Richard Nisley

Gnomes, Goblins and Edvard Grieg
Music - Classical Released - Dec 08, 2013

He was a dead ringer for Mark Twain. Claude Debussy described him as a “pink bon-bon wrapped in snow.” He was one-part mystic, one-part Norwegian nationalist, and one-part world-class composer. He was Edvard Grieg, famous for having composed music for “Peer Gynt.”

Grieg is a national hero in Norway, where he was born in 1843. He is not only Norway’s finest composer but also one whose work incorporates everything that is Norway--history, geography, folk dances, peasant songs, church bells, village carnivals, fjords, forests, mountain streams, even gnomes and goblins.

Not everyone always appreciated Grieg. While Debussy admitted that Grieg was a gifted interpreter of his country’s folk music, he also said the Norwegian was too much the “clever musician” who was “more concerned with effects than with genuine art.” Ouch. George Bernard Shaw called him “the infinitesimal Grieg.” Ouch again.

Most critics did appreciate Grieg and described his music as stylish and graceful; tasteful and charming; tuneful, colorful, and intimate. Hans von Bulow, famous nineteenth-century conductor, called him “the Chopin of the North” -- because he excelled at smaller compositions, and because his best compositions were for piano.

Grieg studied for several years at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, which is as good as its gets for composers of promise. Those in the know, however, say the musical language he learned there was not suited for expressing his feelings about his beloved forests, mountain vistas, and rushing waterfalls. Nonetheless, Grieg managed to evoke these images quite well.

In his “Impressionism in Music” Christopher Palmer wrote of Grieg: “For an alternative he turned to the virtually untapped resources of his native folk-music, instinct as it was with the life-spirit of the Norwegian countryside and its peasantry. He glimpsed in the rhythmic, melodic and (potentially) harmonic unfamiliarities of folk-song a whole new dimension of expressive power--the means whereby music could become a vehicle for color and atmosphere rather than for form and logic. Grieg became in effect the first mystic in music.”

Grieg had a powerful ally in Franz Liszt. After hearing Grieg’s “Sonata in F for Violin and Piano,” Liszt wrote to the composer: “It evidences a powerful, logically creative, ingenious and excellent constructive talent for a position which needs only to follow its natural development to attain high rank. I could hope that you are finding in your own country the success and encouragement you deserve; you will not fail of them elsewhere.”

Liszt embraced Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor” and made it part of his performing repertoire. At the time, Liszt was the greatest pianist in the world, a charismatic virtuoso who could hold an audience spellbound for an entire evening. Not a bad guy to be showing off your music to the world. Grieg’s piano concerto remains a concert favorite to this day.


Grieg’s most-famous compostions are two orchestral suites he developed for Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt.” The first of the two suites has four movements: “Morning,” which depicts the rising sun; “Ase’s Death,” melancholy and gloomy; “Anitra’s Dance,” merry and rhythmic, and “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” in which gnomes, goblins and elves cavort, and which today is a part of the Halloween playlist. The final movement of the second suite is the pathos-filled “Solveig’s Song.”

Grieg wrote many songs, the most famous of which is “Ich liebe Dich” which interpreted means “I Love You” and was written for his wife. Also popular are the “Holberg Suite” and “Norwegian Dances.” All these pieces, including the “Piano Concerto in A Minor” fit nicely on a single CD.

Grieg’s musical enchantment was such that it enchants us still. Even if you loathe classical music, you’ll find Grieg easy listening.

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