Last week, for our first Coffee Chat, I focused on one of the two parts of our big celebration this summer – Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Today, I thought I would go to the other half, which is the 30th anniversary for Midsummer’s Music. In addition to the works we are featuring by Beethoven, we are also bringing back some of the most successful compositions we have presented over the years by other composers. Some of these, like the Piano Quartet and the String Octet by Joachim Raff, are by lessor known composers. On the other hand, the Piano Quartets by Schumann and Saint-Saëns are standard fare. Then there is that strange category involving an infrequently performed work by a fairly well-known composer. This summer, that would be the String Quartet by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).
One of Thor Johnson’s (founder of the PMF) guidelines for programming was to include great works by lessor known composers and lessor know works by great composers. Grieg’s Quartet, falling into the latter category, would certainly enthuse Maestro Johnson. There are quite a few recordings of the work, but I rarely see it included on programs. The main reason for this is that Grieg’s most intriguing music for audiences in general has been his music associated with the Norwegian language or dance and other forms of inspiration evocative of the Norwegian psyche. His Holdberg Suite and his Peer Gynt Suite (based on his incidental music for the Ibsen play) are the most notable. Grieg also wrote hundreds of songs for voice and piano, mostly in the Norwegian language, which delve deeply into the Norwegian folk tradition. So do many of his incidental piano pieces. Grieg became the musical voice of the Norwegian spirit in the late 19th century much like Sibelius did for the Finns and Smetana for the Czechs. The late 19th century was a period of nationalistic searching and expression, and Grieg filled that niche in Norway.
That was something Grieg had to come to, however, over time. His initial training was quite traditional. His mother was his first piano teacher. He became acquainted with the famous Norwegian violinist and composer, Ole Bull, who recognized his talent and eventually persuaded him to attend the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. But Grieg was not suited to the conventional musical training that he received there. He is quoted as saying, “I left Leipzig Conservatory just as stupid as I entered it. Naturally, I did learn something there, but my individuality was still a closed book to me.”
Grieg’s heart was not in the traditional training in forms and techniques that he learned in Leipzig. He yearned to find a musical path to his Norwegian soul. That started to emerge after he returned to Norway and became immersed in the literature and folk elements of his native land. He was at his best and most productive when he had that kind of inspiration. In purely instrumental music, form is structure, and structure is essential in a sonata or a symphony. However, when setting music related to text, Grieg found himself freer to follow the words wherever they took him, and the Norwegian texts especially took him just where he wanted to be. He developed a special harmonic language and rhythm that became fundamental to his unique style. His “individuality book” was now open to him and fame began to follow.
In the meantime, he experimented with non-referential music (music without text or external representation). In some cases, it didn’t go so well. An early symphony he is said to have withdrawn from the public. Certainly, he is not the only composer who was far more successful with vocal music or music externally inspired. How many symphonies do we listen to by Wagner, Verdi, or Puccini? However, he did have some success in the purely instrumental realm that those composers didn’t. Most notable is his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 16, a perennial favorite on orchestral concerts. He also wrote three violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and a piano sonata. Into this group falls his second string quartet, the Quartet in G Minor, Opus 27. Actually, it is his only quartet. The first was lost and the third remained incomplete at his death.
I’ve seen the Quartet described as “untroubled.” I find this description “troubling.” I would describe it as searching and evocative. Listen to some of the remarkable and sometimes startling harmonies. Listen too to the expressive melodies, sometimes yearning or questioning, sometimes affirming. The rhythms are flexible, at times off beat, and frequently dance like, especially the saltarello-inspired last movement.
But rather than going into a detailed account of the workings of the music, I would instead like to leave you with a picture. It is a picture of Grieg’s home outside of Bergen, high on a hill overlooking what looks like a lake. Actually, this lake is an offshoot of a much larger fjord, and there is a small island out in the water visible from Grieg’s property. The way down to the water is fairly steep but passable. There are large rock outcroppings here and there, and the vegetation deals with all this in a very interesting fashion. Halfway down this hill is a very small, one-room hut. It is Grieg’s studio. It is painted rustic red and has a few details that suggest that it is Norwegian. It is where he wrote much of his music. There is a door with a window in it on the upper side, and a small picture window opposite on the lower side facing the water. Inside, in front of that window facing the water, is a modest sized table and chair. There is a fishing pole to the side of the table, and little more. Not much else would fit in this almost closet-sized workshop. The main house sits at the top of the hill – Troldhaugen, this idyllic place is called.
Troldhaugen evokes everything Norwegian – water, water nymphs and sprites, goat and shepherds, fish (even lutefisk!), mountains, snow, ice, dancing, summer with all its celebrations, and yes, especially Midtsommer. Whether or not Grieg wrote his String Quartet here, this spot informs us of Grieg’s spirit. This place is Grieg – he and his wife are buried here.
When Grieg composed in his little hut, he would eventually need a break. That often meant he would put down his pen and pick up his fishing pole and head down to the water. He must have been a pretty good fisherman, because he is quoted as saying, “My music smells rather like fish!”
Several years ago, Jean and I visited Troldhaugen on a Scandinavian cruise. I took the pictures included here. As you listen to Grieg’s captivating String Quartet, remember these pictures. Doesn’t this music somehow epitomize what you’re seeing?
Okay – time for a Krumkake and some more coffee!