Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is the greatest composer Norway has fostered. In retrospect one may wonder how a country with neither national freedom nor a long tradition of art music could have produced a man of such genius.
Up to 1814 Norway had been totally subject to Denmark, with Copenhagen as its cultural center. From 1814 to 1905 it was forced into a union with Sweden. The first half of the eighteenth century was a time of poverty in Norway and it was some time before it could assert itself among its Scandinavian brothers. But for the highly gifted these are perhaps the ideal conditions for providing impetus and nurturing growth.
In the autumn of 1858, Edvard Grieg, then only 15 years old, went to the Leipzig Conservatory to study music. His teachers were among the most eminent in Europe, and four years later he left the Conservatory as a full-fledged musician and composer. In the years up to 1866, Grieg lived in Copenhagen, leaving it only to make brief study trips.
Grieg's style was based on the German romantic tradition of music but bit by bit national awareness developed within him, coupled with a growing need to create a typical Norwegian style of music. His friendships and discussions with other young Norwegians also furthered this development. In Copenhagen Grieg had met Rikard Nordraak, whose patriotism reached its fullest expression in the choral setting of Norway's national anthem.
In 1869 Grieg, on a state stipend, left for Italy. His encounter with Franz Liszt and the artistic circles in Rome gave him fresh inspiration and self-confidence. Fired with new energy and enthusiasm he returned to Christiania in 1870. There he initiated a fruitful cooperation with Bjornstjerne Bjornson, who for many years had been waiting for a composer who could write Norwegian music that would expand and bring to life his poems and dramas. Grieg's dramatic talents were put to a test when Henrik Ibsen asked him to write the incidental music to "Peer Gynt." This was no easy task for Grieg, but the music he wrote became one of the major works of the 1870s. In Grieg's own lifetime the "Peer Gynt" music scored a resounding international success thanks, not least, to the two orchestral suites which made the music accessible in the concert hall.
A number of music researchers have pointed to the significance of Grieg's later works on the French impressionists' search for a new world of sound. After Grieg's death Maurice Ravel visited Oslo, where he was asked, whether Norwegian music had influenced him. His answer was: "I am fairly certain, that Edvard Grieg's influence was much more significant in non-nordic countries than here in the north. The generation of French composers, which I am part of, was strongly attracted by Grieg's music. Next to Debussy there's no other composer, whom I feel more related to, than Grieg."
Bela Bartok, who attempted to renew musical style in the twentieth century on the basis of folk music, also received important impulses from Grieg's piano adaptations of such melodies.
Edvard Grieg's goal was to create a national form of music which could give the Norwegian people an identity, and in this respect he was an inspiration to other composers.
But the greatness of his works lies not just in this, but in the fact that he also succeeded in expressing thoughts and emotions which could be recognized everywhere; music which people could identify with. Grieg's music transcended national boundaries. Viewed in this perspective, it is evident that he was far more than just a national composer.
Peer Gynt Suite No.1
Performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan, Conductor