Tuesday 20 August 2019

Edvard Grieg: Norway's man of music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Edvard Grieg
Edvard Grieg

George Hamilton

With Scotland finding its way on to our news pages for reasons far beyond the scope of these musings, let's acknowledge other maritime connections, this time in the musical sphere.

Like Rockall, Staffa is an uninhabited rocky outcrop. It's there you'll find the cave with the acoustics of a concert hall that inspired Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture.

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Then there's the composer Edvard Grieg, born in Bergen in Norway on this date in 1843.

Bergen is directly across the North Sea from Fraserburgh, just about the most easterly part of Scotland.

It was near there that the Greig family farmed. Note "Greig" (pronounced "Gregg" - think of the Scottish sportsmen John Greig of Rangers Football Club, or the current Rugby international, Greig Laidlaw), not "Grieg" - that would come later.

Around 1770, the British Consul in Bergen was a man the Greigs knew well - a friend and neighbour by the name of George Wallace.

A job in his office was clearly preferable to a tough life on the farm for Alexander Greig, one of the sons of the house, so when an opportunity arose, he was straight off to Norway.

Fast-forward 70-odd years and Alexander's grandson is celebrating the birth of young Edvard. And "Greig" had become "Grieg" to match the way Norwegians would say the name: "Greeg".

Edvard's musical education began with lessons from his mother who was an accomplished pianist.

His talent was spotted by Norway's top violinist, Ole Bull, who happened to be the brother of an uncle.

At Bull's suggestion, Edvard was sent to study at Europe's top music school of the time, the conservatory in Leipzig that had been established by Felix Mendelssohn.

Grieg, who spent three teenage years there, found it all a bit stuffy, but he enjoyed the music scene in the city, and did well enough in his exams to earn, as his professor put it, "a very respectable degree and training that promises the best results". How right he was.

Grieg was a young man of his time, like nationalist composers all over Europe.

He put it like this. "The traditional way of life of the Norwegian people, together with Norway's legends, Norway's history, Norway's natural scenery, stamped itself on my creative imagination from my earliest years."

And there it is, in his Lyric Pieces, in his Elegiac Melodies - settings of Norwegian poems - not to mention his collaborations with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

The most familiar of these is the music written at Ibsen's request for the stage production of his "dramatic poem", Peer Gynt.

Grieg was happy to oblige, but found it a difficult commission to complete, and wasn't happy with the outcome.

Following the premiere in 1876, he set about a series of revisions and additions. The result: two suites that feature some of his most loved melodies - Morning, Anitra's Dance, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Solveig's Song.

The greatest of all his creations, though, has to be his magnificent Piano Concerto, dramatically introduced by a roll on the timpani and a cascade of chords.

His first full orchestral work, it's one of the most popular of all Romantic compositions. When Franz Liszt played it, he was full of enthusiasm.

"Keep on, I tell you. You have what is needed, and don't let them frighten you."

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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