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ClassicsOnline Home » GRIEG: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / JOHANSEN: String Quartet Op. 35
Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907)
String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27
String Quartet in F Major
David Monrad Johansen (1888 - 1974)
String Quartet, Op. 35
Edvard Grieg, the most famous of Norwegian composers, born in Bergen in 1843, was descended on his mother's side from a Norwegian provincial governor who had adopted the name Hagerup from his adoptive father, the Bishop of Trondheim. On his father's side he was of Scottish ancestry. His great-grandfather, Alexander Greig, had left Scotland after the Battle of Culloden, after the final defeat of the Stuart army by the Hanoverian rulers of England. In Norway the Greigs became Griegs and during the nineteenth century established themselves comfortably in their new country, with the composer's grandfather and father both serving in turn as British consul in Bergen.
The Grieg household provided a musical background for a child. Musicians visited the family and these visitors included the distinguished violinist Ole Bull. It was he who persuaded the Griegs to send their son Edvard to the Conservatory in Leipzig, where the boy became a student at the age of fifteen, there to undergo the rigours of a traditional German musical education.
In Leipzig not everything was to Grieg's liking. He objected to the dry nature of ordinary piano instruction, based on the work of Czerny and Clementi, and was able eventually to change to a teacher who was to instil in him a love of Schumann. He attended concerts by the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra that Mendelssohn had once directed and was present when Clara Schumann played her husband's piano concerto there, as well as at performances of Wagner's opera Tannhauser. At the same time he was able to meet other musicians, including the Irish composer, Arthur Sullivan, whose later fame, at least, was to depend principally on his operetta collaboration with W. S. Gilbert.
After a short period at home again in Norway, where he was unable to obtain a state pension, Grieg moved to Denmark. The capital, Copenhagen, was a cultural centre for both countries and here he had considerable encouragement from Niels Gade. The principal influence, however, came from a meeting with Rikard Nordraak, a young Norwegian, who fired him with ambition to seek inspiration in the folk-music of his own country.
Nordraak died tragically young, at the age of 24. Grieg, however, continued to prepare himself for employment in Norway, first of all taking a long holiday, which led him to Rome, where he met the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. It was a concert arranged by Grieg in Christiania (Oslo) and given by him with his cousin and future wife Nina Hagerup and the violinist Wilhelmine Norman-Neruda that secured him a position in Norway and provided support for the projected Norwegian Academy of Music, established in the following year, 1867.
The period that followed saw Grieg's struggle, with the backing of Liszt and the support of his friend, the dramatist and theatre-director Bjørnson, to establish some sort of national musical movement in Norway. He divided his time between concert activities, on tour as conductor and pianist, composition, and periods spent in the enjoyment of the Norwegian countryside.
Grieg's ambitions for Norwegian music were very largely realised. At home he came to occupy a position of honour, and his collaboration with Bjørnson and with Ibsen further identified him with the emerging national culture. He died in 1907, as he was about to undertake one more concert tour. For years he had suffered from lung trouble, the result of an illness in his student days. It was this that brought about his death at the age of 64.
Grieg later admitted that there was an autobiographical element in his first surviving and only complete string quartet, the Quartet in G minor, Opus 27. This was written in 1877 - 1878 in the work-hut he had built for himself at Lofthus, during a period when he was not accompanied to this country retreat by his wife, with whom his relationship had not always been easy. The quartet makes use of a setting of words by Ibsen that reflect the thoughts of a musician separated from his beloved, meditating, as he walks on a summer evening by a stream, on the possibility of some water spirit bringing his beloved to him again. The melody of the song provides the characteristic motto theme that is first heard in the slow introduction to the first movement of the quartet and then transformed as the second theme in an Allegro molto. This Grieg motif, which will be familiar to many from the opening of Grieg's Piano Concerto, recurs throughout the work, ensuring an element of cyclic unity. The tranquil second movement Romanze is interrupted by this motif and the Intermezzo third movement starts with it and continues in this vein, relaxing into a central trio section in what is in fact a scherzo. The last movement opens with a slow introduction, where the motto theme is heard again, before the final rapid dance, which ends with a concluding optimism in G major.
The G minor Quartet proved unacceptable to Grieg's publisher, Peters, where Dr. Abraham, who usually gave his composer every encouragement, found the work too thick in texture for a string quartet, objecting to the use of double-stopping that in places seemed to suggest the need for a piano. The quartet was, however, taken up by Robert Heckmann and the first performance was given in Cologne by the Heckmann Quartet in October 1878 as part of a programme that included the Second Violin Sonata, played by Heckmann and Grieg himself, and a group of songs by Grieg. The quartet rapidly won popularity, meeting the approval of Liszt, who heard it at Wiesbaden, and winning less probable acclaim in Rome. The work was later published by Peters, after its first publication by a much smaller and more adventurous German publishing-house.
Grieg had first attempted the form of the string quartet in 1861, with a work now lost. His third attempt remained unfinished. The two movements of his Quartet in F major were written in 1891. Once more the work opens with a slow introduction, originally calling for violin triple-stopping, later edited out by the composer's friend Julius Rontgen, who made other minor changes. The Allegro vivace that follows is in classical tripartite sonata-form, with an exposition fertile in musical ideas, a short central development and a recapitulation in which the exposition is largely repeated. The second movement, a scherzo derived from a Norwegian dance-form, like the first has passages of cross-rhythm, both in its D minor opening and particularly in its D major central section.
The Norwegian composer David Monrad Johansen was born at Vefsn in Nordland in 1888 and studied at the Oslo Conservatory, later moving to Berlin, where his teachers included Humperdinck. A pianist, composer and conductor, he occupied an important place in Norwegian musical life, with an additional reputation as a music critic. For some twenty years he received a state pension, which came to an end in 1945, after a period during which his Norwegian nationalism had led to war-time associations which later proved unacceptable. His String Quartet, completed in 1969, is a work of some importance, by no means as conservative in its treatment of the medium as the label of nationalist might suggest, although here, as always, inspiration is found in Norwegian folk-music and earlier musical traditions. An opening motif that is to recur is followed by a slower passage, where, as so often in the music of Johansen, counterpoint is of importance. The opening dissonance returns, again relaxing into a returning gentler contrapuntal passage. The second movement is in the traditional form of scherzo and trio, generally lacking the harshness of harmony of the opening of the quartet. The third movement Largo opens in more astringent melodic outline and harmony, before relaxing into a passage based on a scale motif that seems to have its origin in a much earlier mode of polyphony. The opening motif of the quartet that is heard at the start of the last movement is followed by the perpetual motion of a saltarello-type rhythm, a whirling-dance that is interrupted by a contrapuntal passage, derived from sixteenth century polyphony, the two elements now alternating. The work ends with the agitato motif that had first summoned our attention in the opening bars.
Oslo String Quartet
The Oslo String Quartet was established in connection with the Mozart bicentennial in 1991 and has quickly won an important position for itself in the concert life of Scandinavia. The leader of the quartet, Geir Inge Lotsberg, has served as leader of the Bergen Philharmonic and the Norwegian State Opera Orchestras, with the violinist Per Kristian Skalstad as co-leader in the latter. The violist Are Sandbakken is co-principal violist of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Øystein Sonstad is principal cellist with the Trondheim soloists. The young quartet has benefited from the advice of Andras Mihaly of the Budapest Liszt Academy.
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GRIEG: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / JOHANSEN: St...