Masters Of Music - Edward Grieg
( Originally Published 1922 )
"From every point of view Grieg is one of the most original geniuses in the musical world of the present or past. His songs are a mine of melody, surpassed in wealth only by Schubert, and that only because there are more of Schubert's. In originality of harmony and modulation he has only six equals. Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner and Liszt. In rhythmic invention and combination he is inexhaustible, and as orchestrator he ranks among the most fascinating."
HENRY T. FINCK
EDWARD HARGARUP GRIEG, "the Chopin of the North," was a unique personality, as well as an exceptional musician and composer. While not a "wonder child," in the sense that Mozart, Chopin and Liszt were, he early showed his love for music and his rapt enjoyment of the music of the home circle. Fortunately he lived and breathed in a musical atmosphere from his earliest babyhood. His mother was a fine musician and singer herself, and with loving care she fostered the desire for it and the early studies of it in her son. She was his first teacher, for she kept up her own musical studies after her marriage, and continued to appear in concerts in Bergen, where the family lived. Little Edward, one of five children, seemed to inherit the mother's musical talent and had vivid recollections of the rhythmic animation and spirit with which she played the works of Weber, who was one of her favorite composers.
The piano was a world of mystery to the sensitive musical child. His baby fingers explored the white keys to see what they sounded like. When he found two notes together, forming an interval of a third, they pleased him bet-ter than one alone. Afterwards three keys as a triad, were better yet, and when he could grasp a chord of four or five tones with both hands, he was overjoyed. Meanwhile there was much music to hear. His mother practised daily her-self, and entertained her musical friends in weekly soirees. Here the best classics were performed with zeal and true feeling, while little Edward listened and absorbed music in every pore. When he was six years old piano lessons began. Mme. Grieg proved a strict teacher, who did not allow any trifling; the dreamy child found he could not idle away his time. As he wrote later: "Only too soon it became clear to me I had to practise just what was unpleasant. Had I not inherited my mother's irrepressible energy as well as her musical capacity, I should never have succeeded in passing from dreams to deeds."
But dreams were turned into deeds before long, for the child tried to set down on paper the little melodies that haunted him. It is said he began to do this at the age of nine. A really serious attempt was made when he was twelve or thirteen. This was a set of variations for piano, on a German melody. He brought it to school one day to show one of the boys. The teacher caught sight of it and reprimanded the young composer soundly, for thus idling his time. It seems that in school he was fond of dreaming away the hours, just as he did at the piano.
The truth was that school life was very unsympathetic to him, very narrow and mechanical, and it is no wonder that he took every opportunity to escape and play truant. He loved poetry and knew all the poems in the reading books by heart; he was fond, too, of declaiming them in season and out of season.
With the home atmosphere he enjoyed, the boy Grieg early became familiar with names of the great composers and their works. One of his idols was Chopin, whose strangely beautiful harmonies were just beginning to be heard, though not yet appreciated. His music must have had an influence over the lad's own efforts, for he always remained true to this ideal.
Another of his admirations was for Ole Bull, the famous Norwegian violinist. One day in summer, probably in 1858, when Edward was about fifteen, this "idol of his dreams" rode up to the Grieg home on horseback. The family had lived for the past five years at the fine estate of Landaas, near Bergen. The great violinist had just returned from America and was visiting his native town, for he too was born in Bergen. That summer he came often to the Griegs' and soon discovered the great desire of young Edward for a musical career. He got the boy to improvise at the piano, and also to show him the little pieces he had already composed. There were consultations with father and mother, and then, finally, the violinist came to the boy, stroked his cheek and announced; "You are to go to Leipsic and become a musician."
Edward was overjoyed. To think of gaining his heart's desire so easily and naturally ; it all seemed like a fairy tale, too good to be true.
The Leipsic Conservatory, which had been founded by Mendelssohn, and later directed for a short time by Schumann, was now in the hands of Moscheles, distinguished pianist and conductor. Richter and Hauptmann, also Papperitz, taught theory; Wenzel, Carl Reinecke and Plaidy, piano.
Some of these later gained the reputation of being rather dry and pedantic; they certainly were far from comprehending the romantic trend of the impressionable new pupil, for they tried to curb his originality and square it with rules and customs. This process was very irksome, for the boy wanted to go his own gait.
Among his fellow students at the Conservatory were at least a half dozen who later made names for themselves. They were: Arthur Sullivan, Walter Bache, Franklin Taylor, Edward Dannreuther and J. F. Barnett. All these were making rapid progress in spite of dry methods. So Edward Grieg began to realize that if he would also accomplish anything, he must buckle down to work. He now began to study with frantic ardor, with scarcely time left for eating and sleeping. The result of this was a complete breakdown in the spring of 1860, with several ailments, incipient lung trouble being the most serious. Indeed it was serious enough to deprive Grieg of one lung, leaving him for the remainder of his life somewhat delicate.
When his mother learned of his illness, she hurried to Leipsic and took him back to Bergen, where he slowly regained his health. His parents now begged him to remain at home, but he wished to return to Leipsic. He did so, throwing himself into his studies with great zeal. In the spring of 1862, after a course of four years, he passed his examinations with credit. On this occasion he played some of his compositions—the four which have been printed as Op. 1—and achieved success, both as composer and pianist.
After a summer spent quietly with his parents at Landaas, he began to prepare for coming musical activities. The next season he gave his first concert in Bergen, at which the piano pieces of Op. 1, Four Songs for Alto, and a String Quartet were played. With the proceeds of this concert he bought orchestral and. chamber music, and began to study score, which he had not previously learned to do. In the spring of 1863—he was hardly twenty then-he left home and took up his residence in Copenhagen, a much larger city, offering greater opportunties for an ambitious young musician. It was also the home of Niels W. Gade, the foremost Scandinavian composer.
Of course Grieg was eager to meet Gade, and an opportunity soon occurred. Gade expressed a willingness to look at some of his compositions, and asked if he had anything to show him. Edward modestly answered in the negative. "Go home and write a symphony," was the retort. This the young composer started obediently to do, but the work was never finished in this form. It became later Two Symphonic Pieces for Piano, Op. 14.
Two sources of inspiration for Grieg were Ole Bull and Richard Nordraak. We remember that Ole Bull was the means of influencing his parents to send Edward to Leipsic. That was in 1858. Six years later, when Ole Bull was staying at his country home, near Bergen, where he always tried to pass the summers, the two formed a more intimate friendship. They played frequently together, sonatas by Mozart and others, or trios, in which Edward's brother John played the 'cello parts. Or they wandered together to their favorite haunts among mountains, fjords or flower clad valleys. They both worshiped nature in all her aspects and moods, and each, the one on his instrument, the other in his music, endeavored to reproduce these endless influences.
Richard Nordraak was a young Norwegian composer of great talent, who, in his brief career, created a few excellent works. The two musicians met in the winter of 1864 and were attracted to each other at once. Nordraak visited Grieg in his home, where they discussed music and patriotism to their hearts' content. Nordraak was intensely patriotic, and wished to see the establishment of Norse music. Grieg, who had been more or less influenced by German ideas, since Leipsic days, now cast off the fetters and placed himself on the side of Norwegian music. To prove this he composed the Humoresken, Op. 6, and dedicated them to Nordraak. From now on he felt free to do as he pleased in music—to be himself.
In 1864 Grieg became engaged to his cousin, Nina Hargerup, a slender girl of nineteen, who had a lovely voice and for whom he wrote many of his finest songs. He returned to Christiania from a visit to Rome, and decided to establish himself in the Norwegian capital. Soon after his arrival, in the autumn of 1856, he gave a concert, assisted by his financée and Mme. Norman Neruda, the violinist. The program was made up entirely of Norwegian music, and contained his Violin Sonata Op. 8, Humoresken, Op. 6, Piano Sonata, Op. 7. There were two groups of songs, by Nordraak and K Kjerulf respectively. The concert was a success with press and public and the young composer's position seemed assured. He secured the appointment of Conductor of the Philharmonic Society, and was quite the vogue as a teacher. He married Nina Hargerup the following June, 1867, and they resided in Christiania for the next eight years.
Grieg could not endure "amateurish mediocrity," and made war upon it, thus drawing jealous attacks upon himself. His great friend and ally, Nordraak, passed away in 1868, and the next year his baby daughter, aged thirteen months, the only child he ever had, left them.
In spite of these discouragements, some of his, finest compositions came into being about this period of his life. Songs, piano pieces and the splendid Concerto followed each other in quick succession.
Another satisfaction to Grieg was a most sympathetic and cordial letter from Liszt on' making acquaintance with his Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 8, which he praised in high terms. He invited Grieg to come and visit him, that they might become better acquainted. This unsolicitated appreciation from the famous Liszt was a fine honor for the young composer, and was the means of inducing the Norwegian Government to grant him an annuity. This sum enabled him the following year, to go to Rome and meet Liszt personally.
He set out on this errand in October, and later wrote his parents of his visits to Liszt. The first meeting took place at a monastery near the Roman Forum, where Liszt made his home when in town.
"I took with me my last violin Sonata, the Funeral March on the death of Nordraak and a volume of songs. I need not have been anxious, for Liszt was kindness itself. He came smiling towards me and said in the most genial manner :
" 'We have had some little correspondence, haven't we?'
"I told him it was thanks to his letters that I was now here. He eyed somewhat hungrily the package under my arm, his long, spider-like fingers approaching it in such an alarming manner that I thought it advisable to open at once. He turned over the leaves, reading through the Sonata. He had now become interested, but my courage dropped to zero when he asked me to play the Sonata, but there was no help for it.
"So I started on his splendid American Chickening grand. Right in the beginning, where the violin starts in, he exclaimed: ' How bold that is! Look here, I like that; once more please.' And where the violin again comes in adagio, he played the part on the upper octaves with an expression so beautiful, so marvelously true and singing, it made me smile inwardly.
My spirits rose because of his lavish approval, which did me good. After the first movement, I asked his permission to play a solo, and chose the Minuet, from the Humoresken."
At this point Grieg was brave enough to ask Liszt to play for him. This the master did in a superb manner. To go on with the letter:
"When this was done, Liszt said jauntily, ' Now let us go on with the Sonata'; to which I naturally retorted, `No thank you, not after this.'
" `Why not? Then give it to me, I'll do it.' And what does Liszt do? He plays the whole thing,' root and branch, violin and piano ; nay more, for he plays it fuller and more broadly. He was literally over the whole piano at once, without missing a note. And how he did play! With grandeur, beauty, unique comprehension.
"Was this not geniality itself ? No other great man I have met is like him. I played the Funeral March, which was also to his taste. Then, after a little talk, I took leave, with the consciousness of having spent two of the most interesting hours of my life."
The second meeting with Liszt took plaee soon after this. Of it he writes in part:
"I had fortunately received the manuscript of my Concerto from Leipsic, and took it with me. A number of musicians were present.
" 'Will you play?' asked Liszt. I answered in the negative, as you know I had never practised it. Liszt took the manuscript, went to the piano, and said to the assembled guests : 'Very well, then, I will show you that I also cannot.' Then he began. I admit that he took the first part too fast, but later on, when I had a chance to indicate the tempo, he played as only he can play. His demeanor is worth any price to see. Not content with playing, he at the same time converses, addressing a bright remark now to one, now to another of his guests, nodding from right to left, particularly when something pleases him. In the Adagio, and still more in the Finale, he reached a climax, both in playing and in the praise he bestowed.
"When all was over, he handed me the manuscript, and said, in a peculiarly cordial tone: 'Keep steadily on; you have the ability, and—do not let them intimidate you!'
"This final admonition was of tremendous importance to me; there was something in it like a sanctification. When disappointment and bitterness are in store for me, I shall recall his words, and the remembrance of that hour will have a wonderful power to uphold me in days of adversity.
When Edward Grieg was a little over thirty, in the year 1874, the Norwegian Government honored him with an annuity of sixteen hundred crowns a year, for life. Another good fortune was a request from the distinguished poet, Henrik Ibsen, to produce music for his drama of "Peer Gynt."
With the help of the annuity Grieg was able to give up teaching and conducting and devote himself to composition. He left Christiania, where he and Mme. Grieg had resided for eight years, and came back for a time to Bergen. Here, in January 1874, Ibsen offered him the proposition of writing music for his work, for which he was arranging a stage production.
Grieg was delighted with the opportunity, for such a task was very congenial. He completed the score in the autumn of 1875. The first performance was given on February 24, 1876, at Christiania. Grieg himself was not present, as he was then in Bergen. The play proved a real success and was given thirty-six times that season, for which success the accompanying original and charming music was largely responsible.
Norway is a most picturesque country, and no one could be more passionately fond of her mountains, fjords, valleys and waterfalls than Edward Grieg. For several years he now chose to live at Lofthus, a tiny village, situated on a branch of the Hardanger Fjord. It is said no spot could have been more enchanting. The little study, consisting of one room, where the composer could work in perfect quiet, was perched among the trees above the fjord, with a dashing waterfall near by. No wonder Grieg could write of the "Butterfly," the "Little Bird," and "To the Spring," in such poetical, vivid harmonies. He had only to look from his window and see the marvels of nature about him.
A few years later he built a beautiful villa at Troldhaugen, not far from Bergen, where he spent the rest of his life. Some American friends who visited them in 1901, speak of the ideal existence of the artist pair. Grieg himself is described as very small and frail looking, with a face as individual, as unique and attractive as his music—the face of a thinker, a genius. His eyes were keen and blue ; his hair, almost white, was brushed backward like Liszt's. His hands were thin and small; they were wonderful hands and his touch on the piano had the luscious quality of Paderewski's. Mme. Grieg received them with a fascinating smile and won all hearts by her appearance and charm of manner. She was short and plump, with short wavy gray hair and dark blue eyes. Her sister, who resembled her strongly, made up the rest of the family. Grieg called her his "second wife" and they seemed a most united family.
Here, too, Grieg had his little work cabin away from the house, down a steep path, among the trees of the garden. In this tiny retreat he composed many of his unique pieces.
As a pianist, there are many people living who have heard Grieg play, and all agree that his performance was most poetical and beautiful. He never had great power, for a heavy wagon had injured one of his hands, and he had lost the use of one of his lungs in youth. But he always brought out lyric parts most expressively, and had a "wonderfully crisp and buoyant execution in rhythmical passages." He continued to play occasionally in different cities, and with increased frequency made visits to England, France and Germany, to make known his compositions. He was in England in the spring of 1888, for on May 3, the London Philharmonic gave almost an entire program of Grieg's music. He acted in the three-fold capacity of composer, conductor and pianist. It was said by one of the critics : "Mr. Grieg played his own Concerto in A minor, after his own manner ; it was a revelation." Another wrote; "The Concerto is very beautiful. The dreamy charm of the opening movement, the long-drawn sweetness of the Adagio, the graceful, fairy music of the final Allegro—all this went straight to the hearts of the audience. Grieg as a conductor gave equal satisfaction. It is to be hoped the greatest representative of 'old Norway' will come amongst us every year."
Grieg did return the next year and appeared with the Philharmonic, March 14, 1889. The same critic then wrote:
"The hero of the evening was unquestionably Mr. Grieg, the heroine being Madame Grieg, who sang in her own unique and most artistic fashion, a selection of her husband's songs, he accompanying with great delicacy and poetic feeling. Grieg is so popular in London, both as composer and pianist, that when he gave his last concert, people were waiting in the street before the doors from eleven in the morning, quite as in the old Rubinstein days."
In only a few cities did the artist pair give their unique piano and song recitals. These were : Christiania, Copenhagen, Leipsic, Rome, Paris, London and Edinburgh. They were in-deed artistic events, in which Nina Grieg was also greatly admired. While not a great singer, it was said she had the captivating abandon, dramatic vivacity and soulful treatment of the poem, which reminded of Jenny Lind.
Mme. Grieg made her last public appearance in London in 1898. After that she sang only for her husband and his friends.
Grieg's sixtieth birthday, June 15, 1903, was celebrated in the cities of Scandanavia, through-out Europe and also in America : thus he lived to see the recognition of his unique genius in many parts of the world.
Grieg was constantly using up his strength by too much exertion. To a friend in 1906, he wrote: "Yes, at your age it is ever hurrah-vivat. At my age we say, sempre diminuendo. And I can tell you it is not easy to make a beautiful diminuendo." Yet he still gave concerts, saying he had not the strength of character to refuse. Indeed he had numerous offers to go to America, which he refused as he felt he could not endure the sea voyage. Always cheerful, even vivacious, he kept up bravely until almost the end of his life, but finally, the last of August, 1907, he was forced to go to a hospital in Bergen. On the night of September 3, his life ebbed away in sleep.
The composer who through his music had endeared himself to the whole world, was granted a touching funeral, at which only his own music was heard, including his Funeral March, which he had composed for his friend Nordraak. The burial place is as romantic as his music. Near his home there is a steep cliff, about fifty feet high, projecting into the fjord. Half way up there is a natural grotto, which can only be reached by water. In this spot, chosen by Grieg himself, the urn containing his ashes was deposited some weeks after the funeral. Then the grotto was closed and a stone slab with the words "Edward Grieg" cut upon it, was cemented in the cliff.