Peer Gynt in Morocco


Peer Gynt in Morocco

Image: Arthur Rackham / Wikimedia Commons
A depiction of “Anitra’s Dance” from a 1936 edition of the play Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen.

Happy Notes for Happy Kids

William H. Halverson
Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota

Let’s start with those bells we heard near the end of Peer Gynt, when he was hunted by the trolls. They are supposed to sound like church bells. Peer Gynt is rescued from the trolls by the sound of the church bells. How so? Well, trolls are evil, and they are afraid of anything good. Whenever they hear church bells, they stop whatever they are doing and run to find a hiding place. Suddenly Peer Gynt finds himself alone and you can bet he ran down that mountain as fast as he could.

What should he do now? If he goes back home, he will be arrested and sent to jail. If he stays in the mountains, the trolls will get him. He decides that his only hope is to get out of the country, so that is what he does. He has no plan. He just runs away with no idea where he is going. As it turns out, he will not return to Norway for many years.

Morning in Morocco

One day, he wakes up in Morocco and suddenly notices how beautiful the world is in the morning. Maybe he had been dreaming about Norway. It was morning in Morocco, but maybe he was remembering morning in Norway. Maybe he was remembering a sunrise that he had seen when he was a boy. His life had been so crazy for such a long time, but when he closed his eyes and remembered Norway, he felt happy, content, peaceful.

Grieg captured that feeling of beauty and quiet happiness in a piece of music that has become very famous. It is called “Morning Mood,” and it is known all over the world. Is it about morning in Morocco? In Norway? It doesn’t matter. It is about morning anywhere and everywhere.

Think about some morning when you woke up feeling happy. That’s the kind of morning Grieg had in mind when he wrote “Morning Mood.”

The Arab chieftain

Peer Gynt is a dreamer. He thinks that some day he will be king of the world. He just doesn’t know how it is going to happen. He is in a desert in Morocco, and all he has is the tattered clothing that he is wearing. He wonders: How in the world am I going to get what I need to become king of the world? Suddenly, he hears a horse whinny. “Wow!” he says. “That sounds like a horse. It must be in that cave over there.” He went to the cave, and sure enough, there was a beautiful horse. There was even more: there was clothing fit for a king, priceless jewels, and a tent. He put on the royal robes, buckled the sword to his body, pocketed the jewels, and claimed the tent as his own. Just like that, he looked like an Arab chieftain.

As “chieftain” Peer sits by his tent drinking coffee and smoking a weird pipe (called a hookah), a young Arab woman named Anitra and some of her friends see him and decide to have some fun. They pretend to think that he is the prophet Mohammed. He thinks they are being serious, so he pretends to really be the prophet. Anitra and her friends then dance and sing for Prophet Peer.

Grieg wrote a piece of music for this scene called “Arabian Dance.” It sounds quite different from anything Grieg or anyone else had ever written before. Grieg had never heard music composed by Arabs, but he imagined that if an Arab composer were to write music for this scene, this is what it would sound like.

“Anitra’s Dance”

Grieg was so fascinated by the idea of this Arab girl dancing for Peer that he wrote a second piece about it called “Anitra’s Dance.” It, too, is very well known. It is a happy little dance tune, and if you close your eyes while it is being played you can imagine a slender young woman dancing happily in time with the music.

Stuff to do

Look up Morocco on a map. What continent is Morocco in? How far is it from Norway to Morocco?

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 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.