Edvard Grieg and the supernatural

Grieg Notes

Grieg - Peer Gynt

Image: Theodor Kittelsen / Wikimedia Commons
“Peer Gynt i Dovregubbens hall” as imagined by Theodor Kittelsen in 1913.

Grieg Society of Great Britain

By his own admission, Edvard Grieg was greatly influenced by Norwegian sagas, rural traditions, and nature right from his youth. Even after the gods and goddesses of the Viking era gave way to Christianity with the coming of King, later Saint, Olaf II Haraldsson, folklore and its superstitions survived, forming a duality in cultural history. Grieg also took an early interest in folk music and over his lifetime made many piano arrangements of folksongs and dances, culminating in the 19 “Norske Folkeviser” (“Norwegian Folksongs”), Op. 66, and the 17 “Slåtter” (“Peasant Dances”), Op. 72. 

Not unsurprisingly, many tales of the supernatural emanate from the two principal features of the Norwegian landscape: mountains and water. Tales tell of people lured into the mountains, being bewitched, and not returning for many years—if ever. In the mountains were the giants and the large, ugly, lumbering creatures, the trolls, the best known depiction of which must be “I Dovregubbens hall” (“In the Hall of the Mountain King”), from Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music ever written. 

In 1877, in a collection of folk ballads, Grieg found a fragment of a story telling of a young man lured from his path by a jotul “mountain giant,” and then cannot find his way home. “Den Bergtekne” “The Mountain Thrall,” a mini-cantata for solo baritone, two horns and strings, captures the young man’s progress from bewilderment to hysteria, the atmosphere of foreboding underlined not least by the association, albeit subliminally, of horns with hunting—or being hunted. 

Some have heard strange music while in the mountains. One man, Brynjuw Olson, searched for several days for a lost bull until, exhausted, he fell asleep and dreamed he heard a strange song. He saw a beautiful girl who urged him to play the melody on his fiddle and, on returning home, he would find his bull. This “magic music” is “Haugelåt” (“Mountain Melody”), the fourth of the “Slåtter” arranged by Grieg from the folk tunes of the Hardanger fiddle player Knut Dahle. Grieg wrote of the “untold depths” and “unsuspected harmonic possibilities” he found in Norwegian folk music and although in his arrangements he almost always retains the original melodies unchanged, he does employ angular chords and chromatic harmony to bring out their unique qualities.

Two water creatures are to be found in Grieg’s music: the nøkk “water sprite” and the fossegrim “spirit of the waterfall.” Grieg’s setting of Ibsen’s “Med en vandlilje” (“With a Waterlily”), with its fast-moving accompaniment appears quite lighthearted and the music is marked “Hurtig og med skælmeri” “Fast and with roguishness.” The listener, however, is warned against dreaming beside the water, for underneath the lilies floating on the surface is the nøkk, only pretending to be asleep, but who was known to drag unwitting humans into the depths. 

The folksong “I Ola-Dalom, i Ola-Kjinn” (“In Ola Valley, in Ola Lake”), which Grieg arranged in Op. 66, tells of a woman whose son has disappeared into the mountain lake.  In spite of ringing the church bells—a well-known talisman against evil—the boy is never seen again. Grieg allows the beautiful melody to speak for itself, but chromatic harmony emphasizes the anguish of the mother’s loss, and the tolling bells are depicted throughout in various registers of the keyboard.

The fossegrim is often depicted playing his fiddle under a waterfall and is reputed to be able to teach musicians great powers of expression at the cost of their peace of mind. The statue in Bergen of the famous violinist Ole Bull, whose incredible playing may well have been considered “supernatural,” depicts him being taught by such a being. In another Ibsen setting, “Spillemænd” (“Minstrels”), a young man conjures the fossegrim from the water, so that he can learn to play well enough to impress the woman he loves. However, by the time he has done so, she has married his brother. The poem obviously appealed to Grieg, who at the time was facing his own difficulties balancing career and marriage.

Strangely, where he might have made something of the supernatural elements, Grieg all but ignores them. Veslemøy, the heroine of Arne Garborg’s verse-novel “Haugtussa,” has second sight, hence her rather disparaging nickname: “the girl of the hill folk.” Grieg loved the book and considered 20 of its 71 verses for setting, although the final cycle comprised just eight songs for mezzo-soprano and piano, which concentrate on Veslemøy and her love for Jon, a boy from a neighbouring farm. Grieg touches on the supernatural only in the second song, portraying Veslemøy herself with a beautifully unsophisticated melody, and using the harmony to emphasize characteristics such as her eyes “deep and gray,” which seem to see “deep into another world.” At the end of the cycle, Veslemøy turns to the mountain stream for consolation. Here there is no nøkk or fossegrim, but this is perhaps Grieg’s most beautiful depiction of water. 

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

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