasional concerts, her life revolved around the life of her husband. She tried to live the life of a traditional housewife, but that was not fulfilling, nor was she suited to it. Grieg later admitted that he did not realize how much he had restricted his wife’s opportunities to have an international singing career. “I did not understand at the time how important her interpretations really were. For me it was only natural that she should sing so beautifully, so tellingly—from a full heart and from the innermost depths of the soul.” During the years 1875-1883 the Griegs’ marriage underwent a series of crises. Depression, illness, and even adultery made it difficult to live together. Both Edvard and Nina were strong-willed individuals and often quarreled. Living in the mountainous Hardanger country of Western Norway, 1877-79, Nina often felt cut off from the life she had enjoyed in Copenhagen and Oslo.

Photo: Courtesy of Bergen Public Library

Photo: Courtesy of Bergen Public Library

In 1883 Edvard abandoned Nina for several months, leaving her in Norway with their friends while he toured in Germany. He felt constrained by all the circumstances of his life, including his marriage. After a time, they did reconcile and Nina joined Edvard in Germany in early 1884. They performed together in a concert in Rome. Grieg began to accept that the difference between what he hoped to achieve as a composer and what he actually produced. Nina had to resign herself to her childless state. She wrote a friend at end of the crisis: “I have been through so immensely much recently, both loneliness and a lot of other evil things; but thank God I believe all the same that there is still much that is beautiful to live for, even if there is no one to carry on after one is gone.” During these years of personal crisis Grieg composed some of his most beautiful music. In 1878 he completed his String Quartet, Op. 27. He composed one of his greatest songs, Våren (Spring) in 1880 and soon after arranged it for string orchestra as The Last Spring. Nina’s rendition of Våren later reduced Tchaikovsky to tears. The Griegs moved in 1885 to their newly-built house, called Troldhaugen, near Bergen. The Griegs regularly went to Germany and elsewhere to the south of Norway for the winter. Nina preferred life on the road—giving concerts, away from housework, and living in hotels. Edvard was her accompanist, even after he gave up soloing in public. Nina also appeared in concert playing the piano with her husband, and she would give lessons to other singers. Edvard said, “It is unbelievable what power she has to mesmerize her pupils.” When she sang in concert Nina dressed simply and was not a prima donna. “She penetrates right into one’s heart and soul,” wrote a reviewer. A contemporary singer wrote, “She created her own style, an animated dramatic recitative. She struck not only at the center of a poem’s feeling, but somehow plumbed the depths of individual words so they received a deeper, more distinctive color than one could get from mere reading.” Among the last songs Edvard wrote for Nina was the song-cycle, Haugtussa, Op. 67, composed in 1898. His last major work for orchestra, Symphonic Dances, Op. 64, was written in1898. Grieg died in 1907. His ashes were placed in a cliff-side grotto overlooking the fjord at Troldhaugen. Nina lived in Denmark for nearly thirty years after Edvard died. Her health was not good and she suffered from several illnesses. She died at the age of 90 in 1935. Thorvald Kierkegaard, the Danish Unitarian minister, conducted her funeral ceremonies in Copenhagen. She had made Troldhaugen into a museum, where her ashes are now united with her husband’s. A concert hall, which welcomes many visitors each year, was built nearby to house the annual festivals of Grieg’s music. The Daughters of Norway Nina Grieg Lodge #40 was founded on September 14, 1997, Poulsbo, WA. The Lodge meets the second Saturday at 10:00 am (meeting months may vary) in the Viking Room, Sons of Norway Building, 18891 Front Street, Poulsbo, WA www.daughtersofnorway.com Sources: Dan Fog, Kirsti Grinde, and Øyvind Norheim: Thematic-Bibliographic Chronology (2008) Finn Benestad and William H. Halverson: Edvard Grieg: Diaries, Articles, Speeches (Jan 2001) Sybil Deucher: Edvard Grieg: Boy Of The Northland (1946)

Norwegian-American Women of Distinction is a new monthly column brought to you by Daughters of Norway.

This article originally appeared in the Jan.17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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