The beloved as muse
Edvard and Nina Grieg
Edvard Grieg Society of the Dakotas
June 11, 2020, marked 153 years since Edvard Grieg and his cousin, Nina Hagerup, were married in Copenhagen. The 40 years of marriage that followed were not always blissful, but the partnership has given us a lasting gift in the form of Edvard’s song catalog.
The couple knew each other from their childhood in Bergen. Nina’s family moved to Copenhagen when she was 8, and the two became reacquainted in 1863, when Edvard was beginning his career as a composer. The child he had known had grown into a woman of many charms, not least of which was her singing voice. Edvard was fascinated by her ability to interpret texts and reach listeners in the deepest recesses of the heart.
This infatuation came with some reservations on the part of Edvard and Nina’s parents, some of Edvard’s friends, and Edvard himself. Most blunt was Nina’s mother, who stated, “He has nothing, he cannot do anything, and he makes music nobody cares to listen to.” Edvard’s father also expressed concern that Edvard could not provide for a family with his meager income from conducting and composing.
These practical concerns were coupled with Edvard’s conflicted mind regarding his life as an artist, a question pondered by artistic giants such as Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Grieg’s friend, Benjamin Feddersen, believed Nina did not understand the role she should play in Edvard’s life. He wrote a pointed criticism of Nina in a letter in 1866, saying, “That is not the woman who deserves to support and encourage you in the development of your talents.”
In his famous engagement gift to Nina, Op. 5, Hjertets Melodier (Melodies of the Heart), it seems that Edvard was alluding to his calling as an artist in the text of No. 2, “Du fatter ej Bølgernes evige Gang,” translated into English by William Halverson as “The Poet’s Heart.” The text speaks of the constant mystery and turmoil that, like the endlessly rolling sea, permeates the heart and mind of the poet. Likewise, No. 4 “Min Tanke er et mægtigt Fjeld” (My Mind is Like the Mountain Steep) speaks of the surging waves, but with an assurance that the beloved is also there, ever present in the mighty thoughts of the poet.
All these reservations went unheeded, however, and the couple became secretly engaged in 1864. Forbidden by their parents to announce this engagement until 1865, they were nevertheless married in 1867, although neither Edvard’s nor Nina’s parents attended the ceremony.
What followed for Edvard was a flurry of compositional output, including his now universally recognized piano masterpiece, the Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. A number of songs from Op. 9, 15, and 18 also flew from his pen in a “Liederfrühling” or “Spring of Songs,” somewhat like that experienced by Robert Schumann during his early marriage. Grieg would later write to American music historian Henry Finck that after 1866, he composed all his songs for Nina. This is certainly evident in his choice of text for Op. 10, No. 4 “Sang paa Fjeldet,” the final stanza of which begins, “Oh Nina, my young wife! Lively and warm!”
This output continued through the birth of their daughter, Alexandra, in 1868 and her tragic death from meningitis a year later. While Edvard took great comfort in his work, Nina struggled with Alexandra’s death and a subsequent miscarriage about that same time. She had curtailed her singing career after her marriage and did not take well to the duties of the typical housewife of the day. Edvard did not realize until later how much Nina had given up in relinquishing her international performing career for his sake. In truth, they both had an artistic temperament, and their strong personalities often led to quarrels.
The strain between Edvard and Nina came to a head in 1884, when he went on tour to Germany without her. For a time, he considered a relationship with painter Leis Schelderup, but his friend Frants Beyer convinced him to attempt reconciliation with Nina. During this time of separation, and later during a period of Nina’s serious illness, Edvard was incapable of writing songs. Once the reconciliation was complete, his song composing flourished again.
It was not until they built their villa, Troldhaugen, in their 25th year of marriage, that they had a permanent home of their own, where they would stay together as Norway’s most famous musical couple until Edvard’s death in 1907.
He admitted, “I did not understand at the time how important her interpretations really were. For me, it was only natural that she should sing so beautifully, so tellingly—from a full heart and from the innermost depths of the soul.”
Thus, in the later years of their marriage, they performed together with Edvard accompanying Nina, even after he gave up solo public performing. From this time come the songs of Op. 48, dedicated to Nina, and his only true song cycle—Haugtussa, Op. 67 (The Mountain Maid). However, the publication of Haugtussa was delayed for three years, possibly due to the composer’s ill health, but also because of another bout of marital unhappiness. Once again feeling uninspired as a composer, he had become infatuated with a singer, Bella Edwards, in 1894.
The relationship did not proceed because of her refusal, and this unrequited love certainly would have left him with little desire to finish a work so closely reflecting his own situation. Interestingly, the song “Min lille Fugl,” which had been written in 1865, was published in 1895. Was it a message to Bella? The text [paraphrased] asks, “Where are you now, my little bird? Where do you sing your songs? Oh God, I am so lonely!”
For all this sadness, the Griegs were again able to reconcile, and Edvard published Haugtussa in 1898. Although premiered by Eva Nansen, it was Nina who passed on her deep knowledge of her husband’s settings to future generations, such as Danish singer Sylvia Larsen Schierbeck.
In 1900, Edvard wrote to Finck with this now famous revelation: “I don’t believe I have more talent for song composition than for any other genre in music. From whence does it come then, that the song plays such a prominent role in my output? Quite simply for the reason that I, like other mortals, on one occasion in my life (to quote Goethe) was brilliant. The brilliance was: love. I fell in love with a young girl with a wonderful voice and similarly wonderful interpretation. This girl became my wife and life’s partner right to this day. She has been for me…the only true interpreter of my songs.”
It is clear that Edvard never ceased to admire Nina as a performer. The compositional inspiration from which he benefitted throughout most of his life sprang from her artistry and came to life through his now-treasured output in song.
Marla Fogderud holds a doctorate in music and is assistant professor of voice at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. She is the president and founder of the Edvard Grieg Society of the Dakotas. A native of North Dakota, she is an active stage performer and recitalist throughout the United States and Europe.
This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.