Edvard Grieg goes to Germany

Happy Notes for Happy Children: A musical adventure with Edvard Grieg brought to you by Bill Halverson

ole bull

Photo: public domain
Ole Bull plays his violin.

Edvard didn’t like school very much, but he showed an interest in music when he was quite young. Soon after he composed “Larvik’s Polka,” he composed several more piano pieces that his parents thought were very good. They began to wonder: does Edvard have the talent to become a professional musician? Should we send him to a music school where he can get the training he needs to be really good at it? They had a distant relative by the name of Ole Bull, who was one of the most famous violinists in the world at that time. They decided to ask Ole Bull to help them make a decision. (Ole looks like he needs a haircut, doesn’t he?)

Ole Bull hears Edvard play 

One day, Ole Bull came to Edvard’s home and asked him to play some of the piano pieces he had composed. He liked what he heard. He told Edvard’s parents that he thought Edvard was a very talented boy and he should attend the best music school in the world. And where was that school? In Leipzig, Germany—about a thousand miles away from Bergen!

Edvard’s parents quickly agreed. Edvard reported that, after the conversation with his parents, Ole Bull looked him in the eye and said, “Edvard, you are going to go to Leipzig to become a musician!” And that is what happened. Edvard was just 15 years old. He hadn’t even finished high school.

Holy Smokes! I’m in Leipzig!

A Norwegian friend of Edvard’s parents went with him to Leipzig, then dropped him off at the rooming house where he was to live and returned to Norway. Edvard was alone in a city where he didn’t know anyone and, to make matters worse, where everybody spoke German. He had studied German as a schoolboy, but he hadn’t studied very hard and he didn’t understand German very well. He reported later that he was homesick and spent a lot of time crying during his first few days in Germany. He got over it, though, and for the first time in his life he began to study very hard. He was learning what he needed to know to become a professional musician.


Photo: public domain
Edvard Grieg as a student in Leipzig.

Another important thing that happened during the years he lived in Leipzig is that he heard performances by some of the best musicians in the world. That was a new and exciting experience for him. Nearly all of the musicians in Norway were amateurs, that is, people who made their living as fishermen or shopkeepers or something else and played their instruments as a hobby. They did their best, but their best often wasn’t very good. Leipzig was famous for its music. Have you heard of Johann Sebastian Bach? Robert Schuman? Felix Mendelssohn? They all lived and worked in Leipzig. As a matter of fact, it was Mendelssohn who started the Leipzig Conservatory, the school that Edvard attended. Leipzig was also the home of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the most famous orchestras in the world. Edvard was suddenly surrounded by great music, and he loved it.

A good student

Edvard studied very hard during his years at the Leipzig Conservatory and it paid off. His teachers considered him one of the best students in his class, and when the class graduated he was one of a small number of students chosen to perform some of his own compositions.

His graduation picture above was taken shortly before his 19th birthday. Look at his face. What do you think he is thinking? Here are some possibilities:

•    Stop telling me to smile. I don’t feel like smiling.

•    I’m hungry. I wish I had a pizza.

•    I’m looking forward to getting back to Norway so I won’t have to speak German all the time.

•    Okay, I’m a graduate of the famous Leipzig Conservatory. What in the world am I going to do now? How can I earn a living as a professional musician?

Edvard didn’t have a job waiting for him, so he went back to Bergen and lived with his parents. He gave a concert shortly after he got home. People clapped and said they enjoyed it. There was also an article about the concert in the Bergen newspaper. The man who wrote the article said it was a good concert and he enjoyed hearing Edvard play the piano, especially when he played some of his own compositions.

So what did Edvard do when the concert was over? Nothing important, as far as we know. He didn’t give any more concerts for the next several months. He didn’t compose any more music either. He apparently just sat around trying to figure out what to do next. What he finally decided to do turned out to be pretty exciting. We’ll tell that story in our next installment.

Stuff to do

  • Look up Leipzig, Germany, on a map. How do you think Edvard and his father’s friend got from Bergen to Leipzig?
  • Go online and type in Youtube Sæterjentens Søndag. This is a famous composition by Ole Bull. “Sæterjentens Søndag“ means “The Herd-girls’ Sunday.” Listen to the performance by Sissel Kyrkjebø. She is still living and is one of the most famous singers in Norway. She has recorded many songs by Grieg.
  • Do you have a piano in your house? If so, go to the piano and try to make up a tune. If it sounds good to you, that’s all that matters. Play it for someone who knows how to write it down for you. Then write, “Composed by [your name] on [date].” Who knows? Maybe someday you will be a famous composer and it would be fun to have a copy of your very first composition, wouldn’t it?

This article originally appeared in the October 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.