Avian inspirations in the music of Edvard Grieg

A bird’s song


Photo: Pixabay
“En svane” (A Swan), engages with a mythological archetype. With its test by Henrik Ibsen, it is one of Grieg’s most beloved songs.

Gregory Martin
Edvard Grieg Society of America
Edvard Grieg Society of the Great Lakes

Perhaps the most common extramusical topic surrounding the work of Edvard Grieg is its relationship to nature. We see this from commercial marketing to scholarly writing, and I would venture to bet that not a single piano teacher introducing the music of Grieg to a student has failed to invoke nature, either in image or metaphor. This is not an artificial construct: the composer wrote that it was his life’s dream “to set the North’s nature in sound.” Such a topic is, of course, too big to roundly investigate here (indeed, entire studies have been devoted to it). We can, however, attempt to survey some of the ways Grieg engages with nature, and, by extension, how he portrays nature as an allegory for human psychology through a brief look at some of the various birds that appear in his music.

One of Grieg’s most famous compositions for solo piano is the “Notturno” from the Op. 54 volume of Lyric Pieces. There has been some speculation that the decision to use the Italian
 form of the title (rather than “Nocturne,” or even “Nachtmusik”) is an indication that this is a work charged with Grieg’s memories of his time in Italy, especially Rome. This is hardly the only Scandinavian artwork of the time to utilize the Italian version of the word, however, and taken alongside similar artistic endeavors by Sig­bjørn Obstfelder (Norway) and Ola Hansson (Sweden). For example, a kind of subgenre emerges in which the Italian variant indicates something broader than a simple longing for Italy, suggesting instead a more spiritual exploration of the exceptional and mystical. One of the marked motives in Grieg’s piece is the nightingale call that suddenly comes to the fore amid the placid and spacious atmosphere that has preceded it, one that I believe is not an evocation of Italy at all, but rather of the Norwegian landscape that Grieg was at such pains to paint (a position supported by the litany of techniques found in the piece that are standard fare in Grieg’s handling of Norwegian folk material). Given the rarity of the nightingale in Norway (certainly when compared with continental Europe), the birdcall in “Notturno” not only contributes to the spatial quality in Grieg’s work and its role in his representation of the natural world, but may be seen as a rather marked element of the exotic in a composition that is already ripe with the mysterious and even uncanny.

Perhaps no work by Grieg reaches the uncanny so immediately and with such economy of means as “Der skreg en Fugl” (A Bird Cried Out). The literature surrounding this extraordinary song is replete with the term “impressionistic.” This is not only for its power to evoke the vision of a bird crying piteously “over the desolate sea … in the autumn-gray day” or for any harmonic similarities to the music that was flooding with increasing regularity out of fin-de-siècle Paris. It is, rather, in the sense of attempting to hold on to a moment, and through that ultimately impossible task, to become more acutely aware of the ephemeral. Perhaps the most powerful indication of this frailty is in the birdcall that frames this two-page masterpiece, one based on a dictation that Grieg took of a “seagull’s cry heard in the Hardanger fjord.” Nowhere else does he attempt to reproduce the sounds of nature so literally, and its unfolding over an expansive held sonority blends the birdcall’s sense of decay and diminishment with a canvas of wide open sea space.

If “Der skreg en Fugl” uses a birdcall to express the loneliness of the human condition, “En svane” (A Swan) engages with a more mythological archetype. A swan does not actually have a call, but legend has it that at death its voice rises to song; iconologically, it stands as a symbol of complexity, aloofness, and an often dark sexuality. The text is by Henrik Ibsen, who at the time of the poem’s writing was in love with a young woman who did not seem to return his affections; he later found out she had been too shy to express herself. That sense of unrequited passion permeates the lyric, until, as Ibsen found,


… at the last encounter

when vows and eyes

were secret lies, –

yes then, then [your voice] sounded!


(The monogamous nature of swans also suggests that this bird which attracts and allures, flirting without accommodating further pursuit, may be a symbol of a married woman.) Grieg captures this ancient interplay between the sexes by setting Ibsen’s words, appropriately, to a dance – the slow, courtly Baroque saraband. The text unfolds with a noble pace, while simultaneously being underscored in numerous instances by a relentlessly descending chromatic bassline, a pull of fate and a musical emblem of lament since the Renaissance. The piano texture pairs a slow, stable motion in the treble with a contrapuntally driven (tension and release) movement beneath it, generating the song’s sense of ineluctable pull – a stratification in the accompaniment that perfectly mirrors a swan on the water, lithely floating above the surface but exerting unseen effort below. When he orchestrated this song in 1894, Grieg scored the melodic lines in the accompaniment with an oboe, most certainly an attempt to represent the voice of the swan at its paroxysm before the moment of death.

Whether through such abstract structural representations of birds or more immediately recognizable attempts to imitate birdcalls in his music—the Lyric Piece “Liten Fugl” (Little Bird) comes to mind—Grieg found in these varied and glorious creatures not only an inspiration by which he could further enhance his musical portrayals of nature but also a way to plumb the depths of human nature.

This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.