A taste of cod

The unique flavor and “secret depth” of Norway’s national composer

Knut Dahle

Photo: Public domain
Knut Dahle (1834-1921), who was responsible for contacting Edvard Grieg to find a way to preserve the tunes he had learned from the legendary fiddlers, Myllarguten Targjei Augundsson and Håvard Gibøen.

Past President, Edvard Grieg Society of America

Edvard Grieg once said, “My music seems to have a taste of cod in it.” If music has a taste, this statement could have come as close to reality as its implied humor. His hometown of Bergen was a center of the cod industry, and the unique design of the Bryggen wharf area accommodated the boats that regularly brought in the fish from the North Sea. Grieg grew up close to the wharf. His father was the proprietor of a firm that exported fish and other seafood abroad. He undoubtedly experienced the distinctive odors of the fish as they were sold and traded and certainly got his share of this Norwegian staple. 

In addition to the “taste,” Grieg’s music conjures up the sights and sounds of nature he encountered on countless walks through the countryside and the folk music he experienced as a child. It is no wonder that Grieg’s compositions brought fresh and new sounds to the extensive literature of the Romantic period. This music established his place as one of the most original and interesting composers among the great Romantics. 

From the folk music of his homeland, Grieg inherited a zest for harmonic and rhythmic adventurousness. In a letter to his American biographer, Henry T. Finck, he wrote, “The realm of harmony has always been my dream world, and my relationship to this harmonious way of feeling and the Norwegian folk songs has been a mystery, even for me. I have understood that the secret depth one finds in our folk songs is basically owing to the richness of their untold harmonic possibilities.”  

His genius was in creating music that was accessible to an international audience, while revealing the obscure and bewildering “secret depth” of folk song. His unusual and often bold harmonies were striking to the critics of central Europe. Those who criticized other aspects of his music could not deny their fascination with its harmonic aspects.

His method of handling the unorthodox and intricate rhythmic patterns of Norwegian folk music often brought a rustic spirit to an otherwise classical approach to his music. Ongoing dotted rhythms mimed the inflections of the language as well as the lilt of popular folk dances such as the Springar. 

He added drone sounds in his instrumental music. These were inspired from the drone effects of sympathetic vibrations from the four additional strings of the Hardanger fiddle. Other features include alternating duple and triplet patterns, embellishments, modal and major-minor twists in phrases.

Although Norwegian folk music traits were at the core of Grieg’s style, his music reflected other influences at various periods of his life. Grieg obtained a solid foundation in traditional theory at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. His early works for piano were influenced by the music of Felix Mendelssohn, the founder of the conservatory, and of Robert Schumann. 

After his studies at Leipzig, Grieg quickly became one of the composers on the cutting edge of a new development in music called nationalism. This movement responded, in part, to political situations at the time. Serious composers of the outlying countries of central Europe sought out the folk music of their own countries to be an integral part of their compositions and, as a result, to affirm the rich culture of their country. The young Grieg was fervent in breathing the spirit of Norway into his music. At the outset of his career, he received encouragement from his Norwegian and Danish friends to pursue this special mission. He was already writing in a new style that would inspire the upcoming nationalist composers of other countries. 

The composer had periods in his life when his music was influenced by personal occurrences. His health issues often dominated his mood and outlook on life. The melancholy nature which pervades much of his music can be directly traced to despondent moods during periods of illness and other personal experiences. However gloomy it may sound, though, there is a sincerity and transparency of expression. 

Grieg was also inspired by hearing works of great composers on his frequent trips to Europe. Throughout his career, however, the essential personal traits of his style remained. They were most pronounced in works he labeled with descriptive titles depicting Norwegian life, such as names of dance tunes, folk songs, places, and events in his homeland. 

Towards the end of his life, Grieg wrote his most original and daring music. The Norwegian Peasant Dances, Slåtter, Op. 72 were arrangements of original Hardanger fiddle dance tunes based on transcriptions by the composer Johan Halvorsen. A famous Hardanger fiddle player from Tinn in Telemark was anxious for a composer to write down the tunes he had learned, so that they would be preserved for the future. Grieg knew that Halvorsen was well acquainted with the Hardanger fiddle, and he asked him to transcribe the tunes. Grieg’s enthusiasm and motivation for arranging the transcriptions for piano resulted in 17 dynamic works, which earned their place among post-Romantic styles. These pieces were difficult technically and conceptually, but they immediately caught the attention of great pianists such as Percy Grainger. Grieg considered Grainger’s performance and understanding of the works as second to none. 

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of fine pianists who have recorded and performed the Slåtter, and other rarely heard compositions. With the recent rise in performances of the relatively unknown works, the public is discovering a more complete picture of Grieg and the breadth of his unique style.

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

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.