Finding meaning in the songs of Edvard Grieg
Exploring Norwegian through poetry and music
Northwest Edvard Grieg Society
Over the past five years I’ve had the daunting yet enriching task of producing seven concerts in Seattle and Portland, Ore., as part of the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society’s “The Complete Songs of Edvard Grieg” series. After our final concerts this month, my colleagues, baritone Alan Dunbar, pianist Knut Erik Jensen, and I will have performed more than 170 of Grieg’s songs. Having performed half the songs and translated nearly all of them myself has given me a deeper understanding of his songs and the texts he chose, and especially the marriage of those two—language and music.
A musical muse
Grieg was inspired by his wife, Nina, whose interpretations of his songs were without comparison, and we credit the pair for the creation of most of his song output:
“I don’t think I have any greater talent for writing songs than for writing any other kind of music. Why, then, have songs played such a prominent role in my oeuvre? Quite simply because I, like other mortals, once in my life (to quote Goethe) had a moment of genius. And it was love that gave me this glory. I loved a girl with a wonderful voice and an equally wonderful gift as an interpreter. This woman became my wife and has been my companion through life down to the present day. I dare say that for me she has remained the only true interpreter of my songs. … In her singing she did exactly what I have striven for in my creative work: above all to interpret the poem.”
– Edvard Grieg, letter to Henry Theophilus Finck, July 17, 1900.
Before this project, I had sung several dozen of Grieg’s songs and had formed an opinion about what his style “ought” to sound like—Norwegian melancholy, sprightliness, and folk influences—and considered some songs to be subpar if they didn’t have these qualities. This “Complete Songs” project, however, has given me a much broader perspective. I now understand that Grieg had a greater, overarching purpose when he said his aim was “above all to interpret the poem.”
Whether composing music to a text in Norwegian bokmål or nynorsk, Danish, German, Latin, or English, Grieg was always true to the poem, especially to the sentiment of the poet’s words, which were enhanced by his music. Colors, melodies, harmonies, and song structure were deliberately created to elevate the texts and give the listener a higher experience of the poet’s intention.
Grieg’s treatment of Danish and Norwegian riksmål, which were essentially the same written language at the time, varied little. His Norwegian-inspired sound was consistently applied to both languages, as is evident in his songs set to texts by Danish poet H. C. Andersen and Norwegian poets Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Henrik Ibsen. The differences rely more on the subject matter of each poem than its language, from his immortal “Jeg elsker dig” (Op. 5, No. 3, Andersen) to “En svane” (Op. 25, No. 2, Ibsen) to “Det første møde” (Op. 21, No. 1, Bjørnson).
All of these songs employ Grieg’s romanticism, chromaticism, and Norwegian melancholy and sprightliness, which make them so recognizably Grieg. He rarely mixed languages within opuses, except for these two languages, freely placing Norwegian poets next to Danish poets.
The early songs
By contrast, in his early songs in German, Op. 2 and Op. 4, one can hear a rather well-developed exploration of chromaticism, highlighting their German Romantic poetry, full of waldeinsamkeit, unrequited love, and longing for death. The angst-filled poetry came to life when Grieg composed songs in the German Lieder tradition, inspired by Robert Schumann.
Two decades later, he composed Op. 48, Sechs Lieder, again to German poetry. Although his style had solidified during those years through finding his distinctively Norwegian voice, when setting German texts, his musical style returned to the German Romantic style, remaining true to his chosen texts in the most compelling way.
These songs do not exhibit Norwegian characteristics, because they simply are not and should not sound Norwegian. Grieg’s versatility and understanding of how to communicate through his music by using languages is on full display in these songs.
The beauty of nynorsk
The most exciting demonstration of how language colors Grieg’s songs is in his songs in Norwegian nynorsk, or landsmål. Grieg’s fascination with Norwegian dialects got him into arguments with friends, specifically Bjørnson. However, Grieg was never dissuaded from creating music to the distinctive sounds of nynorsk, which he considered so musical that it “practically set itself.” Some of his best-known works are in nynorsk, including Op. 67, “Haugtussa,” with texts by Rogaland’s poet Arne Garborg, and Op. 33, “Tolv Melodier,” with poetry by Telemark poet, A. O. Vinje. The Vinje songs will be performed at our final concerts on Sept. 13 in Bellevue, Wash., and Sept. 15 in Portland.
In a June 7, 1898, letter to German pianist and composer Oscar Meyer, Grieg wrote regarding “Haugtussa”: “[Garborg’s book] is a masterwork, full of originality, simplicity, and depth and possessing a quite indescribable richness of color. Therefore, it will not escape your fine expert eye that these songs are profoundly different from my earlier ones.”
That profound difference and indescribable richness Grieg derived directly from Garborg’s poetry, his mystical yet earthly story, and his distinctive Norwegian regional dialect, Jærsk. Whether Grieg was inspired by the musicality and richness of the language or if his music took the language and elevated it beyond its earthly origins, the marriage of Grieg’s music and Garborg’s texts is truly a masterwork.
We can also compare the songs Grieg chose to publish in his lifetime and those published posthumously. Were those he left unpublished inferior to their published counterparts? I don’t think so. Some, composed for specific occasions, become tedious, but others are downright charming, dramatic, or beautiful in their own varied ways, all related to their language, subject matter, and poetic essence.
From the “Haugtussa” songs not published in opus 67 (EGs 152), to “Ave maris stella” (EG 150), to “Dig elsker jeg” (EG 127), to “Prinsessen” (EG 133), to “Gentlemen Rankers” (EG 156) with a Kipling text in Norwegian translation, and the exotic “Odalisken synger” (EG 131), to his German-sounding final song “Der Jäger” (EG 157), and his singular English song “To a Devil” (EG 154), his versatility and ability to honor the texts remains clear. These songs become a fun exercise in exploring Grieg’s musical style in connection to the texts and languages he chose to set to music.
There are too many songs to cover in such a short column, so many worth performing yet rarely performed outside of Norway. Their languages can be a barrier but needn’t be, as there are wonderful English translations of all of his songs and experts available to help learn to sing in Norwegian. The many Grieg societies, including the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society, have the necessary educational resources and are eager to share the beauty of this repertoire, languages included. Beyond our “Complete Songs” project, our societies will continue to share our love for all of Grieg’s music.
To learn more about the Northwest Edvard Grieg Society and upcoming concerts, visit their website at nwegriegsociety.org.
This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.