GRIEG: Lyric Pieces, Books 5 - 7, Opp. 54, 57 and 62 (Arild Erikstad/ Einar Steen-Nokleberg) (Naxos: 8.553395)
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Piano Music, Vol. 9
Lyric Pieces, Book 5, Op. 54 (1891)
Lyric Pieces, Book 6, Op. 57 (1893)
Lyric Pieces, Book 7, Op. 62 (1895) Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, in 1843. He showed a strong interest in music at a very early age, and afterencouragement from the violinist and composer Ole Bull (1810-1880) was sent tothe Conservatory in Leipzig at the age of fifteen to receive his musicaleducation. There he had fundamental and solid musical training, and through thecity's flourishing musical life, received impressions and heard music whichwould come to leave its stamp on him for the rest of his life - for better orfor worse. Even though he severely criticized the Leipzig Conservatory,especially towards the end of his life, in reality his exceptional gifts wererecognised, and one sees in his sketchbooks of the Leipzig period that he hadthe freedom to experiment as well. He had no good reason to criticize theconservatory, nor his teachers, for poor teaching or a lack of understanding. From Leipzig Grieg travelled to Copenhagen, bringing with him thesolid musical training he had acquired, and there soon became known as apromising young composer. It was not long before he came under the influenceof Rikard Nordraak, whose glowing enthusiasm and unshakeable belief that thekey to a successful future for Norwegian music lay in nationalism, in theuniquely Norwegian, the music of the people - folk-songs - came to play adecisive role in Grieg's development as a composer. Nordraak's influence ismost obvious in the Humoresques
for piano, Op. 6, which wasconsidered a turning-point in Grieg's career as a composer. In the autumn of 1866, Grieg settled in Christiania (Oslo). In 1874, Norway's capital was the centre for his activities. During this time healso wrote the majority of the works which laid the foundation for his steadilyincreasing fame. In spite of his poor health - he had had a defective lung eversince childhood - he was constantly on concert-tour as a pianist or as aconductor, always with his own works on the programme. After his lastconcert-tour in 1907, he wrote to his friend Frants Beyer:
This Tour has been strange. The Audiences have been on mySide. In Germany I have received more acclaim for my ART than ever before. Butthe Critics both in Munich and in Berlin have let me know in no uncertainterms, that they think I am a dead Man. That is my punishment for mylack of Productivity in these last Years, which my wretched physical conditionhas caused. It is a hard and undeserved Punishment - but I comfort myself withthe thought that it is not the Critics, who govern the world. (Letter toFrants Beyer, 5 March 1907)
More clearly than anything else, this letter shows a trend whichGrieg experienced in his later years in relation to his music. It was also adevelopment which would continue internationally until long after his death.
Within the musical "establishment", there were increasing numbers ofpeople who were gradually becoming more critical of Grieg's music and of hisabilities and talent as a composer. In the meantime his popularity amongmusic-loving audiences increased in inverse proportion. Grieg enjoyed some ofhis greatest popularity with the general public during the last years of hislife, when, in spite of his greatly weakened health, he was continually ontour, in popular demand from concert-managers all over the world. The critics,however, were sceptical and condescending, and there is no doubt that Griegfelt hurt by their attitude:
I cannot be blamed if my music is played in third-ratehotels and by school-girls. I could not have created my music any other way,even though I did not have my audience in mind at the time. I guess thispopularity is all right, hut it is dearly bought. My reputation as a composer issuffering because of it, and the criticism is disparaging.' (Letter toJulius Rontgen, London, 25 May 1906)
From early on Grieg was labelled a composer of small forms. Hisindisputable lyrical ability and talent were never doubted, but apart from somevery few works such as the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, and the StringQuartet in G minor, Op. 27, the Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 7, the three ViolinSonatas - Op. 8 in F major, Op. 13 in G major and Op. 45 in C minor - and the CelloSonata in A minor, Op. 36, he was not able, in spite of his many desperateattempts to do so, to feel completely at home with more extended musical forms.
He felt that this was a short-coming, and unfairly blamed his education at theLeipzig Conservatory. Nevertheless, he also showed that he could master these formswhen on rare occasions he found raw musical material that could be reworked andtreated within the traditional structure of sonata-form. The only problem wasthat the musical material to which he felt closest and that most fascinatedhim, was of another quality and character. Grieg's encounter with Norwegian folk-music, and his assimilationof essential features from this music, released certain aspects of his owncreativity that soon led to his music being, for many, identified withfolk-music. By some he was considered more or less simply an arranger offolk-music, and that hurt him very deeply:
In my Op. 17 and Op. 66, I have arranged folk-songs for thepiano, in Op. 30, I have freely rendered folk-ballads for the male voice. Inthree or four of my remaining works, I have attempted to use Norwegian songsthematically. And since I have published up to seventy works by now, I shouldbe allowed to say that nothing is more incorrect than the claim from Germancritics that my so-called originality is limited to my borrowing fromfolk-music. It is quite another thing if a nationalistic spirit, which has beenexpressed through folk-music since ancient times, hovers over my originalcreative works.' (Letter to Henry T. Finck, 17 July 1900)
Much instrumental Norwegian folk-music is built from small melodicthemes, units which are repeated with small variations in appoggiaturas andsometimes with rhythmic displacements. Sections are then joined together toform larger units. We seldom find any true development as it is understood intraditional classical music. It gradually became clear to Grieg that he feltthe greatest affinity with this music. That is why it also became so difficultto distinguish between what in Grieg's works came originally from folk-music,and what was his own composition. This must also have been especially difficultfor foreign critics and audiences. In Grieg's music there are two features which particularly attractour attention, rhythm and harmony. In many instances Grieg's rhythm in hispiano compositions is taken from the folk-dance, as well as from compositionswhich are not based upon folk-music. He placed great emphasis on the rhythmicelement, and considered it paramount in the presentation of his works which havedance as the point of departure. He was of the opinion that in order to be ableto play one of his compositions, one had to know and feel the dance rhythm.
Characteristic of his understanding of the rhythmic element is the story aboutthe meeting between Grieg and Ravel in Paris, in 1894, at the home of WilliamMolard:
While the bright-eyed company discussed music, Ravel quietlywent over to Molard's piano and began to play one of the master's NorwegianDances. Grieg listened with a smile, but then began to show signs ofimpatience, suddenly getting up and saying sharply: "No, young man, notlike that at all. Much more rhythm. It's a folk-dance, a peasant dance. Youshould see the peasants at home, with a fiddler stamping in time with music.