Discovering Edvard Grieg

Grieg's music was performed by these three performers

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
The award-winning baritone Alan Dunbar (right) has been a performing partner in the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society’s “Complete Songs of Edvard Grieg” project, with pianist Knut Erik Jensen (left) and soprano Laura Loge (center).

Winona State University

I am not an Edvard Grieg specialist or scholar, nor am I of Norwegian heritage; my first connection to Norway was through my undergraduate education at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and even through my undergraduate years, I did not develop any specific interest in Grieg or Norwegian music. But in the past decade, I have become a strong advocate for Grieg’s songs, both as a professional singer and as a teacher. 

An Evolving Appreciation

As a young musician studying the violin, I was mostly familiar with Grieg’s orchestral works, including the well-known “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from his Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, the orchestral version of the Holberg Suite, and the Two Elegaic Melodies for string orchestra. I enjoyed playing those pieces but like many people felt that Grieg’s music was peripheral, not as significant as the great German, French, or Italian composers. Even as a student at St. Olaf, I saw people’s interest in Grieg as fueled by a romantic nostalgia for 19th-century Norway. 

It wasn’t until I was pursuing a doctorate in vocal performance at Indiana University that I began to explore the rich repertoire of Grieg’s vocal music, which led me to a greater understanding of the connection between Grieg’s skill as a composer and the Norwegian landscape, language, and people that influenced his music. While a student at Indiana University I worked with noted musicologist Peter Burkholder, studying Nordic art music, and voice professor Mary Ann Hart, who introduced me to Grieg’s songs through classes and her own performances. 

These research experiences were important, but the real tipping point for me was my participation in the 2009 Edvard Grieg Festival and Competition in Winter Park, Fla., where I won the competition’s grand prize. Through that experience I connected with many wonderful Grieg performers and scholars, including Njål Sparbo, Sylvia Eckes, William Halverson, Monica Jangaard, Beryl Foster, Laura Loge, and many others, who helped introduce me to the wide world of Grieg’s music. I was also invited to perform in Oslo and at Grieg’s villa, Troldhaugen, in Bergen.

A transformative visit to Norway

The performing experiences I had in Norway were transformative for me. I was able to see places that were important to Grieg as I explored Oslo and wandered the hills outside of Bergen. More importantly, I was able to collaborate with Norwegian musicians who have devoted their careers to the music of Grieg, granting me insight into the intricacies of his style. Since then, I have continued to perform Grieg’s vocal music in recitals across the United States, culminating recently in a project presented by the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society with soprano Laura Loge and Norwegian pianist Knut Erik Jensen to perform the complete songs of Grieg. Over the course of three years, we performed nearly all of Grieg’s 170+ songs; unfortunately, we were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and had to cancel the final recital. I had performed many of Grieg’s songs before undertaking the project with Laura and Knut Erik, but through the process of studying and performing so many new (to me) songs by Grieg, I developed an even deeper appreciation for his gifts as a vocal composer. 

Many talented Norwegian composers preceded or were contemporaries of Grieg – Halfdan Kjerulf, Christian Sinding, Rikard Nordraak, to name a few—but Grieg was uniquely placed in developing Norwegian art music to combine his conservatory training in Leipzig, Germany, with the rising interest in Norwegian folk traditions, folk music, and national identity. Grieg composed music in a range of genres and is perhaps best known for his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, but he excelled in small-scale works for solo piano and for voice and piano. These genres allowed him to explore the musical language of his home place (which encompasses a range of styles) and develop a broader harmonic language beyond his Germanic training to express his unique voice in each piece. These “miniature” pieces have an expressiveness and expansiveness that defies their length and instrumentation. 

The centrality of songs in Grieg’s works

Grieg wrote songs from his earliest composing years (his first song was written in 1859 at the age of 16) through the end of his life (the last was written in 1905, two years before his death). He set texts in Norwegian (both bokmål and landsmål/nynorsk), Danish, German, and English. His early songs were predominantly strophic, meaning multiple verses of text set to the same music. As his style evolved Grieg explored other musical forms, resulting in dramatic songs like “Den Bergtekne” (“The Mountain Thrall” Op. 32) and the ethereal “Forårsregn” (“Spring Rain” Op. 49, Nr. 6). But even in his strophic songs, where the repetition of music for each verse might make nuanced and detailed text setting more difficult, Grieg was able to express the character of the text in a way that simultaneously encompasses and transcends the specific words to capture in his music the essence of the entire poem, as in “Våren” (“Spring” Op. 33, Nr. 2).

In addition to his skill at expressing the text through music, Grieg was also attuned to the needs of singers when writing the vocal parts for his songs. This is due in no small part to his marriage to lyric soprano Nina Hagerup, for whom many of his songs were written. His melodies are lyrical and singable, meaning they sit well in the voice; the high notes are set up well as to make them dramatic without feeling impossible; and the ranges are always manageable—sometimes large and expansive, as in “Efteraarsstormen” (“Autumn Storms” Op. 18, Nr. 4), sometimes small and compact as seen in “Jeg elsker dig” (“I Love You” Op. 5, Nr. 3), but always suited to the character of the poetry.

My exploration of Grieg’s songs has greatly deepened my interest in his music. The songs are beautiful, singable, and communicative works that can fit in many types of performances. An additional unintended benefit to all of my Grieg work has been an increasing awareness of other Norwegian composers whose works are also wonderfully expressive: 19th-century composers like Agatha Backer-Grøndahl, as well as many 20th and 21st-century composers, such as Johan Kvandal, Harald Sæverud, Klaus Egge, Arne Nordheim, Marcus Paus, and Ørjan Matre.

While performances of songs by Edvard Grieg and other Nordic composers have increased in recent years thanks to new editions of scores and pronunciation guides from scholar/performers such as Anna Hersey, Mimmi Fulmer, and Kathleen Roland-Silverstein, many singers and voice teachers still hesitate to tackle songs in Scandinavian languages due to a perceived difficulty in pronunciation. These new resources are a critical tool in making the songs of Grieg and other Nordic composers more accessible for performers, who in turn can share this rich music with concertgoers. Raising awareness of Grieg’s music (and that of other Norwegian composers) is a goal I will continue to strive for as I share these songs with audiences.

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Alan Dunbar

Award-winning baritone Alan Dunbar holds a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and advanced degrees in vocal performance from Indiana University in Bloomington. Dunbar was a founding member of the Minnesota-based internationally acclaimed male chamber vocal ensemble Cantus. They made numerous recordings and sang throughout North America and Europe from 1998-2004. Dunbar continues to perform as a soloist and teaches voice at Winona State University in Winona, Minn.