Solveig’s Song: A beautiful finale

Happy Notes for Happy Children

Peer Gunt and Solveig

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Peer Gynt and Solveig are pictured in a lithograph by Norwegian artist Elling Reitan.

Brought to you by William H. Halverson

Next to Peer himself, Solveig is the most important character in Peer Gynt, even though she is on stage for only a few minutes during the play.  She appears briefly as a teenage girl in Acts I and II, as a middle-aged woman in Act IV, and as an old woman in Act V.

Peer and Solveig are about as different as any two people could be. Peer is wild, Solveig is calm. Peer tells lies, Solveig always tells the truth. Peer brags all the time, Solveig is humble. Peer never keeps his promises, Solveig always does.

In spite of these differences, Solveig falls in love with Peer and wants to be his wife. When Peer gets in trouble and flees to the mountains, Solveig goes looking for him. She knows he has done naughty things, but she is sure that beneath all that naughtiness he really is a good person. That good person is the Peer she loves, and she wants to spend her life with him.

She goes looking for him up in the mountains—this is just before he has those scary adventures with the trolls that we heard about in Lesson 7—and he builds a little hut for her to live in. Then he leaves her, promising some day to return, and she promises to wait for him. She will not see him again for many, many years.

Solveig sings for Peer

The next time we see Solveig, she is a middle-aged woman. Peer is in Morocco. He has just been pretending to be the prophet Mohammed and Anitra and her friends have just danced for him. Then they steal everything he has except the clothes he is wearing and leave him alone in the desert.

Suddenly he remembers Solveig, that nice Norwegian girl who had loved him and had promised to wait for him. He imagines her sitting by the little hut he had built for her and singing a song. “Solveig’s Song” is one of the most beautiful songs he ever wrote.

Here are the words in an English version by William H. Halverson:

The winter may pass and the spring disappear,

The summer too may vanish and then the year,

But in my heart I know you will come back again,

And as I have promised you will find me waiting then.

God strengthen you now if you’re wandering alone,

God grant you peace and joy if you stand before his throne.

Here I will wait till again you appear,

And if you are in heaven I’ll meet you there, my dear.

Peer survives a shipwreck

Strangely enough, in spite of that beautiful memory, Peer Gynt still is not ready to return to Norway. He wanders here and there and eventually ends up in Panama.

Finally, when he is an old man with a gray beard, he gets on a ship bound for Norway.

But something terrible happens: the ship sinks in a storm! Grieg wrote a piece of music called “The Shipwreck” to describe this scene. You can hear the water rising as the ship goes down.

The voice at the end of the piece is Peer Gynt crying out, “Help! A boat! Help me! I’ll die!”

Back in Norway at last

Most of the people on the ship drown, but Peer survives. He wanders around Norway and remembers some of the things that had happened to him when he was a boy. Finally he finds his way to Solveig’s hut, and guess what: she is still waiting for him!

When she sees him, she cries out, “It’s him! It’s him! Praise be to God!” She doesn’t blame him for leaving her alone all these years. She sits down and invites Peer to kneel beside her and place his head in her lap.

She caresses his face, then sings to him as a mother might sing to a child. What she sings is called “Solveig’s Cradle Song” (English version by William H. Halverson):

Rest in slumber, my darling boy!

I will rock you and I will guard you.

Sitting on mother’s lap, content to play,

My boy has been with me the whole livelong day.

Calmly he lay upon his mother’s breast

All the whole livelong day. 

God grant you blessed rest!

Close to my heart my boy has safely lain

All the whole livelong day, sought rest all in vain.

Rest in slumber, my darling boy!  Sleep! Sleep!

I will rock you and I will guard you.

Sleep! Sleep!

I will rock you and I will guard you.

Rest in slumber, my darling boy!

Peer Gynt didn’t know what he was looking for during those years when he was wandering all over the world, but when he finally returned to Norway he realized that what he had been looking for all along was Solveig. He was home at last.

STUFF TO DO

  • Google “Solveig’s Song.” Play the clip of either Sissel Kyrkjebø or Marita Solberg singing this song. Close your eyes and pretend that you are listening to an older woman sitting in a tiny hut in the mountains of Norway.
  • Google “Grieg Shipwreck.” Play the clip of the Gothenburg Symphony performing this piece.
  • Google “Solveig’s Cradle Song.” Play the clip of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra performing this piece. Again, close your eyes and pretend.
  • Talk about some time when you have made a promise. Why did you make it? Did you keep it?
    Discuss: Why do we make promises to each other? Why is it important to keep our promises?

This article originally appeared in the June 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.