A Grieg-inspired Christmas
The Northwest Edvard Grieg Society celebrates with “Jul: A Christmas Journey”
Northwest Edvard Grieg Society
So many of our beloved Christmas traditions that have been passed down through the generations are strongly tied to our Norwegian roots, originally brought over by ancestors who immigrated to the United States over the last century and a half. Along with cookies, breads, decorations, and meals are musical traditions, often associated with carols, hymns, and church services, but also encompassing the coldness, snow, and the contrast of darkness with a myriad of lights of the season.
In honor of that musical tradition, the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society (NWEGS) has produced a special holiday virtual concert, “Jul: A Christmas Journey,” which celebrates the musical traditions brought over from Norway and passed down to us through generations. We dedicated it to those forebears who made the long journey and, subsequently, have brought us together through those traditions.
The production was filmed in Seattle’s beautiful historic Ballard First Lutheran Church, built by Norwegian immigrants in 1928. Continuing a lifelong passion of sharing Nordic song repertoire with audiences, I, a soprano, sang the rarely heard songs, nearly all in Norwegian. Collaborating with me and performing solo works on the piano was Steven Luksan, equally versed in obscure Nordic repertoire. To round out the trio, NWEGS favorite Aleida Gehrels joined us on her viola, and Lori Ann Reinhall narrated the event.
The concert opens with seasonal songs from Norway, including a couple of Grieg’s charming songs, “Sang til juletræet” (Song to the Christmas Tree) and “Ave, maris stella” (Hail, Star of the Sea) as well as several songs by Grieg’s contemporary composers, Sigurd Lie, Eyvind Alnæs, and Christian Sinding. They explore the magical properties of snow, the message of the coming of Christ, and include a lullaby of joy and hope amid the darkest time of the year.
Traditions, musical and otherwise, are not free from influence. We delve into Grieg’s musical connections through “Børnenes Jul” (The Children’s Christmas), a multi-movement piano work by one of Grieg’s early teachers, Danish composer Niels Gade, which includes a hymn setting of a Christmas carol, “Barn Jesus in en Krybbe laa” (Baby Jesus Lay in the Manger), sung in Danish. Similarly, Grieg influenced others who followed him, in particular, British composer Frederick Delius, whose “Lullaby for a Modern Baby” performed with piano and the rich tones of the viola evokes what Jesus might have heard, had he been born nearly two millennia later.
As our ancestors left Norway, carrying Christmas traditions and music with them, they brought their influences to the United States. During his life, and still today, Grieg’s music was well known and frequently performed, whether it is orchestral music from “Peer Gynt” or his “Piano Concerto in A Minor” or his lyric pieces for piano. It would have been impossible for any musician to escape his influence.
We also present several American composers who explore northern roots. Published in 1907, the year of Grieg’s death, “Arctic Night” for piano by Amy Beach, one of the most prominent women American composers of her era, explores traditional winter songs of the Inuit people of the northernmost regions of the American continent. Their winters likely paralleled those our ancestors experienced in Norway.
Theodora Cormontan, a Norwegian-American immigrant, contemporary of Grieg, and a prolific composer, performer, music publisher, and music teacher, composed music in the traditions of the Lutheran church that surrounded her. Unfortunately, most of her compositions were entirely unknown for decades until the unpublished manuscripts were donated to Michael and Bonnie Jorgensen, professors of music at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. We have included her duet with a deeply religious text entitled, “Dyb sne” (Deep Snow), originally scored for soprano and alto, but in our program, the viola takes the part of the alto.
As we know, Cormontan was not the only prolific composer and musician to make the journey to our shores bringing along Norwegian musical traditions. One of those traditions, which is still shared and cherished today, is the Norwegian Lutheran choral tradition, with its epicenter at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., my alma mater. F. Melius Christiansen founded the St. Olaf Choir in 1901, and his influence continues through that organization and the many other stellar ensembles, large and small, still performing today at St. Olaf. He was also an avid composer of choral music, and as any alum knows, arranged elaborate versions of beloved Lutheran hymns. We close the program with one of his sweet Christmas works, “Lullaby of Christmas Eve.” Though usually performed by a chorus with a soloist, we were lucky to have our very own composer-in-residence, Steven Luksan, arrange it for our trio of piano, soprano, and viola.
Norwegian musical traditions, historical and evolved, continue on in this program, allowing us to feel connected to our ancestors, the Old World, as well as with each other, as we make new traditions, never fully escaping the influence of those who brought us here long ago.
The concert can be viewed at www.nwegriegsociety.org/jul beginning on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 2 p.m., or anytime thereafter.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.