Grieg’s greatest hit celebrates its 150th birthday

Grieg Notes: Piano Concerto connections

Sylvia Eckes

Photo: Anthony Jara / 2:Ten Photography
Dr. Sylvia Eckes talks about the history of Grieg’s Piano Concerto at a reception for the launch of Grieg Suites chocolate in Chicago.

Sylvia Reynolds Eckes
Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the premiere of Grieg’s famous Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16. The concerto continues to be one of the most popular works among pianists and orchestras around the world. It has been enthusiastically received by American audiences for almost as long as it has existed. 

The original premiere occurred in 1869 at the Casino Concert Hall in Copenhagen with Norwegian pianist, Edmund Neupert, as soloist. The performance was an overwhelming success. The audience included Denmark’s Queen Louise and many illustrious musicians, who quickly spread the word about the young Norwegian composer’s new work. 

A year later, Franz Liszt gave high praise to Grieg and his piano concerto when Grieg went to visit him in Rome. By 1872, it was published and soon was in the hands of many fine pianists. And by 1874, one of those pianists would premiere it in London, and two others would introduce it in America. 

In February 1874, the concerto premiered at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Professor Bernhard Courländer, head of the piano department at Peabody, was the soloist. Originally from Copenhagen, he had come to America several years before, following a brilliant concert career in Europe. He gave numerous performances of the concerto at Peabody, where he taught until his death in 1898. 

Although reviewed in the Baltimore Sun, the premiere at Peabody attracted little attention outside of Baltimore. It did not make the musical columns of the Chicago Tribune which was known at that time for publishing comprehensive information on music events in Europe and in America. But the Tribune did carry reviews from London papers about the London premiere a few months after the Baltimore performance. The Tribune wrote, “Of the work now particularly referred to, we shall doubtless have a future opportunity of speaking more in detail, as the marked impression which it made on Saturday should lead to its repetition at some of our metropolitan concerts.”

Within months after the Baltimore and London performances, Frederic Boscovitz, a brilliant Hungarian pianist, introduced the concerto in Boston on Oct. 28, 1874. The Boston Globe review noted that the piece, ”was especially noticeable for its vigorous treatment and the absence of the conventional to a large degree. The spirit and freedom characteristic of its opening movement was continued until the closing parts….” But the review mistakenly claimed, “The work . . . was given for the first time in America” in Boston. 

Grieg Piano Concerto

Image: Bergen Public Library
Grieg’s Piano Concerto manuscript.

Boscovitz had arrived in Boston from London in 1873, and was hired at the Boston Conservatory. When a pianist became ill, the well-respected orchestra conductor Theodore Thomas engaged Boscovitz. In retrospect, it is remarkable that Boscovitz chose to play this new Grieg concerto on such short notice. Later he would play the concerto with Thomas’ orchestra in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other locations. 

The Chicago Tribune soon summarized reviews of the concerto and Boscovitz’s performances. It noted: “The Grieg concerto was . . . novel in style and highly interesting as an early work by the most promising creative artist to be found among the members of the new Scandinavian school of music. Although bearing evidences of the influence of Schumann and Chopin, it is, in many important respects, highly original. The solo was played in a thoroughly artistic manner by Mr. F. Boscovitz, entirely from memory and received the applause of a highly distinguished and appreciative audience.”  

Between 1874 and 1880, several other pianists and the Theodore Thomas Orchestra performed the concerto in various cities throughout the country. In 1880, Boscovitz moved to Chicago where he was hired at two music schools. He premiered the concerto with a second piano playing the orchestra part. 

In 1882, Norwegian pianist Edmund Neupert, who had premiered the concerto first in Copenhagen, arrived in America to settle in New York. He was well-received and became known as a first-rate pianist and teacher.  Neupert performed the Grieg concerto in various cities, including the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.  Thus, three distinguished pianists of the era performed Grieg’s piano concerto at Peabody:  Courländer, Boscovitz, and Neupert. 

After the Boston performance of the concerto with Boscovitz, and with other pianists in other cities, the celebrated conductor, Theodore Thomas, continued an exhausting schedule of performances all over the country.   Although much in demand, whether as music director of the New York Philharmonic or his Theodore Thomas Orchestra, Thomas finally moved to Chicago, where he was promised a permanent orchestra.  He became the founder and conductor of what would be named the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.   

Edvard Grieg never made it to America during his lifetime, but he knew about the warm and gracious reception of the Americans for his concerto and other works.  No doubt, the concerto will remain a favorite for many years to come.

See also:

Sylvia Reynolds Eckes, DMA, is Professor Emerita of Piano, at Ohio University and President of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc. She has been appointed Officer, Knight First Class, of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for her promotion of Grieg in the United States.

This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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