Edvard Grieg

1843–1907

Romantic

During the 19th century, many composers were inspired by the folk music and legends of their own countries. We describe such composers as ‘nationalist’. Sibelius was a nationalist composer, inspired by the legends of Finland. Grieg was also a nationalist and found inspiration in the legends and folk music of Norway. But where Sibelius was comfortable with big works, Grieg was really happiest writing small pieces. He was a superb miniaturist. His music is mainly sweet rather than fierce. He had a wonderful gift for writing tunes, and these have ensured his place as one of the most popular classical composers. His Piano Concerto, his music for the play Peer Gynt, and some of his lyrical pieces for piano are all very famous and beloved by many.

His gift for melody made him a fine songwriter. He set poems by many European writers, including Rudyard Kipling. His wife had a fine soprano voice. He didn’t write an opera; he preferred to stick to works on a smaller scale. He only wrote one symphony and one piano sonata, both early works. His smaller-scale pieces are elegant, colourful, sometimes sentimental, and have earned him the reputation of being Scandinavia’s greatest composer.

Grieg had Scottish ancestry. He came from a wealthy and musical family. He was a fine pianist. As a teenager, he suffered from tuberculosis and ever afterwards he was sickly. The Norwegian winters didn’t help his lungs so he travelled a lot in Europe, where he met the composer and virtuoso pianist Liszt. Liszt was most impressed with Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Listen to it and you can understand why – it is charming and tuneful and, like Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which partly inspired it, it breathes an air of youthful joy.

Grieg became a much-revered figure in Norway, as Sibelius did in Finland. When Grieg died in 1907 at the age of 64 from heart disease, 40,000 people attended his funeral in his home town of Bergen. So popular was Grieg’s music that, in 1944, 37 years after he had died, two men turned some of his best-known music into a successful operetta called Song of Norway.

Edward Grieg, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play music!

Play Music!

See if you’re gripped by Grieg – pick a track...

Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46: I. Morning Mood

The evocation of daybreak at the start of the first Peer Gynt Suite may be the most famous thing Grieg wrote. The surging music communicates joy in the anticipation of a new day.

Performers: Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.570236

Holberg Suite, Op. 40: I. Prelude

This piece, from Grieg’s Holberg Suite, conveys a springy sense of movement in a self-consciously olden style.

Performers: Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.572403

Lyric Pieces, Book 8, Op. 65: No. 6. Wedding Day at Troldhaugen

This is one of Grieg’s best-known lyric pieces written for piano. It sounds jolly and rustic – you can almost see the peasants dancing at the wedding party.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553396

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Grieg is the most famous composer ever to come out of which country?

a. Norway
b. Finland
c. Portugal

 Two arrangers, Robert Wright and George Forrest, turned Grieg’s music into an operetta. What was it called?

a. Tough Leaving Scotland
b. Song of Norway
c. Peer Gynt

 One of Grieg’s most famous works is based on a play by the great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen. It is called what?

a. The Doll’s House
b. Uncle Vanya
c. Peer Gynt

 Which famous composer loved Grieg’s Piano Concerto and sight-read it, complete with the orchestral part?

a. Franz Liszt
b. Sergei Rachmaninov
c. Oscar Peterson

 Why did Grieg’s great-grandfather emigrate from Scotland and settle in Norway?

a. He hated the weather.
b. He feared persecution after the Battle of Culloden.
c. He loved pickled herrings.


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Grieg met Ibsen, the great playwright who wrote Peer Gynt, when they were both staying in Italy.
  2. Grieg’s great-grandfather was called Alexander Greig – somewhere along the way, the vowels were swapped in family name were swapped! He left Scotland after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and settled in Norway.
  3. Grieg’s illnesses destroyed his left lung and left him with a deformed spine.
  4. Grieg was one of the first great composers to make recordings; he made nine recordings of his piano music in 1903 in Paris.
  5. Grieg came to England to be given an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University. He immediately started signing his name ‘Dr Grieg’!

Playlists

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Works


Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

Håvard Gimse, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Performers: Håvard Gimse, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.557279


Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46

Grieg found it difficult to write his music for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt, but he persevered. He wrote 23 individual numbers and selected some of the best for two suites. This, the first, is very famous – ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ is particularly so, with its amazing build-up from almost nothing to a loud and frenetic finale to depict trolls, gnomes and goblins.

Performers: Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.570236


Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, Op. 55

This is the second suite Grieg took from the incidental music he wrote for Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. It is slightly darker in overall mood than the first suite but still full of invention. Grieg makes it sound so easy to compose music – you would never know that he didn’t find it easy at all!

Performers: Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.570236

Piano Works


Lyric Pieces, Book 1, Op. 12 (selection)

Grieg wrote 66 short ‘lyric pieces’ for piano solo. Choosing a selection is difficult because so many of them are delightful. The first, ‘Arietta’, is typical, and it was one of Grieg’s favourite tunes. He wrote this first book of Lyric Pieces when he was 24 years old.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 2, Op. 38 (selection)

These four tracks come from Grieg’s Second Book of Lyric Pieces. Mostly they are not too difficult to play, although catching the gentle lilt of some of the rhythms is not easy. They have always been popular with the talented amateur pianist.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 3, Op. 43 (selection)

Not only does Grieg prove a talent for writing melodies, but he describes things in music like a painter describes on canvas: listen to the first piece here, ‘Butterfly’ – can you imagine a butterfly fluttering around? And what about that chirping little bird in the second track?

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 4, Op. 47 (selection)

These Lyric Pieces, from Book 4, are less cheerful and carefree than the previous ones. The Norwegian Dance (the fourth track) has punch, though it is rooted to one chord: can you hear how the bottom of the piano repeats the same notes all the way through the piece? You could stamp your foot to it!

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 5, Op. 54 (selection)

These pieces are taken from a set of six in Book 5, which Grieg wrote when he was 48 years old. The ‘Herd Boy’ seems rather tired here, but energy returns by the time we get to ‘March of the Trolls’! They’re really going for it – the intervals (the distance between the notes) are quite harsh, which means the sounds are bald and hard compared to nice, soft, comforting chords. Hard sounds suit the fierce trolls.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 6, Op. 57 (selection)

Book 6 was written when Grieg was around 50. The Lyric Pieces cover a wide range of emotion from his celebrated rumbustious ‘troll music’ to elegant and gentle numbers. This piece, longer than most, expresses a nostalgic mood – where you remember fondly and sometimes sadly the past.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 7, Op. 62 (selection)

Grieg was careful to place contrasting pieces next to each other in his sets of lyric pieces. Although this is just some of the full collection, you can hear the contrasts here too – the first one is elegant and gentle; the second is more rushed as it describes the water in a brook; and the third is cheerful – we’re going home!

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 8, Op. 65 (selection)

In his 53rd year, Grieg did not lack inspiration. His music is still fresh. ‘The Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ was originally a present to his wife on their wedding day (11 June). At times joyful and at times thoughtful, it is typical of Grieg’s authentic writing – he never tries to be anyone other than himself.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 9, Op. 65 (selection)

This lullaby comes from Grieg’s 9th Book, written when he was 55. It is, as you would expect, a gentle picture of innocence.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051


Lyric Pieces, Book 10, Op. 71 (selection)

The two pieces selected from Grieg’s Book 10, written when the composer was 58, couldn’t be more different from each other. The first describes the goblin Puck – quick and cheeky. Then ‘Remembrances’ – slow and dreamy – encourages thoughts of the past, with happy memories and a sadness that time has passed.

Performers: Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554051

Chamber Works


Violin Sonata in C minor, Op. 45

This is the third of Grieg’s three violin sonatas and it is often performed today. It uses ideas from Norwegian folk music and is quite an expressive piece. Grieg was pleased with it – and he wasn’t pleased with everything he did. (He was very rude about ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’, one of his most famous bits of music!)

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550417


String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 27

This is Grieg’s only surviving and complete string quartet. He did write one before this, which is now lost. A string quartet is made up of two violins, a viola and a cello: they play as a close team, all four instruments expressing ideas together in this often edgy and dramatic quartet.

Performers: Oslo Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550879

Songs


Six Orchestral Songs, EG 177

Grieg wrote around 180 songs, many inspired by his wife. ‘Solveig’s Song’ is the best known – originally for orchestra only as part of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 2. It is full of love. The selection of songs here is taken from various places. The first five are for soprano, and the final song is for the lower-voiced baritone.

Performers: Inger Dam-Jensen, soprano; Palle Knudsen, baritone; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.570236


Den bergtekne (The Mountain Thrall), Op. 32

The Mountain Thrall is Grieg’s longest orchestral song, evoking a dark world of trolls and forests and supernatural powers. He wrote it in 1878. Just after the introduction, the baritone comes in c. 0:50 with ‘Through the dark wood I did stray’ (in Norwegian!) and he ends the song ‘never more shall I reach home’.

Performers: Palle Knudsen, baritone; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.570236


6 Songs, Op. 48

This is a set of six songs dating mostly from 1889. They are settings of German poetry and are a little like Schubert’s songs. Each song is masterly and the mood is generally sunny rather than tragic.

Performers: Bodil Arnesen, soprano; Erling Ragnar Eriksen, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553781