Fame without fortune

Edvard Grieg

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While Edvard Grieg was well known in America in his lifetime, he was never able to make the journey across the Atlantic.

Edvard Grieg Society of America

Edvard Grieg’s music was alive and well in America during his lifetime. As his fame grew during the last three decades of his life, he received several invitations to visit the United States. He had to turn them down, fearing he would not survive the long journey. 

In 1900, he wrote in a letter to his American biographer, Henry T. Finck: “America I shall probably never visit. I cannot endure the sea voyage, nor perhaps the climate. The many invitations to give concerts in America, some of which are very tempting, I am, therefore, obliged to decline without hesitation.” 

Finck, who was an avid admirer of Grieg’s music, instead, made a visit to see Grieg in Bergen in 1901. They continued their warm friendship through correspondence until several months before Grieg’s death. 

A tempting offer

In 1903, Grieg was offered $25,000 and expenses by Philadelphia financier John Wannamaker, who wanted a world-renowned musician to inaugurate the concert hall in a building housing his new supermarket. 

Again, Grieg declined: “I would not cross the Atlantic for a million dollars; indeed, I doubt that I would get to New York alive. I suffer terribly from seasickness. The short journey across the English Channel is always a nightmare for me.” 

So, Grieg had to be content to hear appreciation of his music from American fans who visited him in Norway. 

Grieg’s popularity in America


Photo: public domain
During Grieg’s lifetime, many good American homes had a piano. Women, in particular, became familiar with the music of Edvard Grieg.

Composer-performers like Grieg often made the greatest impact in new places by personal appearances, playing or conducting their own works. Grieg made regular trips to continental Europe throughout his life doing just that. Despite not performing in America, there was great interest in his music and his fame grew quickly and steadily. 

The impetus for this growth began in the early 1870s with his newly composed “Piano Concerto in A Minor,” which was performed by internationally acclaimed artists in Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Newly established cultural centers in the Midwest and West were made aware of the exciting young Norwegian composer, “Edward Grieg,” through newspaper articles that included rave reviews of the concerto.

Eventually, other works, such as the two Peer Gynt suites, became widely known. By 1900, his songs, piano music, choral, and instrumental music appeared frequently on programs in cities as far west as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where cultural activities were in full swing. 

During Grieg’s lifetime, his music became known throughout the country in various ways. The public became acquainted with his music from traveling professional musicians, who formed their own “companies” and performed in large halls. There was also an ever-increasing number of local and amateur musicians who performed in smaller venues and more intimate settings. 

The latter part of the 1800s was the Golden Age of piano making and piano playing. The new transcontinental rail system transported countless numbers of high quality American-made pianos all the way to the Pacific coast. Every middle-class family in a western coastal city, or a small town in Kansas, or a fast-growing area back East wanted a piano in their home. Pianos were also in schools, churches, saloons, and other gathering places. By the late 1800s, piano playing in the home had been elevated from a mere pastime to a valuable component of one’s moral and intellectual education. 

Women, in particular, became acquainted with Grieg, as well as Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Franz Schubert, and others. Many of Grieg’s small piano works were easy to play and could be enjoyed on many levels. Grieg’s smaller works for piano and for voice were included on numerous programs presented by ladies’ clubs and civic organizations. The general public found his music immediately likeable and distinctive. It sounded fresh, exotic, and different from any other music they had heard. 

Grieg and Norwegian immigrants

Grieg’s music also spread through Norwegian-American settlements. Many of the earliest immigrants from Scandinavia settled in the Midwest, and by the 1880s, a vast number of Norwegians and Swedes were arriving by train to areas in and around Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tacoma, Wash., and Seattle. 

Most were first-generation immigrants who brought their traditions with them and kept them alive with events and gatherings hosted by ethnic clubs and societies. Examples of such organizations in the Seattle area were the Norwegian Male Chorus of Seattle (established 1889), the Pacific Coast Norwegian Singers Association (1902), and the Seattle Leif Erikson Lodge of the Sons of Norway (1903). 

The response of Norwegian Americans to Grieg’s music would have undoubtedly been felt in a more personal and perhaps deeper way than would be the case with non-Norwegian listeners: the music was imbued with folk and national sounds that, for many, evoked memories of their earlier days in Norway. 

A composition for an American ensemble


Photo: Sylvia Eckes
Edvard Grieg’s music was published in Germany under copyright, but because he was a Norwegian, his works were not protected in the United States.

Olaf Martin Oleson, a native of Norway, came to Fort Dodge, Iowa, as a young man. In the early 1890s, he established the Grieg Male Chorus and was its director for many years. In 1896, he asked Grieg if he would compose something for his choral group and Grieg responded affirmatively. It was the only work he ever wrote specifically for an American group. The “Impromptu for the Grieg Male Chorus in Ft. Dodge, Iowa” (EG 175) was a setting of a poem by Bjørnsterne Bjørnson.

A large but involuntary gift

New piano companies and distributors frequently offered their customers American publications of popular and classical sheet music. It was to Grieg’s credit but also his misfortune that an abundance of sheet music was published in America by small upstart publishers. These publications were inexpensive, so most pianists and singers owned their own scores. 

The kind of protection provided to a composer under American copyright law depended on what country a composer was from. Even though Grieg’s publisher was in Germany, where copyright protection was provided, he was a citizen of Norway.  Since the United States had no copyright agreement with Norway, there was nothing in American copyright law to prevent someone from publishing an unauthorized work of Grieg.  

Grieg complained bitterly of the American copyright law and of the poorly printed editions of his works made in the United States. In a letter to Finck in 1900, Grieg lamented, “Some time ago a new method of carrying out contracts was introduced in America, in consequence of which my works are reprinted there in a way which affects me grievously. The thought of becoming popular in America, therefore, has for me as you see, exclusively an ideal charm.” 

Proper monetary remuneration and distribution through a reputable publishing firm, such as the one Grieg was associated with in Germany—the venerable “Edition Peters”—would have made an “ideal charm” a reality although more costly for the consumer. The cost was ultimately borne by Grieg who, in effect, gave his music to America.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Sylvia Reynolds Eckes

Sylvia Reynolds Eckes, DMA, is Professor Emerita of Piano, at Ohio University and Past President of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc. She has been appointed Officer, Knight First Class, of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for her promotion of Grieg in the United States.