A lifelong friendship
Edvard Grieg and Agathe Backer Grøndahl
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
Agathe Backer Grøndahl, often called “The Clara Schumann of Norway,” was born in 1847 into an affluent family in Holmestrand. She and her three sisters received training in both music and art, and at age 10 she moved with the rest of her family to Oslo (at the time Christiania) so that she could receive more advanced training in piano and composition.
It is unknown how the 20-year-old pianist Agathe Backer came to Edvard Grieg’s attention, but he chose her as soloist for a March 1868 concert in Oslo. It was her first performance in the capital, featuring Beethoven’s piano concerto in E-flat major, with Grieg, age 24, conducting.
Throughout her life, Backer Grøndahl’s correspondence with Grieg reveals a friendship based on mutual admiration and encouragement. Grieg dedicated his 1881 Vinje songs (Op. 33) to Backer Grøndahl, but she wrote that she did not feel her own works were worthy to reciprocate and to carry the name of a composer of such stature as Grieg: “You don’t know how delighted I am that you have honored me by dedicating these songs to me! And how wonderful they are! If only I could sing instead of play, that is what I have always wished; but I hum them and enjoy them in complete understanding, of that I am sure … I only wish to hear your wife sing them, she is the best interpreter, and no one’s singing touches me as hers does. Yes, a thousand thanks! If only I could do something that was even close to good enough to bear your name! I have never dared to so far.”
But in 1883, Backer Grøndahl dedicated her Drachmann settings Sange ved Havet [Songs by the Sea], Op. 17, to Grieg. In response, Grieg wrote to Backer Grøndahl, “It is indeed possible that I have told you how highly I regard your talent … In this moment I consider your gift greater than I did before.”
In 1870, Agathe had met choir conductor and voice teacher Olaus Andreas Grøndahl in Leipzig, and five years later, they were married. The couple had four children, three of whom lived to adulthood. Backer-Grøndahl continued to be active as a composer and a performer. Frequent correspondence with friends and relatives slowed somewhat after her student years, as she surely was occupied with both her career and family life. The final decade of the 19th century was extremely prolific for her, especially in the arena of song, although her physical and mental health were declining.
During the same period, Grieg toured Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. He was to be the main figure at the 1898 summer festival in Bergen. Early in 1898, Grieg had requested that Backer Grøndahl join him in Bergen to perform his piano concerto. After consulting her physician, she had agreed, but in February she expressed doubt about her ability to undertake it. A few days later, Grieg seemed to both reassure (suggesting a possible substitute pianist to replace her), and pressure her: “You don’t have to play, but you should just say to yourself, ‘I want to play because it is the best medicine for me.’” He goes on to write, “I believe in you! It is precisely the ability of the great talent, the true-born, genuine talent, to be able to shake off both mental and physical suffering in a way that is not possible for the small ones. So: it must work out and it will!”
Backer Grøndahl did perform, and a photograph taken during the festival shows the composer, described by Dahm as “alene blant menn” [alone among men], in her rightful place among the other prominent composers in attendance.
Backer Grøndahl’s physical health continued to decline, and she became completely deaf. Of all her works, her songs are perhaps the best known. It’s appropriate that her final work, written in 1907, was indeed a song, a setting of an English text called “One more glimpse of the sun.” It was premiered on the occasion of her funeral later that year (and notably, was programmed at the Proms in London the following year).
Grieg wrote in his diary: “Agathe dead at four this afternoon. Thus has ended a beautiful life. Beautiful in its noble pessimism, and in all its suffering. No artistic soul has wandered purer roads. There are few among the young Norway’s musical artists about whom this can be said. I loved this sincere, serious idealism. It had its strange charm. If a mimosa could sing, sound would stream forth from it as from Agathe’s most beautiful, most intimate melodies.”
Although Grieg rarely taught pupils, he had promised to take Backer Grøndahl’s youngest son Fridtjof, a budding composer, under his wing. However, Grieg outlived Agathe by only a few months, dying later in 1907.
Andersen, Rune J. “Edvard Grieg.” In Store Norske Leksikon, snl.no/Edvard_Grieg (accessed May 1, 2021).
Benestad, Finn, ed. Edvard Grieg: Letters to Colleagues and Friends. Translations by William H. Halverson. Columbus: Peer Gynt Press, 2000.
Dahm, Cecilie. Agathe Backer Grøndahl: komponisten og pianisten [Agathe Backer Grøndahl: composer and pianist]. Oslo: Solum Forlag, 1998.
Hackel, Erin Devik. “Agathe Backer Grøndahl: Her Life Through Letters.” Journal of Singing 60:5 (2004): 443–452.
This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.