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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 9

Highlights of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Music

by Derek Yaple-Shobert / June 14, 2007

This year marks the Centennial of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), undoubtedly Scandinavia’s best-known composer, for whom numerous commemorative activities are taking place throughout the world.

As a young man, Edvard Grieg attended Europe’s most prestigious music institution, the Leipzig Conservatory, fashioned by Mendelssohn and Schumann among others. He graduated with high marks, but felt a need to write music that was distinctly Norwegian and different from the Germanic trends of the time. Rikard Nordraak, born a year before Grieg and composer of the Norwegian national anthem, was a fervent believer in incorporating Norwegian folk idioms into his own music. Perhaps because Grieg and he were very close friends, compounded by the fact that Nordraak died at age 23, Grieg made it his lifelong ambition to carry on Nordraak’s initial nationalistic momentum. In many of Grieg’s opuses, one can hear the influence of folk music and even folk instruments, such as the Hardanger fiddle, an instrument from the region after which it was named. Beautifully decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay and black pen-and-ink drawings, this unique instrument is similar to a violin, but it has a set of four or five sympathetic strings that runs underneath the fingerboard, giving echoing overtones to the sound – a constant “drone.” Grieg summons this sound on traditional instruments by the use of an open 5th (do & sol played simultaneously), flavouring much of his piano music. Another example of his incorporating folk elements into music is the evil, dark, mythological Norwegian Trolls, whom Grieg captures in sound with low notes, minor chords and powerful sharp rhythms, evoking a devilish atmosphere of terror. The Ballade, Opus 24, for piano, is in the form of variations on a nostalgic Norwegian folk melody, where the theme undergoes various treatments of numerous compositional and pianistic techniques. Grieg claimed that his Ballade was his finest work, “written with the blood of my heart in days of mourning and despair,” following his parents’ deaths within weeks of each other.

Somewhat standing on its own is the neo-baroque Holberg Suite, originally for solo piano, which Grieg then orchestrated into one of the best-known suites of all time. The energetic, light and positive style of the Holberg Suite marks a delightful contrast to his other more brooding, darker works. Grieg wrote the Suite to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Ludwig Holberg, who also hailed from the town of Bergen. Norway and Denmark were one country for over 300 years. It is interesting to note that Holberg, considered the “Molière of the North” and the “Father of Danish literature,” as well as Grieg, had gone to live and work in Copenhagen, the only Scandinavian city rich in European cultural life on an international level and certainly the musical capital of the Nordic region. While Grieg lived there, one of Denmark’s most significant 19th-century “Golden Age” composers, Niels W. Gade, (pronounced GAH-the) strongly influenced the young Grieg, becoming his first real musical idol. In fact, Gade’s emotionally charged Piano Sonata in E Minor, Opus 28, markedly inspired Grieg’s own Piano Sonata in E Minor, Opus 7. Both are written in the same key, have four similarly structured movements and even contain some identical motifs.

Grieg wrote over 120 art songs, in large part because his Danish wife, Nina Hagerup, whom he had met in Copenhagen, was a soprano. One of the challenges that face singers today is that most of the songs are in Norwegian (including dialects) or Danish. As an engagement gift to his future wife, Grieg composed Melodies of the Heart, Opus 5, four songs set on poems by the couple’s good friend (and still-famous Dane) Hans Christian Andersen, including the famous Jeg elsker dig (I Love You).

Along with his art songs, Grieg expressed himself most individually and successfully in the musical miniature form, demonstrated in over 60 Lyrical Pieces for piano, where he synthesised his fastidious taste, sense of the picturesque and intense awareness of his folk heritage. One example is Opus 54, which contains two of his best-known works, the March of the Trolls and the famous romantic dream-like Nocturne, both of which Grieg subsequently orchestrated. The last piece of this colourful set, Ringing Bells, with its Debussy-like sound effects, foreshadows the Impressionist Movement. Astoundingly, Maurice Ravel said that Edvard Grieg had had the strongest influence on his own music. Although a master of the concise form expressing the “big in the small,” Grieg proved he could master larger forms. The success of his Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16, for example, established his reputation as one of the foremost composers of his time.

Grieg told people to visit him in June (his birthday was June 15), when rivers and waterfalls flow the fastest, mountaintops are still covered with snow, and yet flowers are starting to bloom. Each June, the Bergen International Festival pays tribute to Grieg through music, literature, theatre and dance, culminating in a Gala concert which always features his Piano Concerto. The festival exposes visitors to Grieg’s land, its local customs, music, folk and peasant history, majestic fjords and ultimately adds another dimension to understanding and appreciating his music. n

Websites relating to this article:

Grieg 2007: www.grieg07.no

Bergen International Festival: www.fib.no

Derek Yaple-Schobert: www.yaple-schobert.com

On June 2, 2007, at 7:30 pm, Derek Yaple-Schobert will perform as soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto, in an all-Grieg program, also featuring the Peer Gynt Suites and Songs sung by soprano Sasha Djihanian-Archambault with the CAMMAC Orchestra under Maestro Jean-Pascal Hamelin at the Lake MacDonaldMusic Centre near Harrington, Québec. On June 15, Yaple-Schobert will perform a solo recital featuring the Lyrical Pieces, Opus 54; Sonata, Opus 7; Holberg Suite, Opus 40, and the Ballade, Opus 24, at the Norwegian Church & Cultural Centre in Lachine. A reception with Norwegian delicacies and traditional Norwegian costumes worn will follow the performance. Proceeds will be donated to the Canadian-Scandinavian Foundation. In July, Les Disques XXI will record Derek Yaple-Schobert in the above solo repertoire,

(c) La Scena Musicale