Edvard Grieg writes a piano concerto

Happy Notes for Happy Kids

Image: public domain
“Nina and Edvard Grieg” by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1892.

Edvard Grieg’s visit to Rome lasted for only about four months. On April 19, 1866, he left for Copenhagen, Denmark, by way of Switzerland and Germany. In Germany, he visited the grave of Rikard Nordraak, his dear friend who had died just a few days earlier. How sad he must have felt as he stood alone beside that grave. But happier days would come soon.

Edvard moves to Oslo

After visiting friends in Copenhagen and his family in Bergen, Edvard decided to become a music teacher in Oslo. He and a friend established a music school, and Edvard earned money by giving piano lessons, teaching music classes, and directing an orchestra.

Then something happened that made him very happy: he got married to his dear Nina. She was a singer, and for many years to come they would give concerts together. The wedding took place in Copenhagen on June 11, 1867, and they made their first home together in Oslo. Just a year later—on April 10, 1868—they became parents of a baby girl they named Alexandra. It was a very happy time for both Edvard and Nina.

Edvard’s happiness found expression in one of the most important compositions he ever wrote: his Piano Concerto in A Minor. 

What is a concerto?

A concerto is a composition for one or more solo instruments and orchestra. A piano concerto, therefore, is a composition for piano and orchestra. Concertos, like many large works for orchestra, are divided into sections called “movements.” Most concertos contain three or four movements, each of which sounds like a piece that could be played all by itself. Each movement is given a name that tells the performer the tempo: how fast or slow that movement should be played. In most three-movement concertos the pattern is fast-slow-fast: the first and third movements have a fast tempo, the second movement a slow one.


To understand tempo, think about running or walking. When you run as fast as you can, that is a fast tempo. When you walk as slowly as you can, that is a slow tempo. But between walking very slowly and running very fast there are many other speeds at which you can move. Anytime you move, you move at some tempo.

Edvard’s piano concerto consists of three movements and follows the typical fast-slow-fast pattern. The first movement is called “Allegro moderato.” Allegro is an Italian word meaning “cheerful.” Think about it: is cheerful music slow or fast? Fast, of course. Moderato means “moderately” or “rather.” In calling this movement Allegro moderato Edvard is telling performers that the first movement of his piano concerto should be played rather fast.

“Well,” you say, “if Edvard wanted performers to play the first movement of his concerto rather fast, why didn’t he just say so? Why use Italian words?”

The reason is that he wanted performers all over the world to know how fast or slow they were supposed to play this movement of his concerto. These and other Italian words are the tempo names that all trained musicians understand. If he had used Norwegian words, very few people outside of Norway would have understood them. If he had used English words, even many trained musicians would not have understood them. He used Italian words because he wanted to be understood by as many performers as possible

The second movement of Edvard’s piano concerto is called “Adagio,” which means “leisurely” or “rather slow.” Slow movements of concertos are usually very peaceful. Unlike a fast movement, they don’t make you want to dance. They just make you want to sit and listen to them, to enjoy their beauty. If you are tired, they might even put you to sleep.

The third movement is called “Allegro moderato molto e marcato. “We already know that Allegro moderato means “rather fast,” right? The word molto means “very,” so it tells the performer that this movement is to be played even faster than the first movement. The word marcato means “stressed” or “emphasized.” It tells the performer to emphasize the main melody, so the listener can hear it clearly among all the other notes that are being played. The e between molto and marcato means “and.”

“Margaret’s Cradle Song”

Edvard was so busy giving piano lessons, teaching music classes, and directing an orchestra in Oslo that he had very little time for composing. Every once in awhile, however, he wrote a song. What is a song? It is words—usually a poem—set to music. Like most composers, Edvard was constantly looking for poems that might be made into a nice song. One day he came across a poem by Henrik Ibsen (do you remember him?) called “Margaret’s Cradle Song.” Edvard had such tender feelings for his little daughter Alexandra, and here was a poem about a mother’s love for her little son Haakon. He poured his love for Alexandra into the music he wrote for Ibsen’s poem. The result was one of his most beautiful songs:


(English version by William H. Halverson)

The evening now is over, the night will soon begin,
And mother takes her Haakon to bed and tucks him in.
He dreams there is a ladder ascending to the sky,
It beckons him to climb it right up to God on high.
God’s angels hover o’er you, my darling, through the night;
Your mother will be near you when dawns the morning light.

Stuff to do

Play the video of Julia Fisher playing the first movement of this piece on YouTube. Walk in time to the music. Would you call it “rather fast?”

Watch/listen to the second movement. Would you call it “rather slow?”

Watch/listen to the third movement. Note how the pianist emphasizes the melody so it doesn’t get lost amid all the other notes swirling around it.

Google “youtube grieg op. 15.” Play “Margretes vuggesang.” That is the Norwegian name for “Margaret’s Cradle Song.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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William H. Halverson

Dr. Bill Halverson, scholarly advisor of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc., is regarded as one of America’s leading authorities on the life and work of Edvard Grieg. His translations of Grieg’s writings (letters, diaries, articles, speeches) and of books about Grieg and his music are major sources of information about Norway’s greatest composer in the English-speaking world.