Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

Happy Notes for Happy Kids


Photo: Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee / Colourbox
An aerial view of Copenhagen, Denmark, as the city skyline appears today shows many buildings from Edvard Grieg’s day.

Edvard Grieg knew deep down that the music he had composed in Leipzig, Germany, was not the kind of music he wanted to write. He was just following the rules of composition that he had learned in music school. It was kind of like “painting by number.” Have you ever done that? You may end up with a nice-looking painting, but it isn’t really your painting. It’s a copy of somebody else’s painting. To be a painter, you have to create your own painting. To be a composer, you have to create your own music.

Denmark, here I come!

After spending almost a year back home in Bergen, Norway, trying to figure out what to do next, Edvard decided to go to Copenhagen, Denmark. Why Copenhagen? For one thing, he had relatives there he already knew. They were his Uncle Herman Hagerup and his family. Another reason was that he wanted to hear music performed by really good musicians, and he knew that he could get that in Copenhagen. A third reason was that he wanted to find some other young composers like himself with whom he could talk about music. He needed some “music friends” to help him find a way forward.

And guess what: it all happened! His relatives welcomed him to Copenhagen and helped him find his way around. He quickly learned where he could go to hear good music and went to those places as often as he could. And most important of all, he got to know a group of young Danish musicians who welcomed him as a member of their group. Their names were Emil, Louis, Gottfried, Julius, August, and Benjamin. They all wanted to write music that sounded like it came from Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, or Denmark) and they tried to figure out together how to do that. They became quite well known in Copenhagen. They remained friends for the rest of their lives and in later years often wrote letters to each other.

Three other people became very important to Grieg during the two years he spent in Copenhagen in 1863 to 1865: Ole Bull, Rikard Nordraak, and Nina Hagerup.

Ole Bull’s advice

Do you remember Ole Bull? He was the famous musician who told Edvard’s parents to send Edvard to Leipzig to study music. During the summer after his first year in Copenhagen, Edvard took a trip to Bergen to see his family. During that trip he visited Ole Bull, who asked him to play some of the piano pieces he had written in Denmark. After listening to them he said, “Edvard, this is not the kind of music you should be writing. You should be writing Norwegian music. Listen to the folk tunes of Norway, learn that musical language, make it your own. If you do that, you can become famous. Otherwise, you are just wasting your time.”


Photo: Norwegian National Library
Portrait of Rikard Nordraak, about 1860.

Rikard Nordraak

The second person who became important to Edvard at this time was a young Norwegian musician by the name of Rikard Nordraak. Nordraak was just a year older than Edvard, but at this time when Grieg was trying to figure out how to write Norwegian-sounding music, Nordraak had already written the music that would one day become the Norwegian national anthem. According to Grieg, when he and Nordraak met for the first time Nordraak exclaimed, “Well, shall we two great men meet one another at last!” Grieg was shocked. He had always been unsure of himself, afraid people wouldn’t like his music. And here was Nordraak, calling himself and Edvard great men! “Until that moment,” Edvard said, “I had never considered the possibility of being or even having the ability to become a great man. I was just a student. I was also timid, shy, and sickly. But this cocksureness was just the medicine I needed.”

What happened next was almost like a miracle. Grieg started to write Norwegian-sounding music. The first piano pieces that he wrote in this new style were called Humoresques, written when he was 21 years old. Some people didn’t like them because they sounded so different from anything anybody had ever written before, but Edvard didn’t care. This music came from his heart. It was the kind of music he had been searching for, the kind he would write for the rest of his life.

nina grieg

Photo: Bergen Public Library
Portrait of Nina Grieg in her younger years.

Edvard meets Nina

The third person who became very important to Grieg at this time was his cousin, Nina Hagerup. They fell in love, and Grieg often said that all of his songs from this period were written for her. Four “Melodies of the Heart” written at this time were the first songs Edvard wrote in his new style. One of them is his most famous song, “I Love but Thee.” It is often sung at weddings.

Stuff to do:

Find Bergen, Norway, and Copenhagen, Denmark, on a map. How do you think Edvard got from Bergen to Copenhagen? (He didn’t take an airplane. Do you know why?)

Look up the word humoresque in a dictionary.

Google YouTube Grieg Humoresques. Play the recording by Leif Ove Andsnes.

Google YouTube Grieg Op. 5. Listen to Barbara Bonney sing “Jeg elsker dig,” Grieg’s most famous song sung in Norwegian.

Go online to Spotify and type in Melissa I love but thee. You will hear the same song sung by Melissa Holm-Johansen in an English translation by William H. Halverson.

This article originally appeared in the November 2023 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.