Edvard Grieg: The Not-So-Hopeless Norwegian Romantic
During the mid-19th century, much of musical Europe outside of Germany was experiencing a surge in nationalist sentiment. England, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Scandinavia produced important composers with a strong sense of regional or ethnic identity. As a member of the Norwegian urban middle-class, Edvard Grieg was exposed to a cultural atmosphere mainly dominated by Danish values, and as a student at the Leipzig Conservatory he came into contact with an even more firmly established Austro-Germanic musical tradition. Like many other nationalist composers, Grieg became interested in the native music of his homeland through contact with other young Norwegian musicians who were inspired by the desire to create a more distinctive Norwegian musical identity. The name broadly given to this movement is Romantic-nationalism for its idealized reinterpretation of folk or native elements into the already established musical tradition. As a result of these nationalistic interests, in 1864 Grieg, along with some of his colleagues, founded a society called Euterpe to foster and promote Scandinavian music. Euterpe being the mythological Greek muse of music.
The Piano concerto in A minor, op 16, is Grieg’s most well-known and often performed work. It has, almost since its premiere in 1869, found a regular place in the standard piano concerto repertory. In 1870 Grieg met the great pianist-composer Franz Liszt. Seeking advice from the master, Grieg allowed Liszt to play through some works he had brought with him. The piano concerto was one of the works Liszt seems to have been most impressed by. When after playing through a particular passage near the end of the finale, Liszt jumped to his feet and began singing a section that had especially excited him. He then returned to the piano and replayed the entire last section of the concerto.
Grieg’s concerto has been called the most complete embodiment of Norwegian Romantic nationalism. This is evidenced by the consistent use of particularly regional sounding themes and folk elements. The overall form of the work is the typical three movement fast-slow-fast arrangement.
The first movement, although beginning in the minor key, is ebullient in its expression of the happy music. The variety and interest of the melodic material enliven the standard sonata form structure of the movement. The virtuosic cadenza near the end of the movement is brilliant not only for its technical demands but also for its exceptional melodic invention.
The second movement has the quality of a nocturne with a decidedly Scandinavian flavor. The opening section, led by muted strings, sets the nocturnal mood for the movement’s outpouring of lyrical beauty. The simple form of the music is embellished by Grieg’s individualistic and colorful harmonic palate.
The Finale is caught up immediately in the lively rhythm of a traditional Norwegian dance, the Halling. The energetic principal theme makes several appearances in this movement giving a sense of roundness and familiarity to the pianistic brilliance that Liszt and generations that have followed have found to be irresistibly satisfying.
Don’t miss our captivating performance of Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto” featuring
guest artist Sean Chen with Classics V: Mozart and Grieg!