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PARALLEL DEVELOPMENT: The Spoken and Sung Languages of Edvard Grieg

December 14, 2010

The son of a merchant and a music teacher, Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway in 1843.  Edvard’s great-grandfather left Scotland (where the family name was spelled Greig), following the defeat of the Jacobite cause at the 1746 Battle of Culloden.  After a transient period, he established a business and a new family home in Norway.  At that time, the Norwegian language had not yet been officially established; the written language was Danish, simply pronounced a different way.  In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a movement to codify Norwegian as a distinct language, simply altering the written form to correspond more closely to its pronunciation; a separate faction wished to incorporate more local dialects into a new spoken form called Landsmål.  Eventually both groups got their way.  A written language, Bokmål, maintains several characteristics of Danish merged with typical spelling and inflection of spoken Norwegian, while the spoken language, Nynorsk, assembled various regionalisms along with features of Old Norse (from the Viking days of yore).  Concurrently, other regions across Europe knitted together smaller principalities into larger political bodies, creating as a byproduct waves of national pride.  This same period, then, was a booming period for culture, with poets, painters, and composers celebrating their heritage in their art—whether by incorporating traditional folk materials or forging new national idioms.

Edvard Grieg at the piano, c. 1900

Grieg’s path followed that of the Norwegian language, in a way.  At the age of 20, Edvard traveled to Copenhagen, where he met Danish composer Niels Gade.  Gade, a friend and colleague of Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, became one of Grieg’s first teachers.  Similarities to Gade’s work can be heard in Grieg’s early songs, where strophic settings accompanied by simple arpeggiations abound.  As Grieg became acquainted in the 1860s with Norway’s chief composer of the preceding generation, Halfdan Kjerulf, and the writers Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, the importance of a unique national character became clearer to him.  Ibsen, Bjørnson, and especially Vinje wrote in the era described above, when a new national language was emerging, so their works spark with a unique creative fusion of new and old.  Kjerulf’s songs use fairly traditional harmony, but evoke wide-open spaces with their spare chords and use of silence.  These two strands come together in Grieg’s song output, where words are set with extreme care, and scenes are painted with the same brush that carved the Norwegian fjords.

Some music critics malign Grieg as a “miniaturist,” since many of his most successful works were written for solo piano, or piano and voice.  But his best compositions in these intimate genres possess an incredible expansiveness, evoking more than one would expect of these minimal forces.  Yes, the melody of “En svane” is restrained and the scene seems almost quaint, especially in the frequently used German translation by Henzen.  But the original Norwegian verse is more taut, less perfumed, and Grieg’s delicate melody is accompanied by chords first simple and unobtrusive, but later passionate and ecstatic.  When placed in the context of music history, Grieg’s mature songs are very forward thinking, taking the time to evoke specific images regardless of an overarching formal structure or accompaniment figure.  The tone painting of Grieg is more rough-hewn than the smiling, rippling waters of Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” for example, and less literal than Hugo Wolf.  Instead, Grieg turns the temperature down, thins out textures, decorates melodies with folk accents and modal harmonies, and lets our imaginations do the rest.  For those of us unable to travel to Norway, perhaps Grieg indeed does act as a miniaturist, giving us a brief taste of its people and places in his compact, evocative songs.

For more reading on Grieg’s vast and varied song output, Beryl Foster’s book is invaluable.

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