“Yes, life is as singular as a folk song; one is never sure if it should be played in major or minor.”
His father’s side hails from Scotland. After emigrating to Norway around 1770 from the little Scottish town of Cairnbulg, his great-grandfather settled in Bergen as a shipping merchant. Edvard’s father, Alexander Grieg, inherited the successful family enterprise, also becoming the Norwegian consul to England. Gesine Judithe, Edvard’s mother, is daughter to the influential Edvard Hagerup, prefect of Bergen and several-term member of the Norwegian parliament, Stortinget. Gesine’s parents were well-off and wished to provide their children the best possible educations; Gesine, displaying great musical promise, travelled to Hamburg to study music. Back in Bergen, she was to play a vital role in the musical life of the city, both as a singer soloist and as a respected pianist.
Gesine is Edvard’s first piano teacher: capable and stern, but loving. The secure childhood years on Strandgaten must have marked Edvard’s sensitive spirit, providing him impulses to last a lifetime: suspenseful games in narrow, dim Bergen alleys; Vågen, the city’s harbour and heart, where foreign sailing vessels bring fresh breezes from the wide world; the fish market, where the odour of fish sits in one’s clothing, a meeting place for city residents and smart-mouthed street gangs. Grieg himself says,
“There is both cod and coalfish in my music.”
In the Grieg home, music is paramount. Gesine arranges weekly musical soirées where she herself performs; both Mozart and Weber are in her repertoire. Edvard’s siblings are all musically inclined, and as part of their upbringing the Grieg children, like children in other well-to-do Bergen families, accompany their parents to recitals of the city orchestra, “Harmonien”. Edvard is exultant when listening to his mother’s solo performances in pieces both musically and technically demanding.
After 1853, life takes a new turn for Edvard. He is enrolled in Tanks School. The school, with all its requirements and obligations, is not to Edvard’s liking, and he makes every attempt to avoid it. At home he has been devising small piano compositions, a source of happiness for him there. At the school, such endeavours are hardly taken seriously; he is met with derisive comments from teachers, such as, “So, the little scamp is musical?” But then the summer of 1858 arrives. Ole Bull, the “fairy-tale god”, as Edvard calls him, visits the Grieg country home “Landås”, and Edward plays for him. Celebrated violin virtuoso Bull, family friend and brother to Gesine’s brother-in-law, convinces Edvard’s parents that it is time to cultivate his prodigious musical talent. Edvard is to go “to Leipzig to become an artist”. Fifteen years old, Edvard travels to Leipzig to study music at the conservatory there, at this time Europe’s foremost. He finds the strict discipline oppressive and the conservative instruction hardly inspiring. But the unusually gifted pupil absorbs impulses from the city’s musical circles. He attends every orchestra rehearsal in the city’s elaborate concert hall, Gewandhaus, and listens to the renowned Gewandhaus orchestra. This proves decisive for his musical development, compensating for what he feels the conservatory has neglected to provide him: sound skills in compositional technique. Later he reminisces, “It was a delight to hear so much splendid music. It refined both my spirit and my musical sensibilities.” His studies in Leipzig are fateful for another reason: in the spring of 1860, Edvard contracts a serious lung illness, so severe that the energetic Gesine makes the lengthy journey to Leipzig to tend her son and bring him back home. One lung is permanently damaged and his health suffers a lasting setback. Nevertheless, ignoring the advice of his doctors, the following autumn Edvard returns to Leipzig to complete his studies. Despite his disparaging attitude towards everything taught him at the conservatory, he graduates in April of 1862 with exceptional exam results. His teachers describe him as “a highly noteworthy musical talent”.
In 1863, Grieg arrives in Copenhagen, his home for the next three years. Here he meets individuals essential for his continuing musical evolution: Danish composers Hartmann and Gade, who teach him to appreciate the distinctiveness of the “Nordic” tone. After the pedantries of the Leipzig years, Grieg finds the new atmosphere exhilarating. Gade encourages him to write a symphony; it is to be the only one he composes, completed in 1864 but never printed and seldom performed. Grieg is far from pleased with the result, strongly influenced as it is by Mendelssohn and the German school, from both of which he strongly wishes to disassociate himself. In Copenhagen, the epoch-making event occurs: he meets Norwegian composer Rikard Nordraak. Through Nordraak and his passion for the uniquely Norwegian in music, Grieg finds his own Norwegian identity as well as the confidence that he will discover an outlet for it in his own music. In his own words, “… I believe the journey to myself went through Nordraak.” He now composes
Humoresker for piano, the work in which his “Norwegian style” achieves its breakthrough.
It is also in Copenhagen that Grieg is reunited with his cousin Nina Hagerup, with whom he has not had contact since his Bergen childhood. Nina possesses an enchanting singing voice and a rare talent for public speaking; Edvard falls deeply in love with her. Inspired by Danish poet H.C. Andersen’s poem, “The Heart’s Melodies”, he composes five beautiful and moving songs for her, among them, “I Love You”. They are engaged, but their families are far from enthusiastic about the match. Nina’s mother, the Danish-born Adeline, is particularly sceptical. She is familiar with the artistic life, having in Bergen become the country’s first female theatre instructor. An artistic career is arduous and demanding and chances for failure great, she believes, warning, “He is nothing, he has nothing, and he creates music no one wishes to hear.”
Despite this familial opposition, Edvard and Nina are married in Copenhagen in June of 1867. Close family are not invited. The couple now move to Christiania (present-day Oslo), where Grieg begins a two-year appointment as conductor for the Philharmonic Society. Bustling days with exhausting rehearsals and recitals for both choir and orchestra ensue; additionally, in order to augment their limited income, many, many hours of piano lessons in Øvre Vollgade. “Nuisances”, Grieg calls them.
In April of 1868, daughter Alexandra is born, the Griegs’ only child. That summer they are visiting in Denmark, and in profound happiness Grieg writes the ingenious Piano Concerto in A minor. Its premiere is performed in Copenhagen by Scandinavia’s leading pianist, Edmund Neupert, to great acclaim. The composer himself is absent; he must attend to his obligations in Christiania!
Edvard, Nina and little Alexandra pass the summer of 1869 in Bergen at their beloved Landås, outside Bergen. Tragedy strikes. Alexandra contracts cerebrospinal meningitis and dies. Burdened with grief, Grieg still has his art: “… it has, more than anything else, a soothing power that surpasses all sorrow.” Grieg spends considerable time with Ole Bull this summer; this has a renewing effect on him. A grant from Stortinget is also encouraging, providing him the means for longed-for foreign travel. Edvard and Nina leave Bergen, and after stops in Christiania and Copenhagen, they turn southward towards Berlin, Leipzig, Vienna and the journey’s goal, Rome, where they arrive just before Christmas. In Rome, Grieg finds what he has been seeking: “… peace in which to meditate upon my own life and upon the greatness that surrounds me, the daily impulses of a world of beauty.” Here awaits also another crucial encounter; he meets world-renowned piano virtuoso Frantz Liszt. Grieg writes, “It was my inconceivable fortune to be invited to an audience with him, and he played – no, I no longer wish to hear the piano again.”
Grieg also plays for and accompanies Liszt, and most wondrous of all, Liszt is familiar with Grieg’s compositions. Grieg respects and admires the brilliant pianist, whose comments are critical for his artistic confidence. At a recital at which Grieg’s Second Violin Sonata in G major is on the program, Liszt, in the audience, rises and applauds. With some irony Grieg writes to his parents, “The thing is, when Liszt claps, everyone claps, the one worse than the other.”
The years leading up to 1874 feature several collaborations with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Bjørnson’s dynamic personality, captivating presence and contagious exhuberance for “the Norwegian” appeal to Grieg. In Bjørnson’s writing he finds material for several of his best known works, and in an artistically productive period he produces “Foran Syden’s Kloster” (“Before a Southern Convent”), “Bergliot”, the music to “Sigurd Jorsalfar” and “Landkjenning” (“Landsighting”), all as accompaniments to Bjørnson’s texts.
In this period, Grieg has another auspicious encounter, one that, on a personal level, becomes the most important in his life: Law student Frants Beyer from Bergen is studying in Christiania and desires piano instruction from Grieg. This meeting initiates a lifelong friendship, marked by a rare, deep-felt solidarity and a mutual devotion to music and nature. Grieg expresses his feelings for this friendship eloquently: “For me, you will, to my last breath, represent something of the best and noblest I have encountered along my way.”
Beginning in 1874, Grieg receives an annual national artist endowment; the couple is now more often at liberty to live outside of Christiania. In January, playwright Henrik Ibsen writes to Grieg requesting that he compose the music for his play, “Peer Gynt”; Ibsen feels that Grieg has both the artistic and personal maturity for the task. Grieg himself bridles at the prospect of writing music for “...
the most unmusical of all subjects.” Nevertheless, he accepts, taking on the lavish, nearly impossible project. During the summer of 1874, he borrows wharf owner Rasmus Rolfsen’s little cottage “Elsesro”, situated in Rolfsen’s yard in Sandviken, and sets to work. The first drafts of the music to “Peer Gynt” arise in a rush of enthusiasm, but Grieg’s interest begins to wane, and soon the work requires greater effort. He says, “… I still lug around with me the music to “Peer Gynt”, in which I no longer find interest.” In February, “Peer Gynt” premieres in Christiania, to Grieg’s music.
The year 1875 marks a climactic juncture in Grieg’s life: within a short time both of his parents die. Edvard and Nina remain in Bergen at Strandgaten 152, the childhood home where now his brother John lives with his large family. In these discouraging circumstances, Ballad for Piano is written. It is Grieg’s finest work for piano, a sombre, dramatic and keenly earnest composition. This period is characterized by a deep personal crisis, both emotional and artistic. Yet, as so often occurs in the conflict between art and life, a spark of creativity is lit, culminating in the music to “Six Poems by Henrik Ibsen”. In these poems, articulating the ponderous destiny of humanity, Grieg finds expression for his own personal battle of the soul.
Grieg is now a skilled conductor and an accomplished pianist, but believes that the composer in him has been neglected. He senses the need to distance himself from recent ordeals; to find the peace in which to collect himself and concentrate his artistic energy. In 1877, he receives invitations from close friends in both Copenhagen and Leipzig, but city life does not tempt him. He is in need of a fresh, healthy, “authentic” environment. He yearns for the verdant landscapes and bold contrasts of western Norway. “No doubt I will end up on some or another Norwegian farm,” he writes to a friend. On Midsummer’s Day, Edvard and Nina retire to the lonely little farm Øvre Børve in Ullensvang in Hardanger. He says himself, “…
it had to be done if I wasn’t to perish as an artist.” Here they pass the summer, but a winter up on the mountain would prove too arduous. Yet Grieg has lost his heart to Hardanger and will remain here. From Børve they move down to the small village of Lofthus, where they have accepted the hospitality of Brita and Hans Utne, a couple with whom they become fast friends. Grieg wishes “to immerse myself in solitude and nature”, and in Lofthus he builds his first “composer cabin”. The villagers nickname it “Komposten” (“the compost”). He now embarks on his stirring and masterful chamber music piece String Quartet in G minor from “a significant episode of my life, rich in events and spiritual tremors.” Also “The Mountain Thrall”, rooted in lush Norwegian folk tunes, comes to life between the fjords and the dark mountains of Hardanger.
In time, though, Hardanger becomes too confining for Grieg. Once again, he seeks out positions as a conductor or pianist; his creative output experiences a long interruption.
In the spring of 1880, Nina and Edvard are back in their hometown, again on Strandgaten in John’s populous family home. Grieg comes into possession of a small volume of poetry penned by Telemark poet Aasmund Olavson Vinje. Since a child, Grieg has admired the New Norwegian language for its expressive and musical quality. He is now captivated by Vinje’s graceful verse, and as the spring sun thaws the ice, Grieg’s artistic spirit is set free. On a wave of inspiration, in the course of a few days he composes “Twelve Melodies for the Poetry of A.O. Vinje”. Among these are the intensely lyrical “Spring” and “Heartache”, high points of Grieg’s romantic art. He explains, “… besides the purely spiritual, also the splendour of Hardanger is concealed in these songs.”
In the summer of 1880, Grieg applies for the position of conductor for the Harmonien Musical Society orchestra, which position he holds for two years, until April of 1882. Grieg is exacting and controversial, but he is also an uncommonly popular conductor for his hometown philharmonic.
After two exhausting but successful years with “Harmonien”, Grieg’s health is weakening. Edvard and Nina travel to the fashionable and “indecently expensive” Karlsbad in Bohemia: the region’s famous spring water is said to cure stomach ailments as well as most other complaints. Yet no bath, regardless how famous, can compare with the restorative effects of Hardanger’s fresh air. That summer finds Edvard and Nina again in Lofthus, and in “Komposten”, work commences on the great Cello Sonata, later dedicated to Edvard’s brother, John.
The Griegs return to Bergen in the autumn of 1882 to settle down, renting a small house on Engen. From here Grieg enjoys an unobstructed view of “the old theatre”, a sight that surely awakes pleasant memories of his erstwhile benefactor, Ole Bull, who in 1850 established the first Norwegian theatre in just this building.
Grieg’s development as an artist has suffered another setback in recent years. He has composed little, feels restless, and his relationship to Nina becomes increasingly strained, temperamental and stubborn as they both are. In 1883, their relationship has been so severely tested that Grieg leaves. He longs for Paris, for there lives the young and comely twenty-six-year-old Leis Schjelderup, a painter from Bergen. With Paris as his goal, he sets out on an extensive and exhausting concert tour. He holds concerts in numerous cities in the Netherlands and Germany. In the Netherlands he pauses to rest at the home of the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen, who becomes his best non-Norwegian friend. Throughout the tour, Frants Beyer holds contact: they exchange countless letters. Beyer’s warm friendship and his unique gift for building bridges bear results. The Paris plans are abandoned; the ominous clouds threatening Edvard and Nina’s life together pull away, and under Italy’s pale skies the two find each other again. In January of 1884, the four friends, Edvard, Nina, Marie, and Frants, meet and travel amicably together on a vacation to Rome. The Italian holiday rejuvenates Grieg, and back in Lofthus he writes his stunning rococo-style piece, “The Holberg Suite”, originally for piano, later rearranged for string orchestra.
Grieg is now forty one and senses a need for stability: a secure, good home, preferably near friends Frants and Marie Beyer. These two have already constructed their paradise, “Nesset”, idyllically situated by Nordåsvannet, just outside Bergen. Edvard and Nina purchase the neighbouring plot; only a small, picturesque bay separates them from “Nesset”. Edvard and Nina’s home, dubbed by them “Troldhaugen” (“Troll Hill”), is erected close enough that the two families can signal to each other from their windows. Grieg throws himself into his new home, a place “more fair than the fairest”. Elated, he writes to a friend in Denmark, “No opus has filled me with greater excitement than this. I measure and draw half the day.” As architect for the villa they choose Grieg’s cousin, Bergen architect Schak Bull. In 1885, as March draws to a close and nature adorns herself in spring, the house is completed. Edvard and Nina can move into their long-anticipated home, and the cheerful call, “tra-a-ho”, echoes steadily back and forth over the bay.
But not even Troldhaugen in spring garb, its hedges in full bloom and the blackbird’s jubilant spring notes in the air, can persuade Grieg to sit still for long. His restless artistic nature once again reaches out for new, invigorating acquaintances, for concert pianos or the conductor podium, expectant faces in the audience. His dear Bergen once again feels like an outpost, tedious and marked by “despairing listlessness and materialism”. Already in April of the same year he writes to a friend, “In the fall I must find some devilishness to get me out of here.” But first there is summer, and we find friends Edvard and Frants in Jotunheimen, on the first of many mountain walks. These outings remain high points in their lives. In acute joy over the mountain’s grandeur and “the authenticity” they find there, the bonds of their friendship are further cemented, restoring in Grieg a“vitality in both body and soul”.
It is autumn of 1885. Grieg wishes again to see Rome, but their financial situation does not allow for it: Troldhaugen has been expensive, and new income must be obtained. Grieg would have preferred to support Nina and himself through creative endeavours, “yet,” he writes to publisher Max Abraham in Leipzig, “…
one cannot always be composing, at least not myself.” Instead they travel to Copenhagen. After several successful concerts there they continue to Jylland on their first extended concert tour, during which they visit many Danish cities, meet a devoted public and – secure their finances. The spring of 1886 finds Grieg again in Copenhagen, in a small backroom at friends. Fervently longing for the friendship and the spring of Troldhaugen, he composes his sublime “Lyric Pieces for Piano”: “Butterfly”, “At Home”, “Little Bird”, and the beguiling declaration of love, “To Spring”. To his friend Frants he writes, “…
the serene pleasure over all that is up there is infused in the notes.”
Winter and spring of 1887 is spent at Troldhaugen, but in the autumn Edvard and Nina are in Leipzig, where they are the charming centre for festive Norwegian and foreign artists and where their concerts achieve great success. At a New Year’s party, Grieg meets celebrated composers Johannes Brahms and Peter Tchaikovski. They express ardent appreciation for his music, and friendships are formed. This period is a prelude to the hectic concert activity of the ensuing years. Edvard performs or directs his compositions, Nina sings, and together they bask in their significant artistic triumph. They travel to most of the major world cities: Stockholm, Vienna, Amsterdam, the Hague, Copenhagen, Paris, and London. Everywhere they are a storming success: in the English capital, there is Grieg fever; in Paris, audiences adore him. The little Norwegian artist couple’s popularity is enormous; they are feted as no others.
Despite their triumphs, they sense a constant conflict: they yearn for the repose and meditative tranquillity of the Norwegian landscape, yet are simultaneously drawn toward the hubs of activity and their demanding audiences. Summer, home in the “Composer Cabin” at Troldhaugen or at Lofthus, only then is found the undisturbed serenity necessary for creativity. Again it is poetry inspired by the mystical scenery of Norway that arouses Grieg’s artistic sensibilities. In the summer of 1895 he writes, “The past few days I have been engrossed in the most astonishing poetry: a book in New Norwegian by Arne Garborg, Haugtussa, has just been published. It is a remarkable collection.” Three years later, in the autumn of 1898, the “Haugtussa” song cycle in which music and poetry are blended to artistic perfection, is completed. Grieg himself characterizes them as “the finest songs I have ever written.”
Summers in the 1890s are often spent with friends on mountain walks in various parts of Norway; first and foremost in Jotunheimen, but also further north in the tracts of Møre and Trøndelag. On these excursions Grieg encounters folk music in its original setting. Rapt, he hears the Hardanger fiddle played by “master fiddlers”, “sublime” folksongs, cradle songs and cattle calls that ring in the mountains as only “dairy maids and cattle men” can render them. Grieg stores the tunes in his memory, but best are the folk songs friend Frants notes down, standing and using a cow’s back as a writing table. These melodies inspire the artful piano harmonisations, “Nineteen Norwegian Folk Songs”.
Once again, Edvard Grieg is home in Bergen, where the city’s businessmen are planning a major fisheries and industry exposition. Grieg hits upon the innovative idea of fusing business and culture. Having himself participated in music festivals in England, he now he proposes an extensive Norwegian music festival to be held in conjunction with the fair. The idea is well received by the exposition committee, but during the planning of the festival Grieg encounters serious obstacles. He wishes to engage the pre-eminent Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam. Norwegian musicians are outraged: Can a foreign orchestra perform Norwegian music better than a Norwegian orchestra? Yes, believes Grieg, and explains, “With a music festival, I understand a festival whose task it is to bring Norwegian musical works to their most ideala expression.” He meets virulent, unprofessional and at times vindictive criticism. Even his best friend Frants Beyer disagrees with him. The debate becomes so heated that Grieg withdraws from the festival. But then it happens: the standing exhibition committee is dissolved and a new one established overnight. The next day, Grieg is granted the authority to engage the orchestra from Holland. In Nygårdsparken, where Bergensers are fond of taking their Sunday strolls, a concert hall seating two thousand is erected. On the 26th of June, 1898, the “Bergen Music Festival”, Norway’s first music festival, opens. It is a resounding success. The festival lasts a week, and each evening appreciative audiences overflow the enormous concert hall. Grieg eventually forgets the quarrels, later writing, “An auspicious star shone on the music festival; it bore its own light, because the motive was great and good.”
In 1901, Grieg receives a letter from “master fiddler” Knut Dahle of Telemark, asking him to ensure that the old fiddle tunes are preserved for posterity. Knut Dahle plays for violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen, who records the notes of seventeen melodies. Grieg receives them with great excitement, and wishes to adapt them for piano. He writes, “It interests me enormously, but it is hellish work.” He has immense respect for the material and says, “How easy it would be to take the shine from them! Especially here it is imperative that one’s perceptions are at their sharpest.” Yet he succeeds, and employing a thrillingly novel approach, he adapts the melodies to piano compositions. In the prologue he writes, “Those who have a sense for these sounds will be mesmerised by their great originality, their fusing of a fine, delicate lithesomeness with a fiendish energy and an untamed wildness.”
The many long and often enervating tours and the taxing concert performances have taken their toll; in recent years Grieg’s health has declined. He is a frequent visitor to health resorts and constantly enlists new doctors and medicines in hopes of improvement. “Every illness at one and the same time is raging within me as best it can,” he writes. Even the most skilled physicians can do little for his depleted health.
Yet life also has its bright sides. On the 15th of June 1903, Grieg celebrates his 60th birthday. All of Norway, as well as other countries, takes part in the vast celebration which lasts for several days. In his hometown, he is regaled with open-air concerts and excursions to Fløyen, and The National Theatre’s orchestra arrives in full force from Kristiania for a festival concert at which both Johan Halvorsen and Grieg himself conduct. At Troldhaugen, hundreds gather in high spirits in dazzling summer weather, and Bjørnson delivers a spirited oration for the guest of honour. Among the gifts that stream in is a magnificent concert piano.
Grieg has long been a lively participant in community debates involving politics. In letters to newspapers and speeches he launches his radical opinions with crisp language and fresh perspectives. The dissolution of the union with Sweden is an issue which has deeply engaged him, and on New Year’s Eve of 1905 he writes in his journal, “…
without the youthful dreams which this year has realised, my art would not have had its proper place.”
Increasingly plagued by illness, Grieg amazingly still finds energy to compose. In 1906, he produces his last important work, the powerful choral composition “Four Psalms” in “free adaptation of Lindeman’s folk songs”.
The year is 1907. He still plans and executes new tours. In a letter to a friend in the Netherlands he writes, “But as long as one lives so must it be: hold your head high, and: forward, always farther, towards nothing – or something more.”
As spring progresses Grieg’s health worsens, and in both Copenhagen and Kristiania he is taken to hospital. Autumn in western Norway is unusually damp this year, and home at Troldhaugen this aggravates his condition considerably.
Tenacious, Grieg does not give in, but devises plans for a concert tour to England together with Nina. On September 3rd, his state has so deteriorated that his friend, chief physician Klaus Hanssen, forbids the trip and admits him to Bergen Hospital.
The frail, exhausted body can take no more; on the 4th of September 1907, Edvard Grieg’s life ends.
Remaining is the music he created, a legacy for us all.
Written by: Karen Falch Johannessen
Translated by: Deborah Miller