Grieg’s final bow
WILLIAM H. HALVERSON
Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was a celebrated performer as well as a composer throughout his professional life. His first public concert was in Karlshamn, Sweden, on Aug. 18, 1861. His last was in Kiel, Germany, on April 26, 1907. During those 47 years, he gave over 300 public concerts in addition to innumerable impromptu performances at private gatherings at his home Troldhaugen outside of Bergen and in the homes of musical friends.
As a performer, Grieg appeared in three different roles: solo pianist, accompanist, and conductor.
Grieg as piano soloist
Grieg was a competent pianist, but he did not claim to be, nor was he regarded by others as a virtuoso. Critics especially praised the sensitivity of his interpretations, especially when he was performing his own compositions.
“There is something supernatural, something ethereal in his touch and his style,” wrote one reviewer. “He played everything with the utmost delicacy and an unusually attractive, supple, fine-sounding touch, which I have never heard before. In so doing, he brought out the unique characteristics of each piece—something that only the composer can accomplish.”
He often performed the piano part in his famous “Piano Concerto in A Minor.” His health was always fragile, however—he suffered the permanent collapse of one lung when he was in his teens—and over time, it became increasingly difficult for him to play this challenging composition in a way that met his own high standards. His last performance in that role was at a concert in London on May 1, 1888. Thereafter, he limited his public piano playing to less demanding works.
A fine recording of Grieg playing solo piano is available, thanks to the invention of the Welte-Mignon recording system in 1904. This system was superior to other player piano systems in that it preserved the tempo, phrasing and dynamics—in short, the artistry—of a performance rather than just the notes. The piano roll recorded by Grieg on April 17, 1906, still exists and has been used to create a high-quality modern CD that is commercially available.
Grieg as an accompanist
Grieg continued to perform as an accompanist until the end of his career, sometimes with his wife, Nina, sometimes with other soloists. His program in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Jan. 20, 1894, is typical of his public concerts at the height of his career.
It consisted entirely of his own compositions. “Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 13,” with Grieg at the piano and Danish violinist Anton Svendsen; “Waltz Caprices Op. 37” for piano four hands, performed by Edvard and Nina; two sets of newly composed songs from opp. 58, 59 and 60, performed by Edvard and Nina; and the whole of “Lyric Pieces VI, Op. 57,” performed by the composer.
Note that Grieg was actively involved in the performance of every piece in a program that must have lasted about two hours. No wonder he often complained that he was physically and emotionally drained after each public performance.
Grieg as orchestral conductor
Grieg’s debut as an orchestral conductor occurred in 1867, when he was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in Oslo. Orchestral conducting would play an important role in his life for the remainder of his career. He sometimes lamented the time and energy that were required to prepare and perform concerts of which he and his musicians could be proud, for it impinged on his ability to devote himself to his primary calling as a composer.
Still, as a professionally trained musician whose standards of excellence had been raised to a very high level by hearing some of the greatest orchestras in Europe, he felt an obligation to do what he could to improve the quality of orchestral performances in Norway.
Grieg served as conductor of Harmonien, the predecessor of what is now the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, for two years (1880-82). He quickly developed a reputation as a hard taskmaster, demanding of his musicians that they aspire to the same high standards that he set for himself.
In December of his first season, he created an uproar when he summarily dismissed several members of the women’s chorus after they attended a dance instead of the dress rehearsal for an upcoming performance. Despite some public support for the young women’s behavior, Grieg refused to relent. They had failed to honor their written commitment to attend all rehearsals and performances of the ensemble and they were no longer welcome. Grieg felt vindicated when, after the concert, he received a statement signed by the remaining members of the chorus commending him for his courageous decision.
Grieg conducted a total of 15 Harmonien concerts (including four repeats) during his two years at the helm. He had composed relatively little for orchestra by this time, so only on two occasions did he use these concerts as an opportunity to present his own compositions.
In December 1881, he scheduled a performance of his “Piano Concerto in A Minor.” In the final concert of that season (March 30, 1882), he opened with his arrangement for women’s chorus and string orchestra of Franz Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23.
Grieg was not afraid to challenge his musicians by scheduling highly demanding works. For his very first concert with Harmonien, he scheduled Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” for piano, choir and orchestra, Op. 80. Other concerts to follow included symphonies by Joseph Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Johan Svendsen, as well as violin concertos by Beethoven and Max Bruch.
The concluding concert of the 1880 – 81 season featured a performance of the mighty Mozart “Requiem.” One year later, in the final concert of Grieg’s tenure as conductor of Harmonien, they performed Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” Because Harmonien consisted entirely of amateur musicians at this time, the successful performance of such monumental works is truly astonishing.
As Grieg’s fame grew, he began to receive invitations to conduct orchestras throughout Europe. During the years 1888 – 1907—the last 20 years of his life—he performed in no less than 147 concerts of which 86, or nearly 60%, were as a guest conductor.
In April 1907, Grieg took what turned out to be his final concert tour, conducting concerts of his own music in Munich, Berlin, and Kiel, Germany. The program varied from venue to venue, as did the collaborating artists, but in all cases included the “Piano Concerto in A Minor” and selected songs.
Grieg’s final bow
The printed program for a music festival scheduled to take place in Leeds, England, in October 1907, stated, “The musical public will welcome the special visit of Dr. Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian composer, who will conduct a first performance in this country of three scenes from his uncompleted opera, ‘Olav Trygvason.’ He will also conduct his pianoforte concerto.” The soloist in the concerto was to be the brilliant young Australian pianist, Percy Grainger, who had visited Edvard and Nina at Troldhaugen in July 1907.
Despite the pleas of his wife, his doctor, and his closest friends to cancel the trip to England, Grieg insisted that he was going to go. He spent his last days at Troldhaugen practicing the piano pieces that he was scheduled to play. He even had his tailor make some new clothing for the trip. But it was not to be. He was hospitalized Sept. 3, 1907, and died Sept. 4.
The nurse who attended him during his final hospitalization gave an account of the last moments of his life.
“Something remarkable occurred,” she said, “something that I will never forget. Grieg sat up in bed—augustly, as it were—and made a deep, courteous bow. It was not merely an involuntary movement of some kind. I had no doubt whatsoever that it was a real bow, exactly like those that artists make when they bow to the audience. Then he sank quietly back on the pillow and lay there, motionless.”
Grieg’s last performance was over. He had taken his final bow. But his music? Ah, yes! His music will live forever.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.