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ClassicsOnline Home » GRIEG, E.: Orchestral Music, Vol. 4 - Peer Gynt Suites / Orchestral Songs (Malmo Symphony, Engeset)
Grieg’s incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt is greatly loved by many and is generally considered to be one of the foremost expressions of ‘Norwegian national identity’. Comprising the ‘best’ and most popular numbers, Suite No. 1 was an immediate success. Of Grieg’s 180 or so songs, many of which owe their inspiration to the composer’s wife, Nina, the yearning Solveig’s Song (track 11) is the most often performed. With Den Bergtekne (The Mountain Thrall), the longest of Grieg’s orchestral songs, we enter the realm of the troll-forests, ruled by deadly dangerous supernatural powers.
By David Denton
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Vol. 4: Peer Gynt Suites • Orchestral Songs
The innovation, imagination and shocking effects of Edvard Grieg's musical response to Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt never cease to amaze me. The music casts a subtle and many-sided spell together with the text. But we hear the music through many historical filters which threaten to rob it of the power it had and can have. It is generally considered to be one of the foremost expressions of 'Norwegian national identity', and is thus often understood one-dimensionally. By no means is it self-evident that we as listeners today are open to the many different meanings of this music's radical tonal effects. The music is greatly loved by many, but is also seen as a Romanticization of Ibsen's sometimes blunt text. In my view, over-simplistic use of such ideas as 'Romantic', 'anti-Romantic' and 'National' is limiting and imprecise in discussions of both Ibsen's and Grieg's Peer Gynt.
The Suites live separate lives from the play, connected only indirectly to the text and the stage – through Grieg's original inspiration, and through listeners who know the Ibsen. But Grieg said: 'If you could attend a production of the play, you would see that my musical intentions become clear only in the context of the stage.'
Peer Gynt (1867) is Ibsen's second 'dramatic poem', following Brand (1866). In the summer of 1862 Ibsen had made a trip to Gudbrandsdal, one of the valleys of central Norway, north of Oslo, and his studies there meant he was able to give Peer Gynt a genuine historical basis. But Ibsen's highly individual mythical world goes far beyond actual folklore. He also made critical and ironic comments about narrow nationalism. Throughout, his epic poem is a dramatic dialogue with multifarious implications. The literary historian Edvard Beyer (1920–2003) says it is both 'fairytale and picture of folk-life; tragedy and fantastical, satirical, Aristophanic comedy; dream play and morality'. Its portrayals of erotic yearning have features in common with earlier European Romanticism. Biting intellectual irony, humour and wit mingle with poetic and compassionate insight. Peer Gynt leaves his loved ones in the lurch, like a modern-day chameleon, without scruples. Grieg saw in this a philosophical critique of contemporary ethics: 'the performance of Peer Gynt can do some good just now in Kristiania [Oslo], where materialism is on the up and is trying to choke everything we find best and most sacred; what we need, I think, is a mirror in which all this egotism can be seen, and Peer Gynt is just such a mirror.' Through satire, the play shows up our (self-)destructive side and the falsehoods within us. But it has a serious and constructive message too, which Grieg played his part in developing and expressing.
It was Ibsen's own initiative to ask Grieg to write the music – in a long and detailed letter in 1874. Grieg said 'yes please', but was somewhat ambivalent about the work. He called it 'the most unmusical of all subjects', 'terrifyingly intractable'. 'The text is such that you really have to kill all thoughts of writing true music, and concentrate merely on the external effect.'
Theatre music can tend towards anonymity or towards independence. Grieg's Peer Gynt music is sometimes suitably anonymous, sometimes fascinatingly independent. It responds to many layers in the play, forming a musical counterpart to the text, rather than imposing a particular interpretation upon it. Together, text and music create a 'musical drama', each helping the other to win popular success. As a written verse-play, the text was at first unsuccessful with the reading public, but Norway had no 'national opera', so this quickly became the 'Norwegian National Drama'. As time went on, Peer Gynt stagings became almost 'national gala evenings', generally featuring new theatrical techniques, colourful folkloric costumes and large numbers of performers. The true nature of the text was buried, and Peer Gynt was turned into – as the great Norwegian writer Arne Garborg [Note 1] warned it would be – a 'costume drama'.
Before the Second World War the music was highly praised, and was an important part of the play's attraction, but since then voices have been raised claiming that the music practically paralyses our imagination. The mid-twentieth-century critic Hans Heiberg felt that Peer Gynt had become an 'idyllic festival play', and that the music is 'sugary', while 'Ibsen's text is bitter'. Bland performances, and the fact that audiences had become less easy to shock, may have muted the effect of the satire and irony that is certainly present in Grieg's music. Attitudes towards incidental music in general had also changed.
At first Grieg undervalued his Peer Gynt music, as he later did with the Holberg Suite. Both were created in circumstances he had not chosen for himself, so he felt that the musical results could not be any good! He did not dare show up at the première of Peer Gynt in 1876. It was a huge success, and he gradually came to recognize the power of the music. The Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 was finished on 18 January 1888, and immediately triumphed in the concert hall. Grieg's selection of music for the first Suite seems to have been a deliberate attempt to bring together the 'best' and most popular numbers, building to a climax In the Hall of the Mountain King.
Morning (or Morning Mood) comes from the fourth act, and there has been much debate about whether this music fits with the relatively grotesque scenes in the Sahara. It uses the pentatonic scale, perhaps suggesting Arabian connections. Or is this Norwegian pentatonicism with its roots in the second act and the mountains of Dovre? [Note 2] Thematically there is a close kinship here with the music of Peer Gynt and the Woman in Green. Morning Mood is a nature-idyll in E major, with (Grieg said) 'the sun breaking through the clouds at the first forte'. This produces an unusual musical form: the climax comes early on, and the day then settles down to rest. Towards the end we hear imitations of birdsong. The incessant flowing figures suggest associations with waves on the seashore, or with wind. Or they could be sounds in Peer Gynt's head. Grieg asked that the piece 'be treated as pure music', and as such it has a unique place in the drama.
The second movement, The Death of Åse, is heard in the theatre as a soft, distant echo, possibly from behind the scenes, during Peer Gynt's fantasy-monologue to his mother Åse. He imagines himself carrying her away in a horse-drawn sleigh to St Peter, and at first he is unaware that she has died. Peer's 'artistic' flight of fantasy is contrasted with the grave reality of death. In this way music and text work powerfully together and against each other. The music is like a chorale or a funeral march that rises and falls, in a dark B minor, maybe connected both with Åse's suffering and with Peer's own tragedy. In the Suite we hear this music differently, without the dramatic irony of its juxtaposition with the stage picture. It becomes more about our feelings – in which case it can be natural for the performance to be more expressive.
The elegant, exotic and sensual mazurka Anitra's Dance was also written as background music, for speech and dance, using similarly gentle string sounds (here with triangle). Grieg called it 'a little darling', saying the music should sound 'completely ppp': possibly performed by a group of soloists and/or offstage. It should work both with and against what we see and hear in the theatre: the Bedouin chieftain's rather grimy daughter Anitra belly-dancing, and Peer, extremely attracted, allured, seduced until he barely hears the music any more. Again, in the Suite these contrasts and parallels with the visual action disappear. Sly, seductive Anitra works her power on us directly, in musical attire – though she probably seems a bit cleaner than the text suggests! Melodically the dance is related to both In the Hall of the Mountain King and Solveig's Song. The pause on the opening chord, redolent of sun and sand, is typical of many kinds of dance music, as the instruments strike up.
In 1876 the barbaric In the Hall of the Mountain King was, I would say, modernistic and innovative. The curtain is down when the music starts, so our imagination can get to work before we emerge into the netherworld landscape and its swarming trolls. The theatre version includes a part for troll chorus as they chase and menace Peer Gynt ever more wildly, until the Mountain King himself has to bellow 'Isvann I blodet!' – 'Cool it!' (literally 'Ice water in the blood!'). The simple musical form, a long build-up to a climax, is found in later pieces like Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Honegger's Pacific 231, Ravel's Bolero, Harald Sæverud's Kjempeviseslåtten (known in English as The Ballad of Revolt, Naxos 8.557018) and Geirr Tveitt's Haring-øl (Hardanger Ale, Naxos 8.555078). The crescendos in such works are of various kinds: magical, mechanical, erotic or tragic. In the Grieg it is not easy to decide the relative degrees of humour and seriousness. Norwegian children sing rude songs to this tune! Does the music portray our selfishness and malevolence, or is it merely comic and harmless? Destructive forces are hard to define, and can even be very fascinating. In the Hall of the Mountain King is often played as an orchestral showpiece, which pretty much guarantees smiles and applause. Grieg wrote that, after a performance in London, the audience bellowed their enthusiasm like wild beasts. In his day the music also aroused anger and was seen as shocking. The musical element in the trolls' realm was 'pure parody', Grieg said – 'so I came up with something for the Mountain King's hall that I literally can't bear to listen to: it reeks of cow pies, exaggerated Norwegian provincialism and trollish selfishness!' [Note 3] After all the music is over, Peer says: 'Both the dancing and the playing – may the cat claw my tongue – were utterly delightful.'
Grieg put together the Peer Gynt Suite No. 2 some years later, and it was published in 1893. He wanted an alternative to the first Suite for the concert programmes he conducted. At first he used The Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter to end the second Suite, and he also wondered about including Solveig's Lullaby and/or Peer Gynt's Serenade, but finally he decided to bring in the Arabian Dance and drop The Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter. So he ended up with a kind of chronological miniature version of the drama.
Ingrid is abducted by Peer Gynt in the middle of her wedding. She would actually prefer Peer, but he soon tires of her and wants to get rid of her: 'The Devil take all women – except one…!' (meaning Solveig). Peer is scornful and thoughtless; Ingrid is cut to the quick. Ingrid's Lament opens with the lively halling-motif, [Note 4] first heard at the beginning of the overture, that characterizes Peer the fantasist, but here it has a rigid, distorted, minor-key feel. There is a huge gulf between the two people, but they also have something in common. In his way, Peer is desperate too. Ingrid is beseeching and imploring, in the face of his bullying rage. Her lament unfolds over a painful, constantly reiterated pedal-point D in the viola register, sounding as if from the depths of her soul. The lamenting melody is shadowed by the bass, in sombre parallel motion. The climaxes are on G minor chords, reminiscent of Den Bergtekne (see below) as well as Grieg's G minor String Quartet (Naxos 8.550879) and the Ballade, Op. 24, also in G minor (Naxos 8.550883; orchestration by Geirr Tveitt: Naxos 8.557854). This G minor universe of Grieg's is full of supernatural and demonic forces, of wandering and delusion, of grief and loss.
Out of the quiet close of the song of lamentation come the similarly soft percussion sounds launching the Arabian Dance. Anitra and her women ironically hail Peer as a prophet from the north – in a light, Singspiel-like style. Exoticism pervades the tonality and chords, the trills and winding melodic lines, and the very orchestral sounds. Two piccolos imitate the Arab ney flute. Grieg wanted the low bassoons and drum to make this dance sound 'really Turkish'. (Originally he also used bassoons with the piccolos in the introduction.) In this recording we have, among other things, replaced the usual symphony orchestra bass drum with a smaller middle eastern dumbek, to help create this 'Turkish' sound.
The eruption of Peer Gynt's Homecoming is a shock. Peer, on his way home in a passenger ship, hits a storm. This music is both an antithesis and a parallel to the nature-impression Morning Mood in the first Suite, full of details and colours, chromatic lines and accents. Grieg said that all the dynamics must be exaggerated. I have always liked the way he uses the tuba here: as a foghorn or steamship's whistle, or as a purely musical catalyst in crescendos. Peer is in Nature's power. This is Nature's own music, the true threat of destructive forces. Grieg was ambivalent about writing music that mirrored nature too concretely. He preferred to reflect the feelings it arouses in us. But here he held nothing back in his direct depiction of the storm.
At this point in the Suite he added a new, specially-written transition passage for wind instruments. The slender thread of life in the woodwind sounds is taken over by yearning unison strings, muted but still strong, leading into Solveig's Song. Solveig has integrity, she is faithful and true, she knows what she wants (Peer). The play at this moment suddenly spirits us away from Africa and the Sahara desert. Peer, tricked by Anitra, says 'Women – they're a worthless crew!' And in a flash of sunlight we are back home in Norway. Solveig, now a middle-aged woman, sits outside the house with her spinning-wheel and sings. The soft wind chord after the introduction and the ones between the phrases perhaps represent Solveig's yearning thoughts and glances, or the sounds of the forests, Nature and legend. According to Grieg, this was his only song strongly influenced by folk-music. Scholars have also pointed to models in the works of the older Norwegian composers Halfdan Kjerulf (1815–68) and Otto Winter-Hjelm (1837–1931). Life is not without pain for Solveig – witness the dissonant chords towards the ends of the verses and the chromaticism in the inner voices. In the sections after the verses where Solveig sings wordless melismas, Grieg asks in the score that the dotted-note figure not be too strong, but more like triplets. Ibsen's idea here was that Solveig should spin as she hums, and we hear the circular movement of her wheel in the music. But Grieg also said that 'you can't spin in 3/4 time'! However that may be, we can be drawn into a musical trance with Solveig at the heart of her song, lifted beyond all emotion, into a wordless and timeless love.
'Solveig's Song'is easily the most often performed of Grieg's 180 or so songs. He said that his wife Nina was their main inspiration and their 'only true interpreter'. He himself orchestrated very few of the songs, so most of them were heard only on a chamber scale, with piano, but the songs were an absolutely central part of Grieg's creative work, with a large spectrum of emotion and expression. Most set Norwegian texts, and the language barrier, compounded by a dearth of good translations, has unfortunately limited their international circulation. As mentioned above, there has also been a tendency to judge Grieg's music one-dimensionally, linking it too closely with Norwegian national identity. Grieg usually took some of his songs with him on his frequent international concert tours, where his soloists were not always Norwegian. The orchestral songs were often performed by the Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbranson (1863–1947), who married a Norwegian. On 23 February 1895 in Copenhagen she gave the première of the orchestral version of 'Fra Monte Pincio'. In the same concert H. Verdier sang 'Den Bergtekne'and 'Henrik Wergeland'– its first performance with orchestra. 'En Svane'had been premièred in Paris on 22 April 1894 by M. Grimaud. The orchestrations of 'Våren'(1890) and 'Det første møte'(1895) were first given by the internationally-famous Norwegian dramatic soprano Elisa Wiborg.
The text of 'Det første møte' (The First Meeting) comes from a novel by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910): Fiskerjenten (The Fisher-Maiden), about a young woman called Petra. In his Op. 21 Grieg set four poems from the story. 'Det første møte' is pure nature-idyll: the evening sun is reddening as it sinks in the sky, and the young lovers feel that they are part of nature's paradise, 'united in wonder'. As in 'Solveig's Song' there is a tiny vocalise, like a call to the animals, at the words 'like distant horns'.
The idea of 'distant horns' sounds a very different, tragic note in 'Den Bergtekne' (The Mountain Thrall), whose orchestra adds two horns to the strings. 'Den Bergtekne'is in E minor, but is introduced by an emblematic G minor chord – conceptually we are in Grieg's special, tragic G minor universe. Before the opening music returns to close the song, there is another G minor chord, which Grieg marks fff, asking that the strings use many bowstrokes to make it as loud as possible. The chord takes on symbolic weight. Magnus Brostrup Landstad (1802–80) collected many old folk-songs and ballads, and published them as Norske Folkeviser (Norwegian Folk Ballads) in 1853. It was in Landstad's collection that Grieg found inspiration for this, the longest of his orchestral songs, in 1878, a time when his life was 'filled with significant events and emotional upheavals'. He felt that with this epic song he had done 'one of the few good deeds of my life'. We are in the realm of the troll-forests, dark and erotically threatening, ruled by deadly dangerous supernatural powers. The middle of the song is a contrasting nature-idyll. But the fundamental form of both folk-music and Grieg's music, ABA, closes the circle, leading tragically back to the starting-point. We can find no route home, we wander in circles: there is no way out. It is perhaps typically Norwegian to want out – but it is also dangerous outside! The potentially destructive aspect of human longing for nature is hardly unknown in the history of Norwegian art.
'Solveig's Cradle Song' is the song that ends Peer Gynt. Some productions of the play use an expanded form of it, with chorus. Here there are associations with religious consolation; and also with Goethe's Ewigweibliche – the 'Eternal Feminine'. Grieg's music closes the story in a dream-state, and it is natural to interpret this on a symbolic level, not unambiguously. The increase in dynamics towards the end amplifies the effect: 'louder and fuller!!! Very broad and intense'. Grieg himself said of this ending for Peer Gynt: 'I believe I gave of my best'. He wrote more than twenty lullaby settings in his life. He lost his only daughter when she was less than a year old; maybe this is why many of these cradle songs are for a dead child. In Peer Gynt it is Peer himself, now an old man, who is cradled in Solveig's arms. We cannot be completely sure how long Peer has left to him: 'We'll meet at the last crossroads, Peer'.
Rome and Italy were powerful inspirations for Norwegian creative artists in the second half of the 1800s. It was in Rome that Grieg met Ibsen for the first time, during a four-month trip to the 'land of colour' in 1865–66. Ibsen wrote Brand and Peer Gynt there. Grieg knew the hill of Monte Pincio very well, just north of the centre of Rome, with its view over the Piazza del Popolo ('People's Square') and the city's many church towers. So it is not surprising that when Bjørnson's poem 'Fra Monte Pincio'(From Monte Pincio) appeared in 1870, he immediately set it to music. Here two Norwegians join in homage to the south. The music is inspired, large-scale and richly colourful – thanks to the 'daily influence of a world of beauty', as Grieg put it in one of his tributes to Italy.
'En Svane' (A Swan), the second of Grieg's six songs to words by Ibsen, Op. 25, is an example of the extremely short, concentrated form of which both Ibsen and Grieg were masters, almost like a Japanese haiku poem, depicting the mute swan which sings for the first time at the hour of its death – the mythical 'swansong'. Some people interpret the poem in erotic terms, and think only men should sing it, but Grieg performed this song with both female and male soloists, and for me both text and music are open to a wide variety of interpretations. We can hear the song on many levels, both concrete and abstract.
After writing 'Den Bergtekne'in 1878, Grieg composed nothing for two years. It was poems in landsmål [Note 5] by Aasmund Olavsson Vinje (1818–70) that finally struck new creative sparks in him. Vinje first published the text of 'Våren' (Spring) with four verses, in his newspaper Dølen (The Dalesman). The words inspired in Grieg a setting of great harmonic subtlety, once again using a string orchestra. He later made a version for strings alone, without voice, conducting it often on his concert tours. In the strings-only version Grieg used the title 'Siste vår' (Last Spring), reflecting the phrase 'once again' – pointing out that the speaker knows this is probably the last springtime of his life. The mystery he sees and hears in the Spring is the truth about the cycle of life: there will be new growth, whatever happens to him. In Norway this song is often used at funerals.
Writing to his friend Frants Beyer on 3 March 1895, Grieg said that the last of his set of six orchestral songs, 'Henrik Wergeland', sounded 'as dignified as a Norse bardic eulogy'. Forest mysticism, in a distinctive colouring of bell-like nature sounds, underpins this hymn-like homage to the Norwegian author and nation-builder Henrik Wergeland (1808–45). The text can with justification be seen as passé, or in any case historically limited. Maybe this is one reason why the song is hardly ever sung today: history has shown that pompous hero-worship that 'swells the heart' can lead humanity over the edge of a cliff. But Wergeland's own history has many interesting facets, not totally unlike Grieg's: he could be seen as the only true Norwegian Romantic writer of his generation, but in a somewhat un-Norwegian way. Norwegian Romanticism was generally down-to-earth, rarely radical, heaven-storming, magical, wild or mad. Wergeland was pretty much condemned for the excesses of his Romanticism, but lauded for his democratic humanism. Few people these days know about his chaotic erotic Nature-religion. Over the years Wergeland became pigeon-holed as 'typically Norwegian': an innocent child of Nature and an idealist democrat. But Grieg's song is also about 'the lost bard of the forests'. It would be sad if our minds became closed to the many-sided meanings expressed in Grieg's inspirations.
Translated by David Gallagher
 Arne Garborg (1851–1924) is perhaps best known for his cycle of poems Haugtussa (The Mountain Woman), which inspired Grieg deeply – he set many of the poems to music within a few months of their publication in 1895.
 Dovre is a region of upper (northern) Gudbrandsdal: the realm of the troll 'Mountain King' is inside the mountains of Dovre.
 In Peer Gynt, selfishness is the defining quality of trolls: the Mountain King tells Peer that the difference between trolls and humans is 'Man, be thyself! […] Troll, to thyself be – enough!' Ibsen shows that, in this sense, Peer's own behaviour – like that of many of us – is all-too-often trollish.
 The halling is a fast Norwegian folkdance with two beats to the bar.
 Landsmål – the 'national language' – was formulated from various Norwegian dialects in the mid-nineteenth century by Ivar Aasen (1813–96). Its modern form, Nynorsk ('New Norwegian'), is one of Norway's two official written languages, used by 10–15% of the population – including Bjarte Engeset.
Sung texts with English translations can be found at www.naxos.com/libretti/570236.htm
Cover painting by Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928)
Naivism came naturally to Nikolai Astrup. Growing up in the vicarage in Jølster, a tiny mountain community just off the west coast of Norway, he saw himself as a future artist at the age of twelve, and for future use he collected all his childish drawings and first attempts at painting. Always, his concern and reason for becoming an artist was the overwhelming experience of nature and of a connection to all things alive, the way he saw it as a little boy. Being an extraordinary talent, according to his art teachers Harriet Backer and Christian Krohg, he learned all the skills of a naturalist painter in his two years of studies in Backer's private school in Oslo (then Christiania), and half a year with Krohg in Colarossi, Paris. Indeed, he had discarded naturalism even before he went to Paris, without finding satisfactory means and methods in the neo-romanticism he encountered in Oslo. He needed a way that could reflect the authenticity of his childhood experience, and felt that the source must be the pictorial notes in his own childish work.
In Paris, in the art of Henri Rousseau, not yet recognized by the public but much appreciated by artists of the Salon des Indépendants, he found a confirmation of what had been his profound intuition. The primitive naive, uncorrupted by academia, could indeed be turned into valid and great art, without losing its primordial power. So, in Paris, after learning all a painter's skills, he became a true primitive, the primitive he had been in his heart all along. He felt the imagery of his native vicarage world calling, and, in a frenzy to apply his new confidence, broke off his Paris studies and went home, to stay.
Being short of money, Astrup had an excuse to return and live again in the realm of his youthful visions. His notebooks from these first years trying out a new method are interesting: he carried the little books in his pocket at all times, and made notes of what to paint next. Here, it is what he saw as a child, and the way he saw it, that was his concern. His vision was a blend of mysteries of spring light, farm animals, country people, ancient rites and folklore. In these years, before his first show in 1905, in conflict with his father over being an artist and a pagan with a taste for brandy, rather than a clergyman like most of his ancestors, and in conflict with most of the farmers for being an outsider, he created many of his most important works, such as "Spring Evening in the Garden".
Coming into the public eye with his 1905 exhibition in an Oslo gallery, in the year of Norway's final independence as a nation, his primitive interpretation of nature and farm life, of land and people, of tradition and belonging, immediately made him a celebrated "national" artist. Critics saw his art as an authentic product of a Norwegian soil. The way that his dialogue with contemporary European symbolism and the still unknown naivism had made his art possible, was not recognized. With an elegant and stylized French art soon becoming the new paradigm in Norwegian art, following Matisse and Lhote, so remote from Astrup's intensely private struggle within his own heart, Astrup has remained an outsider in the eyes of the critics. And yet his art, highly personal as it is, also belongs to a European birth of modernism.
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