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Grieg was the most prominent Scandinavian composer of his generation and a great leader in Norwegian art music. He was particularly skilled in lyrical melody-writing, for which he drew on both Nordic folksong and the Romantic tradition. His piano concerto remains a staple of the piano repertoire.
Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway. From the age of six, he learned to play the piano with his mother. He was brought up in a middle class family in which Danish language and culture prevailed. The turning point in his musical education was when the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull visited the Grieg family and heard young Edvard playing, persuading them to send him to study in Leipzig, which he did. In Leipzig Grieg studied piano with Wenzel and Moscheles and composition with Reinecke. As a young musician, Grieg was highly impressed by the performances he heard at the Gewandhaus, such as Wagner’s Tannhauser and Schumann’s Piano Concerto performed by Clara Schumann.
After graduating from Leipzig, Grieg had great success in Copehagen where he was encouraged by the Danish composer Niels Gade. Grieg also met the writer Hans Christian Andersen. His Hjertets melodier (‘The Heart’s Melodies’) op.5 was based on Andersen’s poems and this was Grieg’s first work that is written in such a personal style.
In the mid-1860s, Grieg began to learn more about Norwegian folk culture. Ole Bull and Rikard Nordraak taught him some Norwegian folk melodies that were previously unknown to him, having grown up far removed from Norwegian peasant culture. The experience enlivened a newfound Nationalism in him. He composed Humoresker op. 6 for piano in 1864, his first piece in the Norwegian folk idiom, which he dedicated to Nordraak. From that point forward, Grieg saw a new direction for his work – to follow the path of Romantic Nationalism.
After a concert of Norwegian songs composed by himself, Nordraak and Kjerulf in 1866, he was hailed as the most promising upcoming composer and musician in Norway and was soon appointed conductor of the Norwegian Philharmonic Society. He started to make plans to open the Norwegian Academy of Music, which were realised a few months later.
Grieg’s Piano Concerto was the first concerto to be recorded - by Wilhelm Backhaus in 1909, one of the first notable pianists to make recordings. The concerto dates from 1868, when Grieg was 24 years old. It is one of his most famous pieces and arguably one of the best-loved piano concertos of all time. The initial elaborate piano flourish gives it a majestic opening. The middle movement is calm and lyrical and joins directly into an energetic finale.
Grieg’s compositions became increasingly dedicated to Norway and Norwegian folksongs. His Lyrik Pieces, op. 12 for piano showed apparent nationalism even in the titles of the pieces: no.6 (Norsk), no.5 (Folkevise) and no.8 ( Faedrelandssang), to the last of which Bjørnson was soon afterwards to write patriotic verses. It was around that time that Grieg married Nina Hagerup and they had a daughter Alexandra.
In 1874, Grieg received a letter from the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, asking him to compose music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, which was loosely based on Norwegian fairy tales. Its first performance took part in February 1876.
The following year he spent most of his time in the beautiful Hardanger district and completed numerous works:Den bergtekne (‘The Mountain Thrall’) op.32 for solo baritone, two horns and strings, the String Quartet in G minor op.27, the Albumblade op.28, the Improvisata over to norske fokeviser op.29 and Langs ei å (‘Beside the River’), the setting of the poem by Vinje which is full of his invigorating scenery of his surroundings.
Grieg started to show elements of impressionism in is String Quartet in G minor. This became even stronger in later years, particularly in his miniature songs of the 1890s. In Grieg’s late period, a bolder, more linear harmonic use anticipated neo-classicism and also reflected the ‘double-stop’ feature of the Hardanger fiddle sound, which can be heard in his Four Psalms andSlåtter.
All images courtesy of Grieg Society