Enjoy Grieg on this side of the Atlantic

Grieg Societies promote international appreciation of Norway’s No. 1 composer

Sylvia Reynolds Eckes

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Reynolds Eckes
Sylvia Reynolds Eckes, founder of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, is most at home at the piano with her favorite composer.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Four years ago, Sylvia Reynolds Eckes, professor emerita of piano from Ohio University of Athens, attended the Grieg Festival 2015 in Sarasota, Fla., a three-day program that brought some of the world’s best Grieg performers, scholars, and young artists together, and she knew that she had a calling: to promote the study and performance of Grieg’s music throughout the United States.

Fortunately, as an accomplished pianist of international acclaim, Eckes was well qualified to carry out her mission. After graduating from Julliard, she attended the International Summer School in Oslo. She became a teacher at the Oslo Conservatory and went on to serve as orchestra pianist for the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Upon her return to the United States, she has been invited back to Norway every three years or so, and during her career she has given over 100 performances and lecture recitals on the music of Grieg around the world.

Eckes holds a degree from the Peabody Institute and a doctorate degree from the University of Kansas, where her dissertation was, “The Lyric Pieces of Edvard Grieg.” She worked tirelessly to promote the music of Grieg during her tenures as a professor at the University of Kansas, Northern Illinois University, Rollins College, and Ohio University. For this astounding contribution to Norwegian culture abroad, in 2011, Eckes was appointed Officer, Knight First Class, of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit. Most importantly, in April 2015, she founded the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc. as a non-profit organization.

Interest in Grieg has never stopped in Norway. Born in 1843, young Edvard Grieg trained at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music in Germany, where he would eventually establish a lasting relationship with his publisher C.F. Peters. The Norwegian national composer traveled incessantly: to Denmark, England, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. He soaked in musical influences wherever he went and left his own impression there. While Grieg never made the trip across the Atlantic, American composer Edward MacDowell wrote in a letter to him in 1899, “The name of Grieg is adored from one end of this country to the other.”

Most Americans today know Grieg, whether they know it or not; one only needs to start humming “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” His other “greatest hits” are also easily recognized: “Morning Mood,” “Anitra’s Dance,” or even the Piano Concerto in A-minor get a nod, “Oh yeah, Grieg!” His music is familiar from countless film scores and even old Saturday morning cartoons.

But as Eckes will tell you, Grieg is much more, and that is what is so exciting about the Edvard Grieg Society of North America and its regional chapters. They work to develop audiences for Grieg’s oeuvre in all its complexity—and from all reports, there is a strong interest in it. Eckes notes that Americans are very open to new types of music. The voice of Grieg has a style and message of its own, with sounds of Norwegian folk music, unique rhythms and complex harmonies that resound in a deceptively fresh, clear, and simple way.

There is also the poetry of Grieg’s art song, which resonates well in a global society with a multicultural perspective. Today more singers are looking toward ethnic music, performing songs in foreign languages even when it may stretch their comfort zone. While a few of the Grieg songs were composed to German poetry, most of his lyrics are Norwegian. For this reason, many of them did not make it out into the world, but in recent years, the language barrier has been burst with the groundbreaking work of Professor William H. Halvorsen’s new English translations. His work has made the meaning of the music accessible to singers, and Norwegian songs are making their way to American stages. Singers can now sing along with the many recordings by Norwegian singers found on YouTube, gaining confidence in their pronunciation as they create their own personal interpretations of the songs.

Notably, last year the Edvard Grieg Society of America awarded a grant to the recently established Northwest Edvard Grieg Society (NWEGS) to support award-winning baritone Alan Dunbar in performances that are part of series that will present the complete songs of Grieg over three years. Dunbar is working with soprano Laura Loge, president of the NWEGS, and pianist Knut Erik Jensen, a well-known Grieg specialist from Trondheim, Norway, as they take the series to venues throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The Florida-based national organization led by Eckes was not the first American Grieg Society. Already in 1991, Norwegian-born Julliard professor and internationally acclaimed trombonist Per Brevig founded the Edvard Grieg Society, New York. Under his leadership, the society has presented the music of Grieg and other Norwegian composers with major American and international performers in venues including Lincoln Center and Steinway Hall. The Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota was formed in 2005, also with the goal to promote Grieg and other Nordic composers. The society is affiliated with the Norway House cultural center and has sponsored awards for young artists, string players, and vocalists. Winners have been awarded both prize money and opportunities to perform in the United States and Norway.

In addition to the Florida (national), New York, Minnesota, and Northwest groups, there are active societies in the Dakotas and the Great Lakes, and many other researchers and performers throughout the United States are active within the national society. Connections to colleges and universities are very important, not only for the breadth of expertise but also for outreach to students. Grieg societies often work with Sons of Norway lodges and are actively working to get into schools to spark an interest in Grieg in young people.

Collaboration does not stop here. Eckes is also the vice president of the International Grieg Society in Bergen, birthplace of the composer. There is strong support from the music faculty at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, and the Edvard Grieg Museum at Troldhaugen. American performers and researchers receive strong support from their colleagues in Norway, with exchange and enrichment going in both directions.

Looking to the future, the EGSOA has established the William H. Halvorsen Prize to honor today’s foremost Grieg scholar in America and encourage talented young musicians. The society is also in the process of publishing Dr. Halvorsen’s books, Edvard Grieg: Diaries, Articles, and Speeches and Edvard Grieg: Letters to Colleagues and Friends, in paperback and ebook format. And, of course, there will be more concerts, festivals, competitions, symposia, and workshops to share the joy of the music of Edvard Grieg.

Membership in the Edvard Grieg Society of America and its regional societies is open to all. It is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization supported by a volunteer board of professional musicians and scholars. To learn more, visit www.griegsocietyusa.org.

To read more about the life and work of Edvard Grieg, see https://www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/happy-175th-birthday-edvard-grieg/.

This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.