Edvard Grieg goes to Rome

Happy Notes for Happy Kids


Photo: Colourbox
In 1865, Edvard Grieg traveled to Rome, where he would bask in the light of the winter sun and find new inspiration for his music.

Rome has been one of the most famous cities in the world for over 2,000 years. Edvard had dreamed of visiting there ever since he was a boy, and after two exciting years in Copenhagen he decided that this was a good time for him to take that trip. His friend Rikard Nordraak had planned to take the trip with him, but Rikard got sick and was unable to travel, so Edvard went alone.

First days in Rome

He arrived in Rome by train on Dec. 11, 1865. He was planning to stay there for the winter, so he rented a room and also a piano. He hoped to compose a lot of music during his winter in Rome.

First, though, he just had to see some of the sights in this famous city that he had heard so much about. On the very day of his arrival, he went on a sightseeing tour. He could hardly believe it: he was in Rome! The sights, the sounds, the smells, the warmth of the winter sun were different from anything he had experienced before. They surrounded him, they thrilled him, they made him happy in ways he had never felt before. Some of these sights and sounds would eventually find their way into the music he would compose.

Edvard meets pianist Franz Liszt and playwright Henrik Ibsen

Lots of musicians, painters, and writers from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden lived in Rome, especially during the winter months. Long before Edvard’s visit, they had established a club called The Scandinavian Society. Members of the club got together to celebrate holidays, hear concerts, and get ac-quainted with each other. Edvard visited The Scandinavian Society the day after he arrived in Rome and attended many events there during that winter.

He also met some people in Rome who would be important to him later in his life.

Photo: Theodor Hosemann / public domain
An 1842 cartoon depiction of “Lisztomania,” the hysteria of the audience when Franz Liszt performed.

One of the people he met was Franz Liszt, who was the most famous pianist in the world at that time. This cartoon of Liszt playing the piano tells us two things about him:

1. He had very long fingers.

2. Many of the people who attended his concerts were young women, who thought he was very handsome. (Note that one of them is throwing some fresh flowers toward him. The flowers look like insects, don’t they?) Liszt was also well known as a composer, especially of piano music.


Photo: Wikipedia / public domain
Portrait of Henrik Ibsen by Henrik Olrik, 1879.

Edvard also met Henrik Ibsen (pictured on the left) shortly after arriving in Rome. Like Edvard, Ibsen was from Norway, but he was living in Rome at this time. He was a playwright, which means a writer of plays. Ibsen was 15 years older than Edvard, but he was already quite famous. We will hear more about both Liszt and Ibsen in future lessons.

Edvard had hoped to compose a lot of music during this visit to Rome, but he spent so much time experiencing new sights and sounds and meeting new people that he didn’t find much time for composing. But he loved those new sights and sounds, and in years to come he would use some of them in his compositions.

Sad news about Rikard Nordraak

One day during his winter in Rome, Edvard received a letter that made him very sad. It was from his Danish friend Benjamin Feddersen, who wrote to tell him that their dear friend Rikard Nordraak had died. Poor Rikard! Do you remember that he and Edvard had planned to take this trip to Rome together, but Rikard had gotten sick and had to go to a hospital in Berlin? The day he received that letter (April 6, 1866) Edvard wrote in his diary, “Nordraak is dead! He, my dear friend, my only great hope for our Norwegian music! And I do not have a single person here who can truly understand my sorrow. . . . I composed a funeral march in honor of Nordraak.”

“The Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak” is the most important piece of music Edvard composed during this visit to Rome. The first part of it is very sad. I think Grieg is imagining that he is at Rikard’s funeral. Rikard’s body is in a box (called a casket), and some of his friends are carrying the box to the gravesite where he will be buried.

They are walking very slowly, following the beat of the music. Then comes a part that is a little less sad. Here I think Grieg is imagining that he and his friends are remembering the good times they had together when Rikard was with them. They are still sad, but their sadness is lighter because it is mixed with happy memories.

But then, as they walk away from the grave, the deep sadness returns. They walk slowly, just like before. They know they will miss their friend for the rest of their lives.

Though Grieg’s visit to Rome ended sadly, he also had many happy memories of his first visit there. He remembered, for example, visiting Monte Pincio (pronounced MOAN-tay PEEN-chee-oh), one of many mountains surrounding Rome, and a few years later he wrote a song about it. Called “Fra Monte Pincio,” it is one of his most famous songs and is often sung at concerts.

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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William H. Halverson

Dr. Bill Halverson, scholarly advisor of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc., is regarded as one of America’s leading authorities on the life and work of Edvard Grieg. His translations of Grieg’s writings (letters, diaries, articles, speeches) and of books about Grieg and his music are major sources of information about Norway’s greatest composer in the English-speaking world.