About this work
From Edvard Grieg's extensive body of works for piano, history has, of course, singled out the Concerto in A minor for special treatment, but there are a number of other musical gems hidden among the ranks. Many of the Lyric Pieces (ten books, in all) are quite becoming, and the four Album Leaves have earned a special place in the hearts of a handful of pianists; but it is the striking Ballade in G minor, Op. 24, in which the brightest and best of his pianistic sentiments find expression.
The Ballade, composed during 1875 and early 1876, takes the melody of an ancient Norwegian folk ballad, "Den nordlansk hondestand" ("The Northland Peasantry"), as the source material for a handful of ingenious variations. Grieg sets the initial presentation of the somber, repetitive theme (Andante espressivo) against a chromatically sliding bass and two colorful middle voices. The delicate opening phrase is all contained within a single lengthy slur and marked piano e molto legato; a middle melodic strain offers a more lighthearted thought.
The first nine variations are simple elaborations of the theme that retain its basic length and melodic outline. In the first variation, the steady three-four quarter notes of the theme dissolve into gentle offbeat triplets; the process of acceleration (built in to the note-values, not played out by the performer) continues in the following allegro agitato, which fills every beat of its expanded nine-eight meter with sixteenth notes. Although marked Adagio, the third variation retains something of the flowing sixteenth note character that has been developing in the previous variation.
The fourth variation is impish and chromatic, while the fifth (Piu lento) balances fiery single-voice recitando gestures with calmer but fuller cadential figures. Variations five and six are both canons at the octave that fall under an Allegro scherzando indication.
Deeply contrasting is the following Lento -- a kind of funeral march. The main theme is given, darkly, over a slow offbeat in the very low bass register; the recurring pedal tone is usually interpreted to be a musical representation of a bell tolling. The ninth variation is not so much a real section unto itself, but rather more of a transition to the remainder of the Ballade: four variations that are cast as continuous sections of one large Finale.
The tenth variation, or first section of the Finale (marked poco allegro e alla burla) is a witty and technically challenging dance. Variation 11 is marked più animato, and moves to harmonically distant areas. After a characteristic modulation has been made back to the key of G, the mighty, Meno allegro e maestoso (variation 12) begins. This is a Lisztian outburst of sheer pianistic forcefulness: powerful downbeat chords are offset by strong octaves in the extreme registers of the instrument. Both the three-four meter and the original minor mode of the theme are back for Allegro furioso -- and Grieg really does mean furious. Fiery arpeggiated chords moving in opposite directions struggle against one another; the tension of contrary motion is heightened by sharp harmonic conflict. Resolution occurs at the beginning of the last variation (prestissimo), a breathtaking plunge back into the theme as we first heard it -- now even more subdued and melancholy than it was before.