Edvard Grieg and independence

Freedom as the foundation of a nation


Photo: Grieg Collection / Bergen Public Library
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) with friends on a hiking trip in the Norwegian mountains in 1902.


There was always great excitement at the Peters publishing firm in Leipzig when a new collection of Lyric Pieces composed by Grieg was received. His music was extremely popular in concert halls the world over while managing to speak directly to millions of musical amateurs as well (p. ix in Edvard Grieg: The Man and the Artist by Finn Benestad and Dag Schjelderup-Ebbe).

Today, Edvard Grieg is remembered as the great composer of the Piano Concerto in A minor, music to the drama Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, piano music, and songs. During his life, he also was famous as a performer, both as a pianist and as a conductor. And he was a genuine artist and humanist.

The Leipzig publisher demonstrated its excitement upon receiving a new Grieg composition by hoisting the flag as an expression of both joy and veneration. The flag was a powerful symbol in the late 19th century. For 400 years, Danish kings had ruled Norway when, in 1814, an elected national assembly declared Norway to be a sovereign state. 

This assembly wrote a new constitution based on ideas and principles derived from the French Revolution and enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In the peace treaty following the Napoleonic Wars, Norway’s move toward independence was rejected and the country was compelled to submit to Swedish rule. Norway was permitted to govern itself domestically in accordance with the new constitution, however, and a Norwegian parliament was given limited authority. In 1905, Norway was made an independent nation in peaceful negotiations with the Swedes.

During the Swedish reign, Norwegians—like many other Europeans—increasingly strove for a unique concept of a nation, an understanding of a common history, culture, arts, and language, with emphasis on elements that distinguished Norway from Sweden—a difficult challenge. An important symbol like the flag of Norway with its red-white-blue colors stood apart from the Swedish blue-yellow flag, but both carried the Scandinavian cross. Laws made in Stockholm regulated the use of the Norwegian flag, and the Norwegian public, including Grieg, expressed their dismay toward these limitations in agitated articles and public speeches.

Frihet—freedom—was an important Norwegian word in those days. Grieg’s understanding and use of this term is multi-faceted and varied according to context. It may refer to freedom, free without restrictions, with independence, being at liberty to express oneself in thought, speech, and actions. It may allow exchanges of ideas and travel without restrictions. And frihet should be the foundation of a nation and should apply to the sphere of a group as well as an individual. 

Grieg’s initial understanding of the meaning of the term was forged in his hometown Bergen. During his studies in Germany and later travels in Europe, these ideas were expanded and strengthened by his mentors in political activism: the violinist Ole Bull and the poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. In their early collaborations, they focused on the notion of a national culture of Norway, to give the whole population a sense of belonging to a great nation. The term identity was not in use, but Bjørnson and Bull really created identity politics. But they—and Grieg—also had a broader view toward the wide world. Grieg chose to be part of the European ideas of Classicism and adopted the Romantic idea of authentic national art, but he also wanted to be a modern artist, a “man of tomorrow,” aiding the progress both socially and in politics. 

His music contained radical elements, including the use of elements from folk music, which at that time was considered a progressive choice. But all new elements were introduced so softly that the public was not offended. People loved his new harmonies and understood his expression. They heard his love and longing for Norwegian nature, his fertile soil for dreams and for the roots of his transformation of the landscape to a soundscape. Some Romantics would say the soul of the nation lies not only in its physical nature, but also in the hidden forces living in and from the landscapes. But Grieg was too much of a rationalist to indulge in such fantasies.

Grieg chose his titles carefully to give hints toward his intentions; in his songs, for example, the delicate poetry may in the new symbiosis depict the mountains and also the inner feelings in the presence of these powerful giants—just listen to “Ved Rondane,” Op. 33, No. 9, a poem by A.O. Vinje.

In pure instrumental music, Grieg leads his listeners gently into his experiences; the piano piece “Evening in the Mountains” (Op.  68, No. 4) is an example. This piece is more than a vision and a mood: it is also a small story about an encounter with a herd girl playing her horn at sunset. To underline the connection to mountain folklore, Grieg orchestrated this piece with an oboe expressing the horn calls.

Grieg’s friend Bjørnson frequently wrote poems and orations in favor of freedom and independence. In 1874, he wrote “Chorus for the Supporters of Freedom in Scandinavia” for the Danish radical Left party. The opening is often cited as an example of the propaganda and style of these years: “Despised by the great, but loved by the low,  / tell me, is this not the road the new must proceed?” He implored Grieg to set this poem to music, and Grieg complied with a composition for male chorus. This is one of the few obvious examples of Grieg’s politically motivated music. Bjørnson’s song was much used in Denmark and was also reprinted in Danish communities in the United States.

We also have some overtly political comments made by Grieg. The best-known of these is his open letter (1899) against the unfair trial of the French officer Alfred Dreyfus. For three years thereafter, Grieg refused to give concerts in France. He also wrote numerous letters to influential people he knew urging them to promote national independence. He, republican though he was, even sent telegrams to the British king and the German emperor begging them to intercede to prevent a war between Norway and Sweden in 1905.

When the independence negotiations were concluded and Norway got its liberty, Grieg wrote a long passage in his diary expressing his happiness at this result. He concludes: “The lifelong struggle has been the greatest good fortune both for the individual and for the nation. Freedom is: the struggle for freedom!” 

Grieg was a patriot; he describes himself as “nasjonalsindet.” This word is hard to translate; it means that your mind is bent toward having the nation as a point of reference—without being a chauvinist. But at the same time, he had a cosmopolitan outlook.  His views were broad; in his opinion, living in a peaceful and independent nation was a prerequisite for being a free, proud and critical citizen, person, and artist. He was a real humanist.

Arvid O. Vollsnes is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Oslo and professor at the Center for Grieg Research at the University of Bergen. He is internationally recognized as a top authority on the music of Edvard Grieg and has written widely on Norwegian music and musical life. He was principal editor of the five-volume Norges Musikkhistorie, the award-winning major history of Norwegian music published in 1999-2001. 

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 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.