Norwegian Dances, op. 35

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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 all of his fellow countrymen 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 incidental music for Peer Gynt, the Holberg Suite, the Symphonic Dances, and the Norwegian Dances have remained durable concert favorites.  Nevertheless, popular they are, and are delightful evidence of the deep influence of Norway’s musical tradition upon Grieg.   In these technology dominated times, when access to almost any composition seems conveniently to be able to be just snatched out of the ether, it’s easy to forget how few opportunities existed in former times to hear public concerts of orchestral music.   Consequently, musicians usually gained familiarity with much of the orchestral literature through arrangements for piano-four hands.   It was a common genre, and Grieg first wrote and published the Norwegian Dances in this form in 1881.   The four movements are derived from traditional Norwegian folk tunes contained in a collection published in 1853 by Ludvig Mathias Lindemans, entitled, “Mountain Melodies Old and New.”  They were not orchestrated by Grieg, but later, in 1888, Hans Sitt, a distinguished Czech violinist, did the honors.   They have become orchestral chestnuts ever since.

            The four dances are tri-part, that is a main section with a contrasting interlude in the middle—only the second movement reverses the usual fast-slow-fast order of tempos.  Those familiar with the excerpts from Peer Gynt will no doubt hear intimations of many of Grieg’s favorite turns of melody and harmony in them.  The first dance is characteristic, and starts off vivaciously in an evocation of the famous Norwegian folkdance, the halling.   An athletic affair, danced by young men at weddings and other celebrations, it puts great physical demands upon the dancers and the music reflects that.  A bucolic contrasting section in the middle contrasts neatly.  Almost everyone has heard the demure, sly and winsome second dance—it’s ubiquitous.  A brief, but furious halling interrupts for just a few seconds, and then the familiar theme returns.  The third movement is shaped rather like the first, but is a march, rather than a halling, though.  Listen for the rather humorous interruption by the angry brass in frenzied triplets.   The last movement opens with a short, sinister slow introduction, but a bustling peasant dance soon ensues.  After a dramatic, somewhat extended, return to the dark mood of the introduction, the rustic dance boisterously concludes one of Grieg’s most popular and charming works.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan