Grieg’s student years in Germany

On the road to greatness

pages fro Edvard Grieg's exercise books from his time at the Leipzig conservatory

Image: The Grieg Archives, Bergen Public Library
Two pages from Grieg’s exercise books, showing the choral fugue Dona Nobis Pacem (EG 159), composed January 1862.

BJØRNAR UTNE-REITAN
Oslo

A few months after turning 15, Edvard Grieg began his music studies at the famous Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. What did he learn there? What did he experience?

Before enrolling at the conservatory, Grieg had received solid musical training in his hometown, Bergen. His mother, a piano teacher with a brilliant reputation, had taught him from an early age. In addition to learning to play the piano, he had begun experimenting with composition. But it was in Leipzig he would receive his formal education. He lived and studied in the German city from 1858 to 1862, spending a few months back in Norway in 1860 to recover from pneumonia. (In connection with this incident, one of his lungs stopped functioning. Grieg lived the rest of his life with only one functioning lung.)

In “My First Success,” an autobiographical sketch he wrote in 1903, Grieg looks back at his student years. He writes that he expected to return from Leipzig as “a wizard in the kingdom of music!” but blames himself for leaving “more or less as stupid as I was when I entered.” He also claims that the famous Norwegian violin virtuoso and composer Ole Bull, “that fairytale idol of whom I had dreamt but had never before seen,” visited the Grieg family at Landås in the summer of 1858, heard him play, consulted his parents, and returned saying “you are to go to Leipzig to become an artist!” 

Grieg and Bull scholars have, however, argued that it is highly unlikely that Bull came to Landås in 1858 or that he proposed that Grieg should study in Leipzig. This much-told anecdote is thus rather dubious. Most scholars also agree that Grieg grossly underestimated the value of his Leipzig studies when claiming that he learned nothing. As I will demonstrate in the following account, which is mainly built on other sources than “My First Success,” Grieg did indeed learn and experience much in Leipzig.

Regardless of who “sent” him there, the young Edvard Grieg enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory in October 1858. There, he had the opportunity to study with some of the most prominent music teachers in Europe at the time. One of his piano teachers was, for example, the Bohemian composer and renowned piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles (who also had been a friend of both Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn). When Grieg gave his first official public concert in Sweden in August 1861, he performed three of Moscheles’ 24 Etudes (Op. 70). He also performed music by Mendelssohn (Capriccio Brilliant, Op. 22) and Robert Schumann (Kreisleriana, Op. 16). 

Mendelssohn had founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, where both he and Schumann had taught during the first years after its opening. Grieg’s program at his first concert thus had clear ties to the institution where he was currently studying. The music of Schumann in particular would have a profound influence on Grieg’s musical style.

a young Edvard Grieg in Leipzig

Image: The Grieg Archives, Bergen Public Library
The young Edvard Grieg as a student in Leipzig, Germany, photographed in 1859.

Grieg used his student years in Leipzig to hear as much music as possible, both inside and outside of the conservatory at the famous concert hall, Gewandhaus, which had close ties with the conservatory. His collection of concert programs, which has been preserved, indicates that he regularly experienced hearing symphonies, chamber music, church music, operas, and solo recitals. He heard performances of works by a number of different composers.

Beethoven was by far the most-programmed composer but works by Schumann, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Niels Gade also regularly appear in the programs. On two occasions in Leipzig, Grieg attended performances of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 54). His own widely performed Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 16), composed in 1868, shares several similarities with the Schumann concerto. 

Music theory (harmony and counterpoint) courses were an important part of Grieg’s formal education. He studied with some of the most famous music theorists of the 19th century, including Moritz Hauptmann and Ernst Friedrich Richter. They had worked at the conservatory since its founding by Mendelssohn in 1843 and were authors of influential, albeit very different, theory books. 

In addition to being a professor of music theory at the conservatory, Hauptmann was also Thomaskantor, a highly respected position in German church music that had been held by Bach from 1723 to 1750. After Hauptmann’s death in 1868, Richter would succeed Hauptmann as Thomaskantor. 

Grieg preserved three books containing his theory exercises. These books, containing a total of 967 exercises, are now an invaluable source for scholars. They prove that Grieg received thorough training in music theory, training that especially emphasized contrapuntal techniques. 

The last stage of the theory education was writing fugues. Some of these fugues go beyond dry exercises and may justifiably be reckoned as student compositions. The expressive Fugue in F minor for String Quartet (EG 114), the choir fugue Dona Nobis Pacem (EG 159), and several fugues for piano and organ have posthumously been published and recorded.

While Grieg studied piano and music theory throughout his time at the conservatory (and always in the class of two different teachers at the same time!), he studied composition only during the last year and with just one teacher, Carl Reinecke. 

In contrast to the theory studies, we know rather little about Grieg’s studies with Reinecke. We know that he wrote a string quartet for him, which was performed at Grieg’s first official concert in Bergen in May 1862. The quartet, which was in D minor, is now considered lost. 

Grieg did, however, compose several works outside of the conservatory classroom that have been preserved. This includes the 23 Short Pieces for Piano (EG 104), composed in 1858 and 1859. In 1861, he composed three of the pieces that would be published as Four Piano Pieces (Op. 1). Grieg dedicated this first opus, published by Peters in 1863, to one of his piano teachers at the conservatory, Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel. Grieg’s second opus, a set of four songs to German texts, was also composed in Leipzig in 1861.

In April 1862, Grieg concluded his formal studies with a public concert where he premiered the three pieces from his first opus. He left Leipzig with a diploma, as well as letters of recommendation from some of the teachers, attesting that he had been a diligent and talented student. Grieg had probably not become “a wizard in the kingdom of music,” but he had certainly learned and experienced much. During his student years in Leipzig, he had become a proficient pianist, experienced performances of works by a number of different composers, and acquired valuable skills in music theory and compositional craft.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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