Happy 175th birthday, Edvard Grieg!
Countless celebrations of the life and music of Norway’s famous composer are planned
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
June 15, 2018, marks the 175th birthday of Bergen and Norway’s most famous composer, Edvard Hagerup Grieg. In Norway and around the world, celebrations are taking place that will continue throughout the year. In Bergen, the Grieg Museum and NRK teamed up to produce a 24-hour “Grieg Minute by Minute” marathon, with live performances of his music broadcast non-stop. In Bergen alone, over 40 Grieg concerts are scheduled throughout the summer; worldwide it is impossible to estimate the number. Even today, the music of Edvard Grieg touches our hearts, as we commemorate his life.
Much has been written about Grieg as a Norwegian composer and his place in the Romantic movement with the rise of national identity in the 19th century. It has been well established that the composer’s work has its roots in Norwegian folk music, building on melodies handed down from generation to generation. For Norwegians, there is something indigenous and familiar about Edvard Grieg. Yet Grieg himself did not like think of himself as only a Norwegian composer, as he looked beyond Norway’s borders for musical inspiration. He traveled incessantly throughout his life, rejected any notions of national chauvinism, and embraced a much broader worldview. What makes his music special are the complex harmonies and patterns juxtaposed on top of traditional Norwegian folk themes. But Grieg also understood that he needed to produce a sound that was genuine, and he was a Norwegian. His work reflects his own life and the environment that shaped him, and his music is unique.
Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen in 1843, the son of successful merchant and city vice-counsel Alexander Grieg, whose family had Scottish origins. His mother, Gesine Judithe Hagerup, was the daughter of a prominent solicitor and politician. Gesine was an accomplished music teacher, and it was soon discovered that the child was a musical wunderkind. Upon the urging of the famous violin virtuoso and composer Ole Bull, it was decided that the boy genius should be sent abroad to study. At age 15, he landed in Leipzig, an experience that would influence the rest of his life, expanding both his musicianship and the way he looked at the world.
In Leipzig, young Grieg was exposed to a world he could not have imagined in Bergen: concert halls, the famous opera house, and one of Europe’s finest music academies. He is reported to have attended 14 performances of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in one year, eager as he was to expand his horizons. But at the same time, he was still a boy, lonely and homesick. The demands of his studies were heavy, and while he liked to play the piano, he didn’t like to practice, and he struggled with authority. Already there were conflicts and contradictions in his life, then he contracted tuberculosis and had to suddenly be sent back to Norway.
At home in Bergen, Grieg recovered, but he lost a lung, which would plague him for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he returned to Leipzig and finished his studies with outstanding marks, and throughout his lifetime, he would retain a foothold there. It was there he published his works with the renowned publishing house C.F. Peters Musikverlag, and he became a celebrated performer on the city’s stage. Yet Grieg had a love-hate relationship with Leipzig until the end of his life. He could not forget the loneliness he suffered as a student, nor could he overcome the disappointment he felt when the city’s most prominent music critic had slaughtered him in a review in the early days of his career.
If there is one word that might best describe Grieg’s music and life, it would be duality. His works can be melodically light and uplifting or somber, longing, and even resigned. Even in a single composition a dark heaviness can be expressed, only to be lifted to joyful playfulness. Fortunately for researchers and musicologists, Grieg was not only a productive composer, but a prolific letter-writer as well. He had an ever-expanding circle of friends, and he wrote openly about his personal circumstances and feelings, and how they affected his music. All the major events of his life are documented: the death of his parents, his love for his wife, the devastating loss of their child, their many travels together, and the restlessness and longing that he felt throughout his life.
If any single period of Grieg’s life was marked by happiness and then grief, it was his early stay in Denmark. Grieg had known his cousin Nina Hagerup as a child, but when he came to Copenhagen at age 20 and met her again, he was overwhelmed by the beautiful young soprano. They fell in love and married there, and theirs was a partnership for life. But the young couple’s early years together in Norway were marked by tragedy, with the loss of their 1-year-old daughter Alexandra. Grieg was devastated, and the marriage suffered. Sadly, the Griegs were never to have any more children, and the loss stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
Encouraged by Ole Bull, the couple traveled to Rome, where they met up with other prominent Norwegians, including the great authors Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Rome was revelation for Grieg: he was captivated by the locals’ uninhibited spontaneity, and he felt free to express his emotions more than ever before, both as a person and a musician. From then on, he would never feel quite at home in Norway and would always conjure up some “devilish excuse” to get back out into the world.
But Edvard and Nina Grieg finally settled down in Norway, building their home Troldhaugen in Bergen. Grieg wrote that “Troudhaugen is my best opus so far,” and the villa situated on the hill became a mecca of musical activity. Composers from all of Scandinavia and Europe would visit the couple there. Grieg sat in his tiny composer’s hut with a view of the fjord and composed the “Peer Gynt Suite” that brought him success and fame all over the world. But in Norway he suffered bouts of melancholia: he was moody and would sit alone for hours. He shut Nina out as he immersed himself in his work, and many of his compositions reflect that anguish.
But Grieg went on, reaching new heights of fame on the world stage. He traveled to England, where people were taken with “Grieg fever” and he was celebrated as the greatest composer of his day. There he embraced the philosophy of Unitarianism, which appealed to his individual piety and desire for universalism. In France, he found himself caught up in the controversy of the Dreyfus affair. He spoke publicly for what he believed and was not welcome to perform in Paris for several years, but when he returned, he won over the public again with the sheer power of his music. Grieg never regretted standing up for his values and remained true to himself throughout his entire life. He died in Bergen in 1907, 64 years of age.
Edvard Grieg, a quintessentially Norwegian composer? Yes, without a doubt: it was the landscape and sounds of Norway that created the man. He brought something new to classical music, and in the end, his music belongs to the entire world. He influenced countless composers who came after him, both in Norway and abroad. Each year thousands of tourists come from all over the world to visit the Grieg Museum at the meticulously restored Troldhaugen. It is both a center for learning and musical activity, with the Troldsal concert hall overlooking the composer’s hut and the fjord, and countless hours of musical joy are shared there.
In 2018, we celebrate Norway’s most famous composer, also one of the world’s greatest composers. Even 175 years after his birth, Grieg’s oeuvre, with its breadth of experience, uniqueness, and universality, holds an appeal that goes beyond borders to stand the test of time.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.