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Grieg

Category: Musician or composer

 

Edvard Hagerup Grieg was born June 15, 1843 in Bergen, Norway, and died September 4, 1907.  During his lifetime he was the leading composer in Norway, and in much of Europe, and remains a national and much loved figure in Norway today.

Grieg was honoured by many awards, including honorary doctorates from Cambridge, 1894, and Oxford, 1906, and the Légion d'Honneur, 1896. In 1904 Grieg was visited at Bergen by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who talked to him about faith and religion, among other topics. In 1905 he conducted for the coronation of King Haakon, monarch of the newly-independent Norway.

His influence reaches throughout the entire world, with societies in Tokyo, New York City, Boston, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Oslo, London, Moscow, and places in Mexico. Many musicologists have come to consider him a national composer whose works represent the essence of Norwegian music, Grieg’s music at the end of the 19th century changed the way we think of Romantic music and was already moving toward 20th Century styles that would emerge only a few years later.

And Grieg’s principal source of inspiration was love and faith.  His total belief in the existence of God.

The deeply held spiritual beliefs of Edvard Grieg

 

Edvard was one of two sons born to Alexander Grieg.  John and Edvard both studied music as children, but he hoped that they would join the family business. John, who became a proficient cellist, did go to work for his father.  In 1883 Grieg dedicated his Cello Sonata, op. 36 to his brother John.

Edvard, on the other hand, early declared that he wanted to be a Lutheran pastor. He later wrote,
"To be permitted to preach or speak to a listening multitude seemed to me to be something great." 
Thus he was never without belief even from an early age, and instead of preaching from a pulpit he ‘preached’ his beliefs via a concert hall.

The Life and Works of Edvard Grieg: A Lecture April 18, 2011, FAC 214 Leah Kennedy
Grieg always had a strong belief in God and His omnipotence. In 1888 upon a visit to Liverpool, he found that his beliefs related most closely to Unitarianism, and he associated himself with the group. However, characteristics of his relationship with God are manifest in his songs throughout his entire career. ….Grieg believed in one God, an afterlife, and that man can be divinely directed.

Love and lack of ego

The great difference between Grieg and many of his ambitious aggressive career minded contemporaries was that he was content, gentle, loving and not ambitious.  He had no wants other than to compose and be with his wife, whom he loved dearly. 
Nina Hagerup Grieg (1845-1935), a Danish-Norwegian Unitarian, was a concert singer and the inspiration for her husband Edvard Grieg's substantial body of songs. She earned a reputation as an unrivaled interpreter of his vocal works and her faith was as strong as his.

"I did not understand at the time how important her interpretations really were. For me it was only natural that she should sing so beautifully, so tellingly—from a full heart and from the innermost depths of the soul."

Faith even in adversity

 

Grieg never lost his humility, his love or his faith.  He believed in God, for example even when he lost a child to meningitis and another to a miscarriage and despite the fact he never had the family he wanted.  

Nina and Edvard married in 1867 and settled in Christiania (later called Oslo), Norway. Their only child, a daughter, Alexandra, died at the age of one in 1869. Around the same time Nina had a miscarriage. They had both hoped for and expected a family full of children.

"It is hard to watch the hope of one's life lowered into the earth, and it took time and quiet to recover from the pain," Edvard wrote after the funeral. "But thank God, if one has something to live for one does not easily fall apart; and art surely has—more than many other things—this soothing power that allays all sorrow!"

At no stage did Edvard say ‘why me?’ and notice that he did not say 'why did God do this to us?' - the cry of the egoist.

Faith even in pain and illness

Grieg in 1859

Whilst at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, his studies were interrupted in 1860 by an attack of pleurisy.  For those who have no idea what pleurisy is like it is an extremely painful lung infection.

Although he recovered and resumed his studies he lost the use of one lung and his health remained delicate throughout the remainder of his life. But he continued to have faith despite the debilitating effects of a collapsed lung, and for those who may find it difficult to understand  how one can still believe and worship a God, who has put them through so much, then all one can say is that once one ‘knows’, one never doubts the path one’s life leads. 

Grieg was in a sense a musical mystic, even though we have placed him in the musician category.  He understood fully the mystic’s statement

‘Thy will be done’. 

Two years before he died Grieg wrote:

"The great spirit—the world-soul that we call God—has breathed into each human being a desire to bow before him, and I, too, do that in full measure as I calmly entrust myself to His care when I shall depart this life."

Turning the other cheek

 

Grieg believed in the teachings of Jesus as an example—"Christ was filled by God as no one else known to me, living or dead, in the family of man."  Writing in 1880 he told a clergy friend that  he wished " to possess just a little spark of that spirit of love which Christ radiated in his life."

And thus he sought to emulate him.  One of the important tenets of Jesus was to 'turn the other cheek'.  And for anyone who says, 'ah but of course he had a life without conflict, because he never suffered the criticism and constant critical taunts that other composers suffered', this was not true, he suffered just as much as many other composers breaking new ground, he just didn't react, he never retaliated, and treated with kindness those who were his critics:

The Life and Works of Edvard Grieg: A Lecture April 18, 2011, FAC 214 Leah Kennedy
Soon Grieg began showing great aptitude in composition and wrote his first work at the age of 12. His schoolmates ridiculed him continually for “trying to compose.” Were it not for the encouragement of both a young lieutenant and a famous Norwegian violinist known as Ole Bull, Grieg never would have continued. One day while visiting the Grieg home, Ole Bull heard one of young Edvard’s simple songs and declared that the boy was to go to Leipzig, Germany, to become a great musician. He saw potential in the boy and his imaginative melodies. Grieg was 15 years old at the time.

And this is not the only example.  Because of the Dreyfus affair—in which a Jewish French military officer had been unjustly convicted of espionage and imprisoned—in 1899 Grieg cancelled a tour to France and published his displeasure. As a result, his reputation amongst French musicians suffered. Claude Debussy cruelly reviewed Grieg's music as "pink bon-bons filled with snow."

Contentment and lack of desires

 

Grieg was happy with his own company and Nature, at peace with himself. 

He arranged to have a hut built some distance from any other structure, where he would stay for hours while he painstakingly wrote melody after melody during the winter months.

Nature to him was God.  It was a physical manifestation of God.  Thus everywhere he looked he was surrounded by God.  This is the mind of a mystic, as mystics too see the universe as the visible emanation of God. 

Grieg’s Diary entry 1865, [while on a vacation trip in North Zealand in Denmark]:

Where does one sense God's greatness more than in the roaring of the sea? In a moment one becomes, as it were, an impotent nothing who in gratitude dares only to call upon the Father whose omnipotence created his wonders! And how beautiful it is that he has endowed his creatures with powers by which they not only can enjoy [the world], but can even create works of art that are echoes of the feelings about God's greatness which are planted in the human breast.

 

Grieg and the established church

Grieg very early on rejected Lutheranism and many of the established church institutions.  Although Nina came to adopt many of her husband's religious opinions, she did not share Edvard's intense dislike of state churches.  In 1883 he wrote:

"they strangle even the smallest attempt at goodness in us and systematically suppress everything having to do with cultural life.  Fighting against individuality is one of [institutionalised religion’s] basic principles. 

But later on in his life, lawyer Charles Harding, vice-president of the Birmingham Festival, and his wife, Ada, members of the Unitarian Old Meeting Church in Birmingham, introduced Grieg to other Unitarians there. Shortly before he died Grieg wrote,

"During a visit to England in 1888 I was attracted to Unitarian views, and in the nineteen years that have passed since then I have held to them. All the sectarian forms of religion that I have been exposed to since have not succeeded in making any impression on me."

Perhaps of great interest is that he came to believe that Hell was man made and could be experienced here on earth, whilst we are living:

"I think that the moral pain of the soul, which results from our bad deeds, as well as from the good we neglected to do, makes a Hell as effective as I can possibly imagine."

In 1889 the Griegs were impressed by the ex-Anglican Stopford Brooke, who preached at Unitarian pulpits in London.

"What a man! Nina says, and it is true.  A big, splendid, sparkling personality full of fire and power. We talked about this and that: about Unitarianism and socialism . . . and I daresay he felt just as I do."

and although this may sound somewhat bizarre, it is his need for Unitarianism - a something to belong to -  that shows he was not quite a mystic.  A mystic needs no church, no club, no support from others, no place of worship, no followers, no priest;  because his/her faith is so absolute and their understanding of their destiny so clear, that is what sustains them, every hour and every minute and every second of their lives.

Summer 1906, Troldhaugen: from the left Adolph and Anna Brodskij, Tonny Hagerup, Nina Grieg, boy [unknown], Percy Grainger, Brodskij's sister in law, Edvard Grieg

 Life

The Life and Works of Edvard Grieg: A Lecture April 18, 2011, FAC 214 Leah Kennedy
My name is Leah Kennedy. The title of my thesis is “The Life and Works of Edvard Grieg,” as illustrated through his song repertoire. For the past year and a half I have been conducting in-depth research on the composer Edvard Grieg. My research began with his compositional style, but very soon I realized that his personal life directly influenced his musical works. …. Through my research I have come to love Grieg’s songs and relate personally with many of his ideals.

 

Portrait of Alexander Grieg (1806-1875),
father of Edvard Grieg

Edvard was the fourth of five children born in Bergen, Norway to Alexander Grieg, a North Sea merchant, and Gesine Judith Hagerup.  

His father's grandfather (their name was originally spelled "Greig" and pronounced "Gregg") had come from Aberdeenshire in Scotland in the 18th century. For four generations Griegs, including Edvard's father and brother, held the post of British consul in Bergen. 

Edvard’s mother was a concert pianist, piano teacher, composer, and playwright. She was also known as the best piano teacher in Norway, and her son was very privileged to study with her.  

From  Grieg’s Diaries, Articles, and Speeches

Why not begin by remembering the strangely mystical satisfaction of stretching my arms over the piano keyboard and bringing forth—not a melody. Far from it! No, it had to be a harmony. First a third, then a triad, then a seventh chord. And finally, both hands helping—O joy!—a ninth chord, with five tones. When I had discovered this, my rapture knew no bounds. That was a success! No later success has been able to enrapture me like this. At that time I was about five years old.

One year later my mother began giving me piano lessons. Little did I suspect that already here disappointments were lurking. Only too soon I realized that I didn’t enjoy practicing what I was supposed to practice. And mother was strict, unrelentingly strict. Although it may indeed have gladdened her mother-heart that I sat there experimenting with this and that, because it provided evidence of a musical nature, she certainly gave no outward sign of this.
Quite the opposite.

Gesine Judith Hagerup - Grieg's mum

She was not to be trifled with when I idled the time away in piano reveries instead of concentrating on my assignment. And then, when I had to work on my scales and exercises and all that other technical devilry that gave my childish yearning stones for bread, it sometimes happened that she still guided me, even when she was not in the same room. One day she shouted menacingly from the kitchen, where at that moment she was busy preparing dinner:
‘But shame on you, Edvard: F sharp, F sharp, not F!’
I was deeply impressed with her superiority. If in those years I had been more diligent and had followed more willingly her loving but strict guidance, I would have escaped many unpleasantries later in life. But my unpardonable tendency to dreaming was already beginning at that time to create for me the same difficulties that were to follow me far into the future. Had I not inherited my mother’s irrepressible energy in addition to her musical talent, I would certainly never have progressed from dream to deed in any sphere of my life.

 

Young Edvard struggled through almost every subject in his early schooling, except music. He was never studious. Often he tried finding shortcuts in his work. When working on a math assignment, the first student to solve the problems was to receive special recognition. Grieg recounts the following experience:

Grieg, Edvard. “My First Success.” Qtd in Grieg’s Diaries, Articles and Speeches

My ambition was immediately aroused. ‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘Now I must be smart.’ And I hit upon a brilliant idea in order to get finished as quickly as possible: to omit from the calculation all zeros, which to my childish understanding were of no value! I note: this was a success with a question mark—or, more correctly, it was a total fiasco. But it taught me a lesson. Since then I have learned to include the zeros in the calculation—whether it concerns numbers or—people! And what I learned, when all is said and done, proved to be a personal success.

 

 

The young student was also very clever in matters of truancy.

Grieg recounts living a mile or so from his school. As a rule, students had to wait at the door to be admitted when they were late and were not admitted wet on rainy days. On several occasions, the six or seven year old Grieg stood underneath a rain gutter on his way to school, subsequently arriving both late and wet. His teacher would send him home to change his clothes, and by the time the ordeal had passed, he would have missed a half-day of school.

Since he did this on many days of light drizzling, eventually his teacher sent someone to spy on him and discovered him.

The Life and Works of Edvard Grieg: A Lecture Recital April 18, 2011, FAC 214 Leah Kennedy, soprano
Most of Grieg’s passing marks in school were the result of being in the right place at the right time. Once when Grieg was ill for a time, his father required him to study the life of King Louis XIV in depth. The day Grieg returned to school, he faced an extensive history test for which the teacher would open the history book, point to something, and test the students on that specific material. Grieg’s subject happened to be Louis XIV. To everyone’s amazement, Grieg gave a full history of the king.

Nina portrait by Lembach

After attending the Leipzig academy, [more details in the observations] Grieg married and started to work:

Dictionary of Unitarian &  Universalist Biography – ‘Edvard and Nina Grieg’ by Peter Hughes November 4, 2004                

In Christiania Grieg conducted the Philharmonic Society, organized concerts featuring works by Norwegian composers, and taught at the short-lived Norwegian Academy of Music, 1867-69. Because of a testimonial letter and invitation from Franz Liszt, the Norwegian government granted Grieg funds to travel to Rome in 1870. There Liszt played Grieg's newly-composed Piano Concerto, op. 16 at sight, he advised the younger composer, "Hold to your course. Let me tell you, you have the talent for it, and—don't get scared off!" Grieg treated this advice as "a sacred mandate."

 

During the same period Grieg discovered Ludvig Mathias Lindeman's collection of Norwegian folk music. From these he arranged his Norwegian Folksongs and Dances, op. 17. He conducted frequently the next few years in Norway and Sweden. (Norway was politically united to Sweden at that time.) He was elected to the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm in 1872. The following year Sweden's newly-crowned King Oscar II made him, along with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Knight of St. Olav. Aided by the 1874 award of an annual government grant, Grieg was able to lessen his conducting duties.

Death

 

In the last three to four years of his life, Grieg spent the majority of his time touring Europe. His music was extremely well-received everywhere he went, and on multiple occasions, he was called for several curtain calls. On one particular evening, he had to put on his coat before bowing at yet another curtain call because the audience would not stop clapping and cheering.

In 1905, Grieg began having serious health problems that had originally dated back to an episode in 1861 during his time in Leipzig. A kind of tuberculosis had collapsed one of his lungs at the time, and at almost 60 years of age, his battered body could not keep up with his busy lifestyle. He lost hope for life several times and wondered which trip would be his last, but his health continued to fluctuate for another two years. During this time, he and Nina signed a will that gave all of his documents and original scores of music to the Bergen Public Library located in the city where Grieg was born.

In June and July of 1907, Grieg’s health plummeted. He continued performing concerts but had to be very careful in his traveling, and often could not leave his bed. On the evening of September 4, Grieg passed away. His ashes were buried at Troldhaugen in the cliff of the fjord near the place he and Nina had built their home in 1885.

Frants Beyer, Grieg’s close friend, wrote these words to Nina in 1886 as he deposited Grieg’s ashes in the cliff a year after Grieg’s death:

“Now Edvard’s ashes have come to their final resting place. I set the urn in the crypt, and then the stone was placed in front of it. A blackbird was singing in the spruce trees overhead. The sun was just setting behind gold-rimmed clouds, casting its last beams across the water and upon Edvard’s name” (qtd. Benestad 196).

Troldhaugen is now a museum for Edvard Grieg. His home, composer’s hut, and Steinway piano (an anniversary gift from his wife and his piano of choice) are all located there. A concert hall dedicated to him was also built near the museum.

 

The Life and Works of Edvard Grieg: A Lecture April 18, 2011, FAC 214 Leah Kennedy 

As a performer, learning about Grieg’s relationship with nature, his religious convictions, his commitment to family, and his personal ideals has helped me to understand what true artistry is and how it is attained in performance. The requirements for artistic balance are critical to consider when learning a piece, and each of Grieg’s songs challenges the performer to find his own interpretation and style, much like the composer’s experiences in stylistic compositional development. Such composition requires mastering the rules, learning from the examples of great musicians, and exploring with imagination. We can take Grieg’s life as a great example and hope to gain a portion of the musical understanding he had. We can explore. We can experiment. We can be original. Most of all, we can express ourselves through our music and let our music live through us, just as Grieg did.

.... love, laughing and faith.

References

  • Edvard Grieg: Letters to Colleagues and Friends, edited by Finn Benestad and translated by William Halverson (2000). Collections of Grieg's letters and papers are at the Bergen Public Library in Bergen, Norway and in many other locations around the world. A list of these institutions can be found in the introduction to this book
  • Edvard Grieg: The Man and the Artist (1988). a biography of Grieg by Finn Benestad and Dag Scheldeup-Ebbe This is a translation into English by William H. Halverson and Leland B. Sateren of Edvard Grieg: mennesket og kunstneren (1980).
  • Edvard Grieg: Diaries, Articles, Speeches (2001) - Finn Benestad and William Halverson.
  • Grieg's music has been published in Complete Works (1977-1995).

Observations

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