‘From in front he looks like a genial photographer; from behind his way of doing his hair makes him look like the plants called sunflowers, dear to parrots and the gardens that decorate small country stations. Grieg may be an exquisite composer when he interprets the folk-music of his country, but apart from this he is no more than a clever musician, only concerned with effects rather than with genuine art.’
Was Claude Debussy being somewhat disingenuous when he penned this abusive review of a concert Edvard Grieg gave of his music in Paris in 1903? Perhaps his remarks were intended to disguise his own indebtedness to the Norwegian composer. Certainly a closer look at some of Grieg’s music reveals harmonic progressions and textural patterns that could easily be mistaken for Debussy. In cases such as the remarkable piano piece ‘Klokkeklang’ (Bell-ringing) from the fifth book of Lyric Pieces, the parallels are almost too uncanny. Here Grieg creates an impressionistic sound picture fashioned out of a sequence of alternating fifths and uses the pedal to deliberately blur the harmonies. Debussy’s famous Prelude ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ could surely not have been written without a working knowledge of Grieg’s piece.
Given the sheer familiarity of such favourites as the Piano Concerto, the Peer Gynt suites and the Norwegian Dances, it’s all too easy to underestimate Grieg. A reappraisal of the man and musician reveals a composer of striking originality and a surprising depth and breadth in outlook. This originality stems in part from his unique position during the second half of the 19th century when he became not only the principal musical representative of Norwegian nationalism, but also one of the few Scandinavian composers to have achieved lasting fame throughout Europe during his lifetime. Whereas compatriots such as Johan Svendsen and Christian Sinding remained essentially cosmopolitan in outlook, Grieg’s musical language was far more intimately connected to the Norwegian landscape – to its stunning fjords and wild mountain scenery that he so loved to explore.
Crucial to his identification with the landscape was Grieg’s discovery of the idiosyncratic melodic features and dance rhythms of Norwegian folk music that began to permeate every aspect of his style. Like many 19th-century composers, he first attempted to make such material palatable and accessible for performers and concert-goers. But by the end of his life, he was more concerned with its preservation through faithful and accurate transcription. In this respect, the Slåtter (Norwegian peasant dances) of 1902, an arrangement for piano of traditional dances originally played on the Hardanger fiddle, a violin with resonating strings, is a remarkable milestone. Here Grieg delights in exploiting and extending the strange clashes of harmony that are part of the original, creating music whose uncompromising primitivism and percussiveness anticipate Bartók.
This lifelong absorption in folk music may have been intensified and radicalised as a result of his training. From the age of 15 Grieg studied piano and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. Although he received a thorough grounding in all the traditional elements of composition, he later claimed that his penchant for exploring unconventional harmonies was strongly discouraged there. He also realised early on that his temperament was fundamentally unsuited to composing large-scale works and that he was most at ease composing short piano works, notably the ten books of Lyric Pieces, and an enormous output of songs mainly written for his wife Nina.
Yet despite his natural aversion to writing extended works, he made strenuous efforts to overcome this problem. We may discount the early Symphony of 1862, written under pressure from the Danish composer Niels Gade and which he himself dismissed for its lack of individuality. Much more representative were the Ballade for solo piano (1875), the String Quartet in G minor (1877), and the Third Violin Sonata (1887), works which are bold in terms of their harmonic language and imaginative in their formal construction. Indeed, it’s regrettable that even at the height of his powers Grieg suffered frequent bouts of creative depression which resulted in several abandoned works including a Second Piano Concerto, Second String Quartet, a Piano Trio and Piano Quintet.
There are further hidden treasures in his output. Among his songs the ineffably moving cycle Haugtussa (1896-8) would warrant a regular place in the repertory were it not for the scarcity of singers who are able to master Arne Garborg’s poems, set in the distinct branch of the Norwegian language known as Landsmål. The complete incidental music that he composed to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, extending to many more numbers than the two famous Suites, is another revelation, demonstrating dramatic intensity on an almost operatic scale. Equally powerful is Den Bergtekne (‘The Mountain Thrall’) for baritone, strings and two horns of 1877, an atmospheric setting of an old Norse poem about a man lost in the mountains who is lured on to his death by the elusive Erl-King’s daughter.
A rather different, though no less fascinating aspect of Grieg’s outlook is manifested in the neo-Baroque Holberg Suite (1884) which exists in two distinctive versions for string orchestra and solo piano. But perhaps one of his finest achievements is the set of Four Psalms for baritone solo and unaccompanied choir that he composed in the last years of his life. The musical language here seems to move in the new direction suggested by the Slåtter – it’s austere yet exploratory in its use of dissonance. Grieg may not have shown the versatility and range of expression that one finds in such composers as Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, yet the simplicity and freshness of his inspiration remain undimmed by the passing of time.