Grieg and COVID-19

Perseverance in the face of illness

Voksenkollen Sanatorium - Grieg

Photo: Anders Beer Wilse / Norsk Teknisk Museum / Creative Commons
Voksenkollen Sanatorium was Grieg’s Soria Moria Castle. Colorized photo by Anders Beer Wilse, 1902.

Dunedin, New Zealand

During this singular moment in history in which all of humanity is urged to stay home, there is no better music to turn to for comfort than that of Edvard Grieg: a man who once said that his main goal in composing music is “to build dwellings for people in which they might feel at home and happy.” Edvard Grieg was not a stranger to fear, isolation, and illness, and yet his primary motivation in his work was to bring feelings of comfort, nostalgia, and joy to others. Never has the comfort and wisdom of a veteran of illness and isolation been needed more than right now. 

In May 1860, at age 16, Grieg contracted a lung disease while pursuing his musical studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany; his left lung had collapsed. His mother came to care for him and took him home to Bergen for the summer. Nevertheless, he returned to his studies in the autumn. That year, he would be diagnosed with tuberculosis. His collapsed lung would never resume function. Due to these early illnesses, breathing difficulties were recurrent throughout Grieg’s existence. Still, he would go on to compose hundreds of musical works in his 64 years of life. 

Image: Kjell Eek / Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Grieg by Kjell Eek, date unknown.

Grieg’s perseverance in the face of fear and illness may produce anxiety in those fatigued by the insistence toward productivity under the COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions. However, it was times of rest and reacquaintance with nature within those periods that allowed Grieg to persevere, despite bouts of illness and the fear of another onset in between. In fact, his self-proclaimed “Soria Moria Castle” was a sanatorium, which he would frequent in the last years of his life. It is in the Soria Moria Castle that the hero of the Norwegian fairytale of the same name would find his princess and live happily ever after.

Grieg’s Soria Moria—the Voksenkollen Sanatorium—sat on a hill outside Christiania (what is now Oslo). His description of the sanatorium is no less fantastical than his fairytale metaphor suggests: “…it rises resplendent out of the dark spruce forest into the high, light air, with snow-covered mountains gleaming on the horizon…” Contrary to the horror associated with the word sanatorium in contemporary imagination, this place of recovery allowed access to the natural beauty of its surroundings: surroundings that much of humanity today often ignores due to the hustle and bustle of life as usual. 

While shelter-in-place guidelines do not allow humanity the choice of taking an isolated refuge, Grieg’s writings and descriptions of this most fantastical place perhaps strike a chord and suggest a reflection of gratitude within the current situation. His writings on the sanatorium continue: “…it really is a fairy-tale castle concealing a rare treasure: a cure for everyone who…seeks to gain his or her lost equilibrium.” For Grieg, loss of equilibrium was restored by a solitary wander in the woods and a good book. As we settle into what may continue to be the loss of equilibrium and control resulting from the coronavirus, it is the music of Edvard Grieg that has become the Soria Moria Castle for many. 

Temporarily, without hope of a venue to perform in, an audience to perform for, and friends to perform with, musicians the world over have begun to bring their performances directly to computer screens. On March 24, the Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra based in Tromsø and Bodø, Norway, published a performance of the prelude from Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op. 40, adapted for orchestra—one of Grieg’s most beloved works. The natural secondary title for this video is “Preludium ‘à la Quarantine.’” One conductor and 17 players performing from their respective living rooms find community in this musical home of Grieg’s. 

More ambitious still: 90 Norwegian musicians conducted by Torodd Wigum are seen playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Op. 46, at their homes in a video posted to YouTube on April 10. Grieg’s most famous composition takes on new significance when the hall of the mountain king is in our own living rooms. 

His emblematic “In the Hall of the Mountain King” was utilized again in a montage of animals reclaiming the world under shelter-in-place restrictions. As the strings pluck their familiar tune, a kangaroo hops down a city road in Adelaide, Australia. When the bassoons take up the melody, an alligator wanders through a strip mall in South Carolina, and a herd of elephants crosses a highway in Thailand. 

Published and shared on Facebook by many, these videos inspired my own collaboration: from my study in New Zealand, I recently recorded “Fiskervise” from Grieg’s Barnlige Sange (Children’s Songs), Op. 61 with Colombian pianist César Cañon, who is based in San Francisco and soon to move to Norway. Looking out at the Dunedin harbor as I sang, with Grieg’s music emerged gratitude for the extra time the virus has given me to walk amongst the trees and along the water, much like Grieg at his sanatorium. Like nature and our nerves, Grieg’s music has been renewed through these performances which have crossed oceans during a time of strife, and these performances have been used for Grieg’s exact purpose of bringing happiness to the home. 

When Edvard Grieg wrote of his Soria Moria, he said, “…a good spirit hovers over this home: the spirit of empathy. Suffering humanity, harassed and exhausted from the excessive nervousness produced by competitive modern society, is called hither—and many will answer that call.” No quote by Grieg may currently ring more true than this. This time of necessary isolation, while rife with individual struggles, allows an opportunity to reflect on the competitiveness of modern society: one that has become so competitive since Grieg’s time as to be unrecognizable. As Grieg suggests, the spirit of empathy is perhaps the greatest tool for an individual, community, and society recovering from the gravest pandemic in human history. 

Grieg COVID-19 musical selections:

About the author:
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., mezzo-soprano Tessa Romano holds a doctorate of musical arts in vocal performance and -edagogy from the University of Colorado Boulder, a master of music in vocal performance from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and a bachelor of arts in Italian from Princeton University. She also served as a board member of the Edvard Grieg Society of America. Currently, Romano resides in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she works as tenure-track lecturer in voice at the University of Otago.


This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.