How the Dreyfus affair caused Grieg to boycott Paris - and receive death threats as a result
In September 1899 Grieg said ‘non’ to Paris as the Dreyfus affair rages
In 12 September 1899, Edvard Grieg did something few composers or performers ever do – turn down a lucrative, high-profile booking with a leading orchestra.
The invitation to guest-conduct a concert of his own works with the Colonne Orchestra in Paris, where Grieg had appeared three times previously, would normally have been highly appealing. But the tone of the Norwegian composer’s reply to Édouard Colonne, the concert’s organiser, was unexpectedly sharp.
‘I cannot in all conscience travel to Paris,’ he wrote. ‘Like any other individual who is not a member of the French nation, I am shocked by the disgusting manner in which your compatriots treat both the law and justice, and my disgust is so great that I have no desire to appear before a French audience.’ What had so piqued Grieg’s ire that he found himself unable to accept Colonne’s prestigious invitation?
What was the Dreyfus affair?
The answer lies in an event which happened three days earlier, when the French army officer Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of treason for a second time – at his first court-martial four years previously, he was convicted for allegedly passing intelligence documents to the Germans.
Grieg was not alone in finding the case against Dreyfus hopelessly unconvincing. Outraged, the novelist Émile Zola penned ‘J’accuse’, an open letter accusing the military authorities of corruption and distorting evidence. Public opinion swayed in Dreyfus’s favour, although a virulent strain of anti-Semitism was also evident, not least among the military establishment.
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How did Grieg's stance on the Dreyfus affair affect him?
Grieg’s gesture of solidarity with Dreyfus might easily have gone virtually unnoticed had he not authorised the publication of his letter to Colonne in a Frankfurt newspaper.
There, the words of the eminent Norwegian composer stirred both approval from the pro-Dreyfus factions and bitter opposition from those who supported the treason verdict. Hate mail, including death threats, rained in Grieg’s direction, and his controversial letter led to splits with friends and a string of cancelled concert engagements.
Colonne himself was none too pleased that Grieg’s letter had been published and that his orchestra had been associated with the ongoing Dreyfus furore. But he admired Grieg’s music immensely and three years later invited him back to Paris to perform it. Grieg wanted to accept, but worried about the ongoing vitriol his Dreyfus stance was attracting. Colonne was reassuring. ‘The storm has passed,’ he commented.
Unfortunately it hadn’t, as Grieg discovered when he arrived in Paris for his concert in April 1903. Dreyfus was by then a free man, having accepted a presidential pardon a week after his second trial. But memories of ‘l’affaire Dreyfus’ were still raw in the French capital, with controversies around it continuing to rage. A police escort was needed for Grieg and his wife to make the carriage ride from their hotel to the concert venue, where a milling crowd provided a mainly warm welcome.
Boos and catcalls could be heard, however, as the composer came on stage to conduct the concert. Grieg stood silently by as police inside the hall forcibly ejected the agitators, and then took up his baton. ‘I energetically signalled the orchestra to open up with a fortissimo,’ he later reported, ‘and from that moment on I was in complete control.’
Grieg was, though, shaken by the level of personal animosity he encountered while in Paris. The joyful celebrations which greeted his return to Norway, marking his 60th birthday, no doubt helped to re-establish a sense of personal well-being and belonging. But a scar remained – in the four years that were left until his death in 1907, he did not return to Paris again.
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