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Edvard Grieg: Edvard Grieg (b. Bergen, 15 June 1843; d. Bergen, 4 Sept 1907).
Norway's most famous composer, Edvard Grieg was actually of Scottish descent on his father's side. His great-grandfather had left Scotland after the Battle of Culloden in 1 746 to settle in the port of Bergen, where he took citizenship but maintained the link with his native country by becoming British consul, as did his son and grandson after him. It was from his mother that the future composer inherited his musical talent: an accomplished pianist, and a regular performer at local concerts, she gave him his first piano lessons at the age of six. He must have been a responsive pupil, for he composed his first piece, a set of variations, only three years later. He was sent at fifteen to the Leipzig Conservatoire, where he came under the influence of Schumann. The strength of this influence can be clearly seen in the Piano Concerto, his best-known work, which owed much of its inspiration and form to that of the German composer. He heard Clara Schumann play her husband's concerto at Leipzig, where one of his fellow-students was Arthur Sullivan, and where he also attended several performances of Tannhauser even though he had little liking for the music of Wagner. He was to find the most important influence on his musical development in Copenhagen, where he first went to live for a time in 1863.
Copenhagen was at that time the chief centre of Norwegian as well as Danish cultural activity, and his brief residence in the city made Edvard Grieg aware all at once of his Scandinavian heritage. 'For the first time', he wrote in an autobiographical sketch, 'I learned to know the northern folk tunes and my own nature.' For the next three years he divided his time between Denmark and Norway, finally coming to grips with the latter's folk music which he was subsequently to draw upon so consistently for his own compositions. Ironically, it was on a visit to Rome in 1865 that he first met his great compatriot Henrik Ibsen, for whose drama Peer Gynt he later composed incidental music. These were principally years of continued study in an attempt to find his true creative personality, but at the same time he was establishing himself as a composer with groups of songs and piano pieces, including his only Piano Sonata and the Violin Sonata No. 1. He finally settled in Norway in 1866, busying himself by promoting concerts and founding the Norwegian Academy of Music, which opened the following year. This was also the year of his marriage to his cousin, Nina Hagerup, a talented singer who had also been born in Bergen but brought up in Denmark. It was the beginning of what was to be a fairly settled life for a composer, his work as both creative and performing artist, augmented by state bursaries, ensuring him freedom from financial worries. He continued to suffer all his life, however, from frequent bouts of illhealth resulting from a severe attack of pleurisy at the age of seventeen. A man of determination and courage, he made annual concert tours in spite of this handicap, not so much to promote his own work as to bring the music of Norwegian composers in general to the attention of audiences abroad.
For the world as a whole, however, Edvard Grieg remains the Norwegian composer, and even so he is popularly regarded solely as the composer of the Piano Concerto in A minor. This is a grave underestimation of his true stature, though it cannot be gainsaid that the concerto is his only successful large-scale work. It is surprising, perhaps, that this most impressive and successful of all his works should have been composed when he was twenty-five and had thirty-nine active years ahead of him. The explanation is that Edvard Grieg was by nature a miniaturist, albeit of the highest order, with an inclination towards musical ideas which are potent in themselves but unsuitable for lengthy extension, and his fondness for folk-style music further restricted him. The Piano Concerto is the exception that proves the rule, a work of the utmost freshness and considerable originality for which he produced themes capable of development in traditional form. He revised the scoring many times, completing the version we are so familiar with today only in the last year of his life. He made sketches for a second concerto in 1883, but soon gave up the attempt, realising all too clearly that his talent was for works on a smaller scale.
Leaving aside his unsuccessful youthful attempt at a symphony, Greig's orchestral music consists mainly of arrangements of piano works and the incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Bjornson's Sigurd J or sal far. The original music for Peer Gynt consisted of twenty-two pieces for stage performances of the play, but the composer later arranged from them the two well-known suites. From original piano works he made the popular orchestral Norwegian Dances and Holberg Suite. His orchestral writing is rich and varied in colour, though not in the sense of local colour such as we might expect of a strongly nationalist composer. There is much to be admired also in his small output of chamber works, though none of them exhibits the mastery of formal construction to be found in the Piano Concerto. The Violin Sonata No. 3 and the 'Cello Sonata are to be enjoyed rather for the attractive qualities of their individual parts rather than for the sum of those parts. His String Quartet in G minor, which has the distinction of influencing Debussy's, also has sufficient passages of charm and imagination to compensate for some weakness in its over-all construction.
As a song-writer Edvard Grieg stands much higher, thanks to his unusually sensitive response to the words he was setting, to his gift for expressive melody and to the original and poetic piano accompaniments that he provided. Well over a hundred songs spanned the whole course of his creative life, and they show him at his best as a natural melodist completely free from pretension. It has often been said, and is still believed by many people today, that Edvard Grieg used actual folk tunes for his Norwegian songs, but this is not so. He was influenced by folk style, but he did not use traditional melodies, except for one song. 'Out of all my songs', he wrote to a friend towards the end of his life, 'only one, Solveig's song [for Peer Gynt], has borrowed a tune - no more.' It was his great achievement in his songs to give the spirit of Norway to the world in an international musical language. His music for solo piano is also highly individual, especially in the impressionistic miniatures of his later years. Again the spirit of his country is expressed in wholly original melodies, except for certain arrangements of folk tunes when the intention was made quite clear.
As a man Edvard Grieg was essentially a lonely figure, though he could show a delightful sense of humour in company and was a witty after-dinner speaker. A republican in politics, he was not greatly impressed by the honours bestowed on him by royalty, though he confessed: 'Orders and medals are most useful to me in the top layers of my trunks: the Customs officials are always so kind to me at the sight of them.' This is typical of a man of even temper - except when he rounded on critics whom he believed had unfairly attacked a fellow-composer - who spiced his general modesty with frequent pinches of wit.
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