Edvard Grieg takes a stand

The Dreyfus Affair

Dreyfus Affair

Image: Wikimedia Commons / public domain
“The Traitor: The Degradation of Alfred Dreyfuss,” by Henri Meyer.

Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota

Throughout his life, Edvard Grieg held strong personal and political views that often transcended the realm of opinion to become defining worldviews and principles. Grieg did not hold back from sharing these views, even in situations where airing them might rankle or alienate his audiences. 

Once he was called upon to make an after-dinner toast in Copenhagen, Denmark. He couldn’t resist making a pointed comment about how he enjoyed the feast, so much that it almost made up for the 400 years of Norway’s subjugation by Denmark, which ended in 1814. That was just a dinner party. His hosts were gracious in the face of Grieg’s insult, and the incident had no real impact on his continued, mostly cordial, relations and professional engagements in Denmark.

In more sensitive situations, if Grieg felt strongly enough about something, he would not hold back, regardless of any potential immediate or lasting professional and personal consequences. This was the case in what is known as the Dreyfus Affair.

What was the Dreyfus Affair? In brief, French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was framed for and convicted of treason for allegedly selling French military secrets to the Germans in 1894. The French public originally supported the verdict against Dreyfus, who was Jewish, largely based on a smear campaign and biased reporting from anti-Semitic military officials, hate groups, and publications. Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. 

Zola - Dreyfus

Image: Wikimedia Commons / public domain
Émila Zola’s open letter appeared in the newspaper L’Aurore, Jan.3,1898.

In 1896, more credible evidence pointed to another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, as the traitor. Walsin-Esterhazy was, however, acquitted at his 1898 court-martial. Novelist Émile Zola saw this as a continued cover-up of the French Army’s corrupt prosecution of Dreyfus. He was so incensed at this verdict that he wrote and published the letter, “J’accuse” (I accuse), and was convicted of libel for his troubles. 

In August 1898, an important piece of evidence used to convict Dreyfus was proved to be a forgery. Despite this exculpatory evidence, a second court-martial again found Dreyfus guilty on Sept. 9, 1899, further polarizing the French nation. The president of the Third Republic, Émile Loubet, eventually pardoned Dreyfus and released him from Devil’s Island to end l’Affaire, but the French army did not declare Dreyfus’ innocence until 1995.

In response to what he perceived as the unjust anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus affair, on Sept. 12, 1899, Grieg wrote a letter three days after Dreyfus’ second guilty verdict, turning down a prestigious concert invitation from his friend, the French violinist, conductor, and concert promoter, Édouard Colonne:

Edvard Grieg

Photo: public domain
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907).

My dear Maestro,

I thank you for your kind invitation. However, much to my regret, I must inform you that, in view of the decision made in the Dreyfus affair, I cannot, on this occasion, in all conscience travel to Paris. Like any other individual who is not a member of the French nation, I am shocked by the disgusting manner in which your compatriots treat both the law and justice, and my disgust is so great that I have no desire to appear before a French audience.

Please forgive me for the way I have no recourse but to feel and please try to understand the emotions of my heart. Warm regards from my wife and myself.

Sincerely, Edvard Grieg

Grieg was alone among the major musicians of his era in adopting such an open and defiant stance in the struggle to reinstate a Jewish army officer. He received hate mail, death threats, and lost several friends and many engagements as a consequence. 

Four years later, Grieg made a controversial, tempestuous, but ultimately triumphant return to France. Even so, for the rest of his life, occasional reminders resurfaced from French colleagues that his outspokenness was not so appreciated. Grieg relates one such instance in his diary of 1907. After a triumphant concert conducting his music with the Berlin Philharmonic, Grieg was invited to breakfast the following day by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The next day the Kaiser was delayed and Grieg relates what transpired while he waited: 

In strode first Saint-Saëns, then Massenet, then Leroux. Then came the old rubbish: ‘je suis heureux de vous voire!’ [I am happy to see you]—and with that I had exhausted my vocabulary. These great men speak no language except their own, and that being the case, no further conversation was possible. Saint-Saëns was rather reserved (he still had not forgotten Dreyfus!). Massenet was more cordial and tried to carry on a conversation—among other things about our new king and Norway’s joy over the new situation. [The installation of King Haakon VII of newly independent Norway on the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905.]

Though Saint-Saëns had a reputation as a prickly personality, Grieg clearly attributed the French composer’s reticence to lingering antipathy toward Grieg’s critique of the French state’s handling of l’Affaire Dreyfus.


Photo: public domain
Alfred Dreyfus (1869–1935).

Grieg gained both international respect and notoriety for his willingness to take a stand for justice in the Dreyfus Affair, regardless of its possible consequences to his career. It was a defining moment for him politically. He had been deeply concerned with the Dreyfus situation even before the second conviction that led Grieg to cancel his Colonne concerts in France. Three months previously, on June 22, 1899, Grieg wrote these thoughts to French musicologist Jules Combarieux in response to questions about principles related to the Dreyfus Affair:

The problem, as the Dreyfus case raised in our days, is the eternal human problem: Who has the greatest right, the physical or the intellectual power? A person is not besmirched by a conviction when he is judged without recognizing the motivations the accusations are built upon. Concern for the State can never be more important than concern for a person’s innocence.

Grieg casually interacted with kings, queens, kaisers, and musical geniuses on the same scale of respect and enjoyment as he did with peasants, shopkeepers, shepherds, sailors, farmers, and fiddlers. He never lost the common touch. An inclusive humanism undergirded his worldview and convictions

Edvard Grieg, in his life and music, was ultimately concerned with speaking to, uplifting, and if need be protecting, the precious human spark he gratefully recognized within each individual.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Rolf Erdahl

Rolf Erdahl wears many musical hats, including as bassist, chamber musician, scholar, and educator. He and his wife, Carrie Vecchione, perform and present concerts and educational programs for all ages as the duo OboeBass! He teaches bass at Gustavus Adolphus College. Orchestral posts have included Winnipeg Symphony Principal Bass, Honolulu Symphony Assistant Principal Bass, bassist in the Bergen Philharmonic, and substitute work with the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO. Fulbright and Scandinavian-American Foundation Scholar studies in Bergen, Norway, culminated in his Peabody Conservatory doctoral culminated in his Peabody Conservatory doctoral dissertation on Edvard Grieg’s works for strings. Dr. Erdahl is a board member of the Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota.