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ClassicsOnline Home » GRIEG, E.: Orchestral Music, Vol. 7 - Olav Trygvason / Landkjenning / Sigurd Jorsalfar (excerpts) (Malmo Symphony, Engeset)
Edvard Grieg and his librettist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson were both fascinated by a great period in Norway’s past: the Viking Age, whose sagas, and fierce conflicts between Christianity and the old Norse religion, inspired all three of Grieg’s works recorded here. Landkjenning depicts the moment when Olav Trygvason (960s–1000) and his men sight the Norwegian coast for the first time on their voyage from England to Norway. As King from 995 to 1000, Olav worked single-mindedly to Christianise Norway. Conceived as a true Norwegian national opera, but left unfinished, the three scenes from Olav Trygvason explore pagan rituals and tributes to the Norse gods in anticipation of King Olav’s entrance into the pagan temple.
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Landkjenning • Sigurd Jorsalfar • Olav Trygvason • Resignation
The introduction to Landkjenning (‘Land-Sighting’) starts with an energetic horn call, before the phrase rounds off more lyrically. The whole work shares this same shape: from a vigorous beginning to a hymn-like close. In all Grieg’s settings of texts by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910), intensely dramatic music is woven together, and contrasted, with lyrical and hymn-like music. Bjørnson was a central figure in the Norwegian national revival of the 1800s, a radical writer, theatre manager, public speaker and politician who dreamt of a new, democratic and independent Norway. The three Bjørnson works on this recording carry us back to the Viking age, with its fierce conflicts between Christianity and the old Norse religion. These dynamics interested both Grieg and Bjørnson. Grieg was influenced in many ways by concepts of Christian dualism: the complementary ideas of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, ‘love and bewitchment’ are almost a leitmotif in his life’s work. But at the same time he was attracted by a religion of Nature, in which all powers, even destructive ones, emanate from a single deity—as, for example, in primitive religions or Norse mythology.
Grieg’s Bjørnson works were an integral part of a political movement campaigning for national freedom and democratic humanism in a Norway which was still united with Sweden. Political radicalism, with an emphasis on ideas of democracy and liberty, was a strong feature of Norwegian nationalism before independence in 1905. The struggle for national liberation was also a struggle for an individual Norwegian identity, and for the right to an independent language and culture. Norway in Grieg’s lifetime saw a steady intensification of public support for popular democracy, inspired by American and French ideals of liberty. Various people contributed to kindling the national flame in Grieg, including the internationally famous violinist Ole Bull (1810–80) and the composer Rikard Nordraak (1842–66). But it was Bjørnson who raised Grieg’s political consciousness as a democrat and humanist: ‘He made me a democrat, artistically and politically’; ‘It is through you [Bjørnson] that we feel the beat of Norway’s pulse’.
The text of Landkjenning concentrates on a single moment, as Olav Trygvason (960s–1000) and his men sight the Norwegian coast for the first time (near Moster) on their voyage from England to Norway. The young Olav is on his way home to claim the Norwegian throne. Olav, who as King from 995 to 1000 worked single-mindedly to Christianise Norway, is portrayed by Bjørnson as experiencing a religious vision on recognising his native shore. Landkjenning was first performed, in a version for male voice chorus, soloist, organ and brass instruments, on the morning of 17 May 1872 at a bazaar at Akershus Castle in Christiania (now Oslo), to raise money for the restoration of Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.¹ Grieg later revised the piece and made an orchestral version. Landkjenning may owe its great popularity to the fact that the audience recognise the situation: joy at coming home again, reaching harbour after a long time away. The work also has a simple, hypnotic structure. Grieg wrote Landkjenning for the masses—in two senses: a mass audience and a mass of performers. The piece invites the description ‘ecstatic’; the text includes the line ‘the King is enraptured’. It could be said that Grieg’s ecstatic Romanticism achieves a fusion of humanity and Nature, in a kind of divine synthesis. After a performance of Landkjenning in Bergen, Grieg wrote: ‘A single great tone underpinned everything, and that’s only possible when everybody is imbued with it.’
Grieg wrote the three Bjørnson works on this recording between 1870 and 1875. For most of that time both Grieg and Bjørnson were in Christiania. In the same period Grieg also collaborated with the composer and conductor Johan Svendsen (1840–1910): among other things, in 1871 they founded a new orchestra, the Music Association (Musikkforeningen). Grieg had responsibility for its choral-orchestral repertoire. He found this ‘a wonderful time, overflowing with courage and faith’; ‘Bjørnson is here, and where he is there is also life and imagination’. As well as the three pieces heard on this recording, Bjørnson and Grieg created Before a Southern Convent, Bergljot [both recorded on Naxos 8.570871–72] and several songs [two with orchestra are recorded on Naxos 8.570236]. Their extensive collaboration started with the draft of a work based on Bjørnson’s epic poem Arnljot Gelline, and later, in the early 1890s, they also planned to write a substantial Peace Oratorio together.
Sigurd Jorsalfar (‘Sigurd the Crusader’)²
Bjørnson wrote in an afterword to his play Sigurd Jorsalfar that it is a ‘work for the people’: ‘by which I mean a work that will appeal to people of all ages and levels of education, each in their own way, and whose performance can thus also create, for a time, a joyful feeling of unity’. This is stated directly in the play itself: ‘And may we have a little more love for each other than we have had up till now’. So glorification of the Crusaders is not Bjørnson’s aim. His play in many ways problematises the idea of heroism, and portrays the conflict between the two brothers: Sigurd with his wanderlust, and the gentle, home-loving Eystejn. Equally central to the drama is the tragic love triangle between Borghild, Eystejn and Sigurd, characterised by mutual betrayal.
Grieg was apprehensive about the première at the Christiania Theatre on 10 April 1872. He had had very little time to finish the music. But the play was a great success with the public and quickly received many performances. Even if Grieg felt that it was an ‘occasional piece’, he was attracted by Bjørnson’s democratic thinking and wanted to set his ideas to music. He later grouped together three of the orchestral numbers as Three Orchestral Pieces from Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op 56 [Naxos 8.557991], which he often took with him on concert tours abroad. So only up to a point can we take seriously his statement about them being ‘occasional pieces’ and ‘rubbish’.
Grieg published the two songs with men’s chorus from the incidental music separately, as Zwei Gesänge aus der Musik zu Sigurd Jorsalfar: für Solo, Männerchor und Orchester (‘Two Songs from the Music to Sigurd Jorsalfar: for Soloist, Male Voice Chorus and Orchestra’), Op 22. In the first of the two, the patriotically inspired ‘Norrønafolket det vil fare’ (‘The Northland people have the urge to travel’), Sigurd and his men sing of the importance of travelling and heroic deeds. This comes from the scene in the play depicting a ‘mannjamning’ between the two royal brothers—a Viking custom where the exploits and qualities of two men were ceremonially enumerated and compared. The bard Haldor sings the first two verses, Sigurd Sigurdson (no relation to King Sigurd) the third, and the King himself the final verse. Grieg did not feel that this was one of the best things he had written. Still worse for him, the melody became so popular that even the street urchins in Bergen were ‘yelling it out hideously coarsely’! The political tensions between the two Kings are eventually resolved, and Sigurd remains at home to join his brother in nation building. He will ‘build up his own land, instead of laying others to waste’. Kongekvadet (‘The King’s Song’) was performed in the third and final act, following the brothers’ reconciliation.
After the 1872 première, when there were only five musical numbers, the incidental music for Sigurd Jorsalfar changed and evolved; by the time of a performance at the Norwegian National Theatre in 1905 it featured an additional Introduction and two Interludes. The Introduction is in fact identical to the concluding hymn of The King’s Song, but omitting the soloist and choir. Grieg intended the Horn Calls to be used several times in the play, from different parts of the stage, to evoke the sound of the lur³—especially when the conflict comes to a head and the two Kings summon their followers. We have combined all of the horn calls in a collage. In the play, the restoration of harmony between the all-too-human, quarrelsome brothers is marked by a Homage March. Before the famous cello quartet which opens the March, Sigurd says: ‘How much greater you are than me, brother!’ Then the two Kings enter the Royal Hall hand in hand. Grieg also used the first section of the Homage March, unaltered, as the second of the two Interludes [not included on this recording: the Homage March is available on Naxos 8.557991]. The first Interlude was newly composed, but it begins with a re-orchestrated version of the start of the Homage March, before a brief final Allegro section. Our recording includes an unpublished passage of 22 bars in the opening section which are crossed out in blue pencil in one of the manuscripts—we do not know who crossed them out, but the handwriting does not look like Grieg’s own.
The idea that Norway had a particular claim to the Viking heritage was a significant element in developing Norwegian national consciousness. The important radical writer Henrik Wergeland (1808–45) believed that what he saw as the Norwegian virtues found particular expression in the golden age of the Vikings, and that this golden age should be revealed and revived in historical writings, literature, language and culture. Wergeland saw the ancient and modern eras of Norwegian history as ‘two halves of a broken ring’ that should be united. In his history of Norway, published as a double number of the periodical he edited, For Almuen (‘For the Ordinary People’), he wrote of ‘the ancient Kingdom: a mighty realm with a free constitution and a glorious lineage of monarchs, a land without equal’. Wergeland regarded the Old Norse Sagas of the Norwegian Kings—written in Iceland around 1230 by the bard Snorri Sturluson (1178/79–1241)—as a national treasure, the equal of the Bible: ‘These two are our idols, enthroned on high like Odin and Thor in olden times. Certainly the sagas reflect the divine in humankind, clear and immortal’.
Norwegian historians such as Jakob Rudolf Keyser (1803–64), Peter Andreas Munch (1810–63) and Johan Ernst Sars (1835–1917) emphasised Norway’s importance in the Nordic world. Various creative writers followed up this idea: in the 1850s both Ibsen and Bjørnson wrote historical plays inspired by the time of the sagas: Fru Inger til Østeraad (‘Lady Inger of Ostrat’ by Ibsen, first produced in 1855) and Mellem Slagene (‘Between the Battles’ by Bjørnson, staged two years later).
But the search for a distinctively Norwegian identity through worship of the Viking age was to some extent a project pursued by an elite. Over the years, an idealised view of ‘ordinary Norwegian country people’ became as important a symbol as Viking heroics in the movement for national liberation. The same is true of sportsmen and explorers—later exemplified by, for example, the polar pioneers Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) and Roald Amundsen (1872–1928), and the anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002), perhaps most famous for crossing the Pacific Ocean on a raft, the Kon-Tiki, in 1947. So Norway’s nation-builders founded their campaign just as much on everyday rural culture as on the bloodsoaked deeds of historical heroes. The Norwegian intelligentsia in the late 1800s was not a large group of people, and there were many altercations between those who were fighting for a national identity. Bjørnson was often at odds with radicals such as the writer Arne Garborg (1851–1924) and the linguist Ivar Aasen (1813–96). ‘Pan-Scandinavianism’—the idea of a broader cultural or political union in northern Europe—was also widespread among those fighting for independence, including Bjørnson himself. The word ‘Nordic’ was often as prominent as the word ‘Norwegian’. At times Bjørnson was also influenced by Pan-Germanism, not least in the 1870s.4 The ideological tensions within Norwegian nationalism were probably partly responsible for the fact that Grieg and Bjørnson’s Olav Trygvason was never completed. After a good start, work came to a standstill for a long time, and by the end of the 19th century both men’s artistic interests had shifted away from the Viking age and the sagas.
Grieg and Bjørnson conceived the work as a true Norwegian national opera. The libretto would take as its basis one of the most conflict-filled periods in the history of Norway, when Christianity was battling with the old Norse religion. The story of Olav Trygvason was also a dramatic personal story with the destinies of three women, his three wives, at its heart.
In the summer of 1873 Grieg worked intensively on the opera project, excited by the public success of both Landkjenning and Sigurd Jorsalfar. There was a feverish exchange of letters between Bjørnson and Grieg. Bjørnson wrote: ‘The music must go like the devil! I’m not joking. It must surge along. It just gets wilder and wilder. Then comes a hellish uproar about the miracle, and after that more miracle, frenziedly possessed dancing, delirium, hu, ha!’ Grieg was just as enthusiastic: ‘There’s a uniquely mysterious atmosphere pervading it, and I’m looking forward to getting going with it’.
A broad canvas unfolds in the first scene of the Prologue of Olav Trygvason. In three long sequences, each at a higher pitch than the one before, a sacrificial priest and a woman sing to the Norse gods. Many names and epithets are heard, as a kind of catalogue of the gods and their characteristics. The chorus joins in, singing louder and louder. One wonders whether Grieg was aiming to create music for the heathen Vikings that was particularly barbaric and ‘Norse’, and whether he would have written stylistically contrasting music for the Christian King Olav. However that may be, the drama is especially intense in the second scene, where a prophetess sings and weaves magic charms. She asks the gods where Olav will come to confront them. The dramatic answer she gets, amid earthquake and thunder, is that the King will enter the pagan temple itself. ‘If he comes out alive, then we will believe him!’ sings the chorus. The scene ends with hymn-like music for the sacrificial priest and chorus, followed by the quiet introduction to a ritual dance and tribute to the Norse gods. The third scene is this dance itself, a choral number in which the people perform their ‘Holy Games’. Some of the men leap over the sacred fires, swinging their swords in the air. The scene culminates in an ecstatic coda.
But here the fragment ends. Bjørnson and Grieg could not agree about how to continue their work together. Grieg wanted Bjørnson just to deliver the text for him to set, while Bjørnson wanted the two of them to meet. The distance between them was also physical, as Bjørnson went to Italy, where he started to write plays set in his own time. He wanted Grieg to come to Italy. When Grieg then started to write the music for the poetic drama Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), it put an end to work on Olav Trygvason. For a time Bjørnson was worried that Peer Gynt was an opera, and the letters between him and Grieg are full of mistrust and misunderstandings. The two men were not reconciled until 1889, when on 19 October the fragment—by now orchestrated—was premièred in Christiania (it was published in 1890, as Op 50). It was a great success: the critics found the music ‘magnificent’, and Grieg too thought it sounded better than he had expected: ‘The performance created a festive mood’. But he was also realistic: ‘Perhaps it’s best as it is’ (ie unfinished). Grieg’s friend Frants Beyer (1851–1918), under instructions from Grieg, tried to inspire Bjørnson to come up with some more text. But the composer’s own conclusion was: ‘Trygvason will always remain a torso’.
Towards the end of Grieg’s lifetime some creative artists were moving away from nationalistic Romanticism, although the political struggle against the union with Sweden intensified. This change is particularly clear in the work of (for example) Ibsen, who starts to question nationalism. As the years went by and Bjørnson and Grieg made no progress on Olav Trygvason, they both developed stylistically and ideologically. This is a significant enough reason why the opera was never finished. Grieg saw the danger of basing his individual identity solely on his national identity, and it seems he also became less and less keen on straightforward heroics as his life went on. At times he worried that a one-sided focus on what was ‘national’ in his work would close people’s ears and hearts to its essentially musical qualities: ‘As a modern artist my aim should be universality, or, more precisely, individuality. Being national should follow because the individual is national, and then it is no burden.’ ‘I don’t want to be Norwegian, exactly, and still less ultra-Norwegian—just to be myself.’
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was also very fond of a little piece called Resignation by the Norwegian composer Edmund Neupert (1842–88), and wrote a text to the melody, ‘Sing me back home!’ Neupert originally composed Resignation for piano, as the first of his Eight Studies, Op 26. Grieg arranged it both for orchestra alone—the version on this recording—and for solo voice with horn and string orchestra (using Bjørnson’s words). Neupert was regarded as one of the leading Norwegian pianists and piano teachers. He was the soloist in the first performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Grieg and Neupert were friends and were working together before the première, so Neupert may have influenced some elements of the piano part; Grieg later dedicated the Concerto to him. Neupert himself appears to have composed only one orchestral work, an overture, but he wrote a large amount of piano music, including many pieces entitled Studies and Etudes.
It is not uncommon for music that was once seen as rebellious and tempestuously Romantic to be co-opted later as a monument of nostalgic nationalism. In independent Norway, grand performances of Grieg’s Bjørnson works have been seen as affirmations of national strength. To some extent Grieg himself, too, has become an icon of the past, and a blanket of autumn leaves has covered the radical aspects of his aesthetic. When Grieg conducted in London in 1888, Sir George Grove (1820–1900, creator of the famous musical dictionary) said: ‘How he managed to inspire the band as he did, and get such nervous thrilling bursts and such charming sentiments out of them, I don’t know.’ And Grove went on to liken Grieg to Beethoven. This may not be how we are used to thinking of Grieg. But for me his music has an exceptionally vital expressive energy, with strong contrasts between outbursts of power and subtle, intimate poetic feeling.
English translation by David Gallagher
¹ Nidaros Cathedral is very important in the history of Norway, as coronation and consecration ceremonies for Norwegian monarchs have taken place there for over 800 years.
² Sigurd Jorsalfar (c. 1090–1130), whose name means Sigurd the Crusader (‘Jorsalfar’ = ‘Jerusalem-farer’), was King of Norway from 1103 until his death, sharing the throne for two decades with his older brother Eystejn (1088/89–1123). Sigurd led the pilgrimage/Crusade to Jerusalem which gave him his nickname in 1107–11, with something like 60 ships and 6000 men.
³ The traditional long, curved Nordic horn; two lurs form the logo on the packs containing a well-known Danish butter.
4 While the main focus of Pan-Germanism was on the political unification of all people who spoke the German language itself, some felt that this should also include speakers of other Germanic languages, including Scandinavian languages such as Norwegian.
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