Edvard Grieg, Chopin of the North

Jeffrey Siegel explores the parallels between the composers in a concert in Washington, D.C.

Photo: public domain Portrait of Edvard Grieg in 1891 by Norwegian artist Eilif Peterssen.

Photo: public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Edvard Grieg in 1891 by Norwegian artist Eilif Peterssen.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Jeffrey Siegel has been delighting audiences across the United States and in London for 40 years with his concert-with-commentary performances. He appeared on October 25 at George Mason University’s Center for the Performing Arts with “Chopin and Grieg: A Musical Friendship.”

He began by telling his audience that Chopin had died in Paris in 1849 when Grieg was only six years old. “We can be quite sure,” he remarked, “that they did not know each other well!”

Although they were not friends, they did have much in common. They were both enormously popular during their lifetimes. They did not have to wait until they died to become famous. They both composed beautiful melodies that touched people’s hearts. Both were proudly nationalistic and elevated the traditional music of their respective countries to a high level. Critics started comparing Grieg’s music to that of Chopin and dubbed him “the Chopin of the North.”

Siegel devoted the first half of his program to works by Grieg, six lyric pieces and the Ballade in G Minor. The second half he devoted to works by Chopin.

Photo: public domain, from Wikimedia Commons Frédéric Chopin as portrayed by Eugène Delacroix in 1838. This portrait was originally part of a larger painting also showing Georges Sand.

Photo: public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
Frédéric Chopin as portrayed by Eugène Delacroix in 1838. This portrait was originally part of a larger painting also showing Georges Sand.

Because Grieg composed over 200 works, the majority of them short pieces, Siegel called him a “miniaturist.”

Siegel opened with three of Grieg’s popular Norwegian Dances. The first was “Spring Dance, Op. 38, No. 5” (found in Lyric Pieces, Book II). The second was “Halling, Op. 47, No. 4,” which he referred to as “a zesty peasant dance” (Lyric Pieces, Book IV). The final dance was “Hailing from the Hills: Tune from the Fairy Hill, Op. 72, No. 4.” The 17 pieces in Opus 72 are Hardanger fiddle tunes that Grieg arranged for the piano.

Siegel then charmed the audience with three lovely pieces. The first was “Evening in the Mountains, Op. 68, No. 4” (Lyric Pieces, Book IX). He alerted the audience to listen for sounds that seem to echo repeatedly as they do in a mountain range. The second was “Nocturne, Op. 54, No. 4” (Lyric Pieces, Book V). Siegel emphasized that the music of this nocturne did not refer to dark night but instead to sunset.

Siegel was particularly enthusiastic talking about “The March of the Dwarfs, Op. 54, No. 3” (Lyric Pieces, Book V). At the outset we hear the trolls in action. Then the sun comes up. We hear one high soprano note, signifying the rising sun followed by sunshine music. The trolls return again, followed again by the sun. The piece ends on the high soprano note.

Ballade in G Minor, Op. 24 was the centerpiece of Siegel’s program. It is important to understand the background of the piece.

Siegel explained that 1872 was a horrible year for Grieg. He lost both of his parents and his wife was presumably having an extramarital affair. In this time of mourning and despair, he wrote his somber Ballade, based on an old Norwegian folk tune. In the 14 variations of the work, Grieg goes through a range of emotions. He begins with agitatissimo (agitated) and then moves to adagio (slow and peaceful) and then capriccioso (light and lively). Then we hear triumphal victory music, which is suddenly transformed into furious music that reflects controlled rage. Then all hell breaks loose and the music reveals unbridled rage. Rage subsides and the work ends with Grieg’s resignation to despair.

Grieg often performed his works in public, but he never played this Ballade. He could not bring himself to do it because it was too emotional for him. Siegel’s playing was also emotional and he admitted that this piece was exhausting for him as well. He needed the intermission.

The second part of the program was dedicated to Chopin, one of Grieg’s major inspirations.

Siegel began with two mazurkas, “Op. 56, No. 3, in C Minor” and “Op. 24, No. 2, in C Major.” The mazurka is a Polish folk dance and, therefore, an appropriate parallel to Grieg’s Norwegian folk dances.

The next piece was Chopin’s “Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1,” which listeners could contrast with Grieg’s nocturne.

Siegel ended both halves of the program with tremendous exuberance. The final piece of the evening was Chopin’s “Grande Polonaise Brilliante in E-Flat Major, Op. 22.”

The juxtaposition of these composers was felicitous. Although the two men were never to meet and become friends, their musical pieces fit well together. Both men loved their countries and composed music that would remind listeners of their roots. Grieg brings to mind his beloved Norway just as Chopin evokes his adored Poland. Despite their nationalism, however, the music of both composers has wide universal appeal.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and philosophy of education, and a doctorate in international education.

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