Holberg Suite, op. 40

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            Edvard Grieg was the most significant Scandinavian composer during the years leading up to the beginning of the twentieth century.  He was a prolific composer of songs and music for the piano--small lyric compositions being his obvious forte. In addition to his songs, he wrote a large number of choral works, many for unaccompanied male voices, and some of them remain evergreen favorites.  While he did compose in other genres, achieving notable success with his only piano concerto and his string quartet, they were exceptional. He was educated at the Leipzig conservatory, where his early models were Schubert and Schumann, and he spent much time in Copenhagen. Like his fellow Norwegians of that generation, he was oriented to Denmark, the Danish language, and Danish culture in general.   Later, in his early twenties, under the influence of the great Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull, he developed an affinity for Norwegian peasant culture.  That effected a major change in his musical outlook, and for the rest of his life he plumbed the depths of Norwegian folk music and literature.   It became a major part of his musical style and placed him firmly in the ranks of the nationalist composers so characteristic of the latter half of the nineteenth century.   Even when not directly quoting folk materials, the harmonies, rhythms, and melodic nuances of that tradition deeply inform his musical style.  His milieu was the breathtaking beauty of Norway’s fjords, lakes, mountains, and forests.

            With regard to his orchestral music, only his piano concerto, incidental music for Peer Gynt, the Symphonic Dances, the Norwegian Dances and the Holberg Suite have remained durable concert favorites.  The Holberg Suite was written in 1884 as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Danish-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg.  Subtitled “Suite in Olden Style,” it is simply a suite of eighteenth-century dances newly-composed by Grieg to evoke the “time of Holberg.”  He wrote the suite originally for solo piano, and arranged it for string orchestra the next year.

            It opens with an introductory busy, bustling Præludium, followed by a Sarabande.  The latter dance is of Spanish origin, a slow and somber dance in three.  The Gavotte that follows perfectly illustrates the necessity for the rhythms to exactly support the dancers’ steps.  Accordingly, a gavotte is a dance in two beats, wherein the heavy accent on beat two occurs with the dancers’ leap and landing—in this case, Grieg makes it easily heard.

A little musette provides some diversion in the middle of the Gavotte—identified by the allusion to bagpipe drones in the open fifths in the bass.  An “air” was often the slow movement in Baroque dance suites (as in the so-called “Air on the G-string” from Bach’s famous second orchestral suite) and Grieg provides an extensive, suitably doleful one, here.  The Rigaudon that ends the suite is a bright, bubbling affair, interrupted by a brief lyrical diversion in the middle.

            The Holberg Suite, strictly an exercise in eighteenth-century style, nevertheless, ventures into mildly romantic harmony.  Grieg wisely and skillfully fused the two styles into what a later generation might have deemed neo-classicism, and created a thoroughly attractive little diversion.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©William E. Runyan