Selections from Peer Gynt, op. 23

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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, the latter 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.

            In 1874 Grieg was asked to write incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play, Peer Gynt.  Initially, Grieg thought that it would be a short and easily completed project, but it stretched into some twenty-six separate pieces, which he completed by July 1875.  Later, the composer extracted eight of these movements to comprise two, four-movement suites.   The play and the music premiered in 1976, but the play, a rather strange and almost bizarre affair, has not garnered the success of Grieg’s music.  While the average listener probably conjures up visions of Nordic vistas and quaint, folkish sagas, that is not what the picaresque play and Grieg’s atmospheric music is about, at all.  Rather, it tracks an improbable and less-than-sympathetic rogue in a variety of adventures in places like Egypt and Morocco.   The ubiquitous “morning” scene takes place in the Arabian desert, where our hero awakens after having been robbed by the seductress, Anitra. Anitra’s dance is that of the daughter of an Arabian chieftain, whom Gynt attempts unsuccessfully to seduce; Grieg weaves a wonderfully oriental atmosphere for her tantalizing charms.  “Solveig’s Song” is from the last act of the play, where Gynt’s beloved sings of her steadfast faithfulness during his absence, even to her old age, not knowing whether he is alive or not.  Originally, it was sung in the play, but here is played by the solo violin.  The “Hall of the Mountain King” is a depiction of a really ridiculous scene that takes place after Gynt has gotten smashing drunk with three dairymaids who were waiting to be courted by trolls.  In the ensuing hangover he knocks himself out accidentally and dreams that he is challenged by the troll king over a paternity question.   The music cleverly depicts Gynt’s escape after having witnessed the dance of the pig-faced trolls, and his subsequent insult to the troll king’s daughter.  Grieg’s “incidental music” for the play is evocative of his mastery of the short character piece, and one can understand why it has met the test of time far better than Ibsen’s wild morality tale.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan