Grieg’s song “Våren” speaks to us today
Spring after a long winter
University of Wisonsin, Madison
Nordic music strongly reflects the seasons, as life is shaped by the long winter and the longing for spring. Quiet, loneliness, and isolation are frequent themes. With the long winter we have all endured during the pandemic—a winter that has stretched over our lives for a year—surely, we are all yearning for the light, warmth, and renewal of spring as a season and a spring for our souls.
If you have never listened to Edvard Grieg’s song, “Våren,” I invite you to use one of the links below to listen to a recording before reading any more of this article! Nothing could give a greater lift to the spirits than to hear this ode to spring. It is monumental yet intimate, epic yet personal, eternal yet of the moment. Two of the video recordings below include photos of Norway, adding the beauty of the Norwegian landscape to the beauty of the music
Edvard Grieg became the first Norwegian composer to achieve international recognition. His goal was to create a national form of music, giving the Norwegian people an identity. He was a strong supporter of the Nationalist Movement in Norway and an advocate of the language landsmål. While he is renowned for drawing inspiration from Norwegian folk music, he never actually used a folk song, except in a few arrangements of traditional songs.
“Våren” was written at a time when Norwegians were arguing among themselves about which form of their language constituted authentic Norwegian. As British Grieg scholar Beryl Foster and others have observed, the written language used by most educated Norwegians at that time was basically Danish, although the pronunciation was somewhat different from that used in Denmark.
Some of the leading voices in the Nationalist Movement argued, however, that real Norwegian, the authentic language of Norway, was to be found in the dialects spoken by people in the valleys and villages of rural Norway. One of those leaders was journalist and poet Aasmund Olafsson Vinje (1818–1870), who wrote in an amalgam of rural dialects called landsmål, the language of the people. The poem that he called “Våren” was written in that language.
Grieg’s setting of Vinje’s poem is strophic, with the same music for each verse. The sparse piano accompaniment, with sustained chords, allows the singer the freedom to fill out the meaning of each word and phrase with color, vibrancy, and legato. The piano part shifts from lower sonorities to shimmering high ones mid-verse. After each verse, the piano moves from low to high, encompassing the majesty of the earth and the sky. Grieg also arranged “Våren” for voice and orchestra, and you can hear both versions in the recordings listed below.
The poem describes the Norwegian landscape’s seemingly magical emergence from winter to spring, and refers to the thawing ice, flowers, the newly green grass, the birds, and butterflies. The poet wonders if this might be his last spring, observing that life has brought so much more than expected, and that some day all must come to its end.
The beauty and rigor of the Norwegian winter is reflected in several paintings by Monet (1840-1926). He painted 29 Norwegian scenes during a two-month stay in 1895, including this beautiful view of Sandvika, a village near Christiania. This painting is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Grieg wrote that Vinje “achieved something lovely and tender” in his repetition of the words “enno” and “enno ein gong” (yet, yet once again) to start new verses. These words reflect profound gratitude for the gift of life and not taking for granted the renewal of spring. The sadness and wonder of the transience and transitions of life are all expressed in this song, which seems to embrace us with a tender generosity and understanding.
Enjoy beautiful renditions of Grieg’s “Våren”:
Barbara Bonney, soprano
Diamonds in the Snow, Antonio Pappano piano (Decca)
Grieg Songs with Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
conductor Neeme Järvi, including photos of Norway (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anne Sofie Von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Grieg: Songs, Bengt Forsberg, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)
Kirsten Flagstad, soprano with the London Symphony Orchestra
conductor Sir Malcom Sargent
Håkan Hagegård, baritone
Warren Jones piano, including photos of Norway
Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano
Grieg Songs Complete, Vol. 4, Roger Vignoles piano (BIS)
This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.