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EDVARD GRIEG (1843-1907)

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 (1868)

I. Allegro molto moderato

II. Adagio

III. Allegro moderato molto e marcato

"The traditional way of life of the Norwegian people, together with Norway's legends, Norway's history, Norway's natural scenery stamped itself on my creative imagination from my earliest years." (Edvard Grieg)


Edvard Grieg is a celebrated national figure. A Nordic son, his music is comparable in establishing national identity as Sibelius to Finland and Shakespeare to England. Born in Bergen, Norway, in 1843, Edvard Grieg's generation inherited the mid-Romantic era. In the 1840s, the music of Mendelssohn, Wagner, Verdi, Schumann, Berlioz, Chopin, Bruckner, Liszt, Offenbach, and Strauss Jr. dominated the concert and opera stages. The 1840s to 50s gave birth to the next class of Romantic composers, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Massenet, Fauré, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Grieg.


In 1843, the Leipzig Conservatory also came into existence. Founded by Felix Mendelssohn, its faculty included Carl Reinecke, Ferdinand David, and Robert and Clara Schumann. Grieg met Bergen-born violinist Ole Bull (also known as the Nordic Paganini) in 1858. Bull arranged for the 15-year-old to study in Leipzig. Unfortunately, Grieg’s four years there left an unfavorable aftertaste. Upon exiting the conservatory in 1862, the composer writes, "as stupid as when I entered it." Grieg rejected the Germanic musical style the conservatory propagated and had longed for a more personal voice, a Norwegian identity.


Grieg would find that voice with a nudge from Oslo composer Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866). Nordraak, known today as the composer of the Norwegian national anthem, "Ja, vi esker dette landet" (Yes, we love this land), captivated the young composer. The two met in Denmark in 1863, and the older encouraged Grieg to explore his Norwegian roots. Nordraak writes, "they talk of carrying rocks to Norway but we have enough rock. Let us simply use what we have. Nationalism, in music for example, does not mean composing more Hallings and Springar [Norwegian folk dances] such as our forefathers composed. That is nonsense. No, it means building a house out of all these bits of rock and living in it."


Returning to Norway, Grieg focused on studying Norwegian folklore and music. He married lyric soprano Nina Hagerup (1845-1935), his first cousin, in 1867. The birth of their daughter Alexandra followed in 1868, as did the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16. At 24, the first-time father left for Copenhagen to introduce his daughter to Nina's family. Then, in a room with a piano at Mothgaard in Søllerød, Grieg found space to start his new concerto. The work premiered with Norwegian pianist Edmund Neupert on April 3, 1869, at the Casino Concert Hall in Copenhagen, with the Orchestra of the Royal Theatre conducted by Holger Simon Paulii. Grieg, unable to attend, dedicated the Concerto to the memory of Nordraak (who died three years before from tuberculosis, he was 23).


The Concerto was an instant blockbuster and led to a meeting with Franz Liszt in Rome in 1870. Liszt sight-read the concerto from the manuscript with enthusiastic praise: "Keep steadily on: I tell you, you have the capability – do not let them intimidate you." It was much-needed encouragement; Grieg writes, "this final admonition was of tremendous importance to me; there was something in it that seemed to give it an air of sanctification. At times, when disappointment and bitterness are in store for me, I shall recall his words, and the remembrance of that hour will have power to uphold me in days of adversity." A year earlier, adversity of the highest order came to the composer. Alexandra did not live to see her father's concerto performed, passing from meningitis a month after her first birthday in 1869. The birth of the Concerto and the death of the first-born wrap into a single year the extremes of human experience, a suffering not easily erased. Grieg writes, "when you are young, your brain is like wax – every impression is imprinted and stays forever." No more children followed. The Concerto was the first and only concerto the composer would ever complete.


Few memories made an impression during the Leipzig years. Still, hearing Clara Schumann perform Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54, a work for which Grieg's Concerto is often compared, had a lasting effect. Both are in the same key, have similar forms and characters, and start with the same opening descending gesture in the solo. Everything else, the melodies and harmonies are in the composer's distinctly Norwegian-branded voice. 


I. Allegro molto moderato

With the thunderous roar of a Norse god, a one-bar timpani roll and a bolt of A-minor summons the piano. A burning rainbow bridge of A-minor cascades from an Asgardian register to an earthly bass region. The fast-moving first three pitches of the piano conceal a descending melodic fragment (A-G#-E), a genetic sequence of musical runes; it's typical of Norwegian folk music and found sprinkled in the composer’s body of work. 


Orchestra enters with the first of many themes, seven in all, packed into the exposition of the 13-minute movement. From a Norse perspective, the melodies conjure a Romantic sampling of the gods, from the hammer-wielding Thor, stately music of the "all father" Odin, the pathos of Hel's underworld, the trickery of Loki, a duet of the twins Freyja and Freyr, the beauty of Baldur, to Brigg's motherly protection of the skies.


The development brings a C-major thunderstorm, and piano mostly takes a decorative role, embellishing the orchestral melodies with gusts of rainbow-arched arpeggiations. Piano re-takes the lead in the recapitulation. The cadenza begins in sobriety, but the mid-section has no English word to describe its tectonic and monstrous display of ferociousness. Invoking Norse mythology, its sheer immensity is matched only to Thor hurling the Mjölnir (hammer) in battles with the Jötnar (giant beings). Orchestra returns with the music of the fallen, a glimpse of Peer Gynt's “The Death of Åse.” A seemingly new theme ignites the tempo to life in the oboe and bassoon. Still, its origins are forged and fashioned from the beginning; lightning bolts galvanized into immortal hammer strikes.


II. Adagio

Slow, haunting music was Grieg's greatest compositional strength. The misty muted strings bring a lyrical breadth of calm majesty to the three-part Adagio. Solo horn and cello offer fleeting moments of beauty. The piano enters well into the 7-minute movement, with a decorative display of elegant twists and turns. The orchestra is the leading melodic voice for the first two-thirds. In the last third, the solo finally takes the string theme. If there are Nordic undertones, this music finds sanctuary in the god Heimdall, whose powers of knowledge, heightened vision, and hearing guard the Bifröst (rainbow bridge). The movement ends with a bridge of sorts; Grieg notates the last bar without end-defining double bars. An ascending D-flat major arpeggiation in the piano erects an archway to a new realm, the next movement.


III. Allegro moderato molto e marcato

The 10-minute third movement takes direct inspiration from Norwegian folk music. The opening clarinet and bassoon preface the halling, a competitive dance of light-footed durability and flexibility. The piano and orchestra are the competition, as are the two alternating and contrasting themes. The first is a rowdy foot-stomper, the second a lyrical tune to whistle. Flute introduces the second theme, and its triplets radiate with Peer Gynt's “Morgenstemning” (Morning mood). The final few minutes amp up the competitive stakes. Piano and orchestra outdo each other with maneuvering tempi and character changes. Exquisite coordination is required; moving from unmetered to metered time is nerve-racking, an extravagant trapeze sequence for all. Near the end, the dance in 2/4 meter turns into a waltz. The second theme returns with the full might of the orchestra. When Liszt sight-read the work, he was enthralled with the return of this second theme, which uses a crucial G-sharp the first time, but is altered to G-natural at the finale. Approving of the composer's unpredictable taste in harmony, Liszt stood up, arms stretched out, and yelled: "G, G, nicht Giss! Famos! Das ist so echter schwedischer Banco!" (G, G, not G sharp! Splendid! That is the real Swedish Banko!). In addition to piano, the 30-minute score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.


Edvard Grieg was born on June 15, 1843, in Bergen, United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, and died on September 4, 1907, in Bergen. 

© Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai


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