besseggen Norwegen_c Sina Gubser 2
Besseggen, Norwegen, © Sina Gubser

Series: Places in music (4)

Musicologist Georg Rudiger introduces some of the places that are significant for certain works performed in Klosters. Today: Norway, the home of the composer Edvard Grieg (Piano Concerto in A minor op. 16) 

“Grieg loved his homeland, his home town of Bergen, Troldhaugen, Hardanger, the Jotunheimen mountains, in fact Norwegian nature in general. But despite his national enthusiasm, he often felt exasperated with the spiritual and artistic poverty of his homeland. That is why he was drawn away into the continent’s art world during his lifetime, especially to Germany and Denmark, in order to find new inspiration,” writes the Norwegian musicologist Finn Benestad of Edvard Grieg. Edvard Grieg’s work is set apart by the fusion of Norwegian folk music with European art music. He himself spoke of the combination of brown bread with oysters and caviar. The first traces of folkloristic elements can be found in his Humoresques op. 6 and the second movement of the First Violin Sonata in F major op. 8 (both from 1865), whose rustic trio is reminiscent of the sound of a nine-stringed Hardanger fiddle, Norway’s national instrument. Grieg’s acquaintance with the violin virtuoso Ole Bull, who himself collected Norwegian folk music, was important for him. “Ole Bull was my good angel. He opened my eyes to the beauty and originality of Norwegian music. Through him I got to know many forgotten folk tunes and, above all, my own nature,” writes Grieg. In 1869, the composer Ludvig Mathias Lindeman’s collection “Older and newer Norwegian mountain melodies”, from which he musically arranged many original folk songs, was discovered for the first time in his 25 Norwegian dances and folk tunes op. 17.

A year earlier, in the summer of 1868, the 25-year-old new father stayed with the Norwegian pianist Edmund Neupert and the Danish composer Emil Horneman in the idyllic village of Søllerød – around 20 kilometres from Copenhagen, where his wife and daughter, born in April, stayed with her in-laws. He wanted to be able to work in peace, but not be too far away from his family. On 3 April 1869, the piano concerto was premiered in Copenhagen by Edmund Neupert: “The triumph I celebrated was truly marvellous. After the cadenza in the first part, a veritable storm broke out in the audience. The three unpredictable critics, Gade, Rubinstein and Hartmann, sat up in the box and applauded with all their might,” the soloist reported to the composer shortly after the premiere.

Edvard Grieg does not yet use any original Norwegian melodies in the piano concerto, but there are some echoes of Norwegian folk music. Even the beginning with the piano’s descending introductory bars (a-G sharp-e) in “Allegro molto moderato” has a melodic twist with the falling minor second and the subsequent tritone, which is often found in Scandinavian folk music. The circling motif played by the flutes and clarinets in the “animato” is typical of a Hardanger fiddle. After a short introduction, the last movement “Allegro moderato molto e marcato” presents a Halling – the typical Norwegian folk dance in 2/4 time, the strong rhythm of which is additionally emphasised by accents. Some harmonic turns and suggestions, such as in the exposed, restrained flute theme, are also reminiscent of folk music. At the end, after the solo cadenza, Grieg used another Norwegian dance, Springar, a skipping dance in 3/4 time, which brings the piano concerto to an effective close.