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MUSIC FROM PEER GYNT:
PRELUDE TO ACT I, OP. 23;
SUITE NO. 1, OP. 46; SUITE NO. 2, OP. 55

Edvard Grieg was an unlikely avatar of Norwegian music. The cultural outlook of his family was largely Danish, and his mother had solid German training as a pianist in Hamburg. Grieg himself was sent to the Leipzig  Conservatory  when he was 15 years old.

In 1864, two years after his return from Leipzig, he spent the summer with the eccentric Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who began to interest Grieg in Norwegian folk culture. That winter he met Rikard Nordraak – only a year older than Grieg, but already the great musical hope for Norwegian nationalists – in Copenhagen, and Grieg’s conversion to Romantic nationalism was complete. When Nordraak died two years later, Grieg inherited the mantle of Norwegian musical champion.

Works of the following decade – including the Piano Concerto, piano arrangements of Norwegian folksongs, and collaborations with the dramatist Bjørnson – cemented Grieg’s reputation. So an invitation from Henrik Ibsen in January 1874 to compose incidental music for his verse drama Peer Gynt was natural enough, though the two men were temperamentally far apart. In a long letter from Dresden, Ibsen talked about his plans to finally stage Peer Gynt in its third edition, including some detailed thoughts about music. Grieg accepted gladly enough, imagining that he would be composing only the music Ibsen indicated in his letter.

The task ultimately swelled to 26 numbers across all five acts, however, and Grieg did not find the work congenial. To his friend Frants Beyer that summer, Grieg wrote: “With Peer Gynt it goes very slowly and there is no possibility of being finished by autumn. It is a frightfully intractable subject, with the exception of one or two parts, as for example where Solveig sings – all of which I have done. And I have done something for the hall of the troll king in Dovre which literally I can’t bear to hear, it reeks so of cow-turds, ultra Norwegianism, and to-one’s self-enoughness! But I am hoping that the irony will be able to make itself felt.”

Indeed it has. That piece, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” is one of Grieg’s best known. In his review of an 1889 London performance, George Bernard Shaw called it “a riotous piece of weird fun,” while also complaining that it is made up of but a single phrase, repeated over and over.

Which is true, but misses the point. The short piece, like Ravel’s much longer Bolero, is a supremely well-crafted exercise in orchestral color and dynamics.

Act I sets up the story with the village wedding of Ingrid, daughter of a rich farmer. Peer was interested himself in her, but she is marrying another. The other guests mock Peer as a braggart dreamer, but he manages to run off with Ingrid, for which he is banished and his fantastic transcontinental wanderings begin.

Suite No. 1 begins with the evocative “Morning Mood” that opens Act IV of the play, set in North Africa. “I imagine the sun breaking through the clouds at the first forte,” Grieg wrote. “Åse’s Death” depicts not Peer’s wild fantasies at his mother’s death bed, but rather her desolate anticipation of death in quietly crooning strings, music that begins and ends Act III. “Anitra’s Dance” – “a soft little dance which I am very anxious should sound delicate and beautiful” – is the lilting seduction of Peer, posing as a prophet in the Arab world, by a Bedouin chieftain’s daughter. It ends with “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Act II, in which Peer encounters the hostile court of the troll king in a dream fantasy.

Grieg’s Second Suite opens with violent music from the beginning of Act II, in the aftermath of the broken wedding, framing Ingrid’s lament. The “Arabian Dance” is from the middle of Act IV, in the Bedouin camp just before “Anitra’s Dance.” The Prelude to Act V evokes a tempest at sea, as Peer is shipwrecked on his return to Norway. Now a grumpy old man, Peer reflects on the roads not taken in a life he now believes misspent. Peer hears the voice of his dead mother and trades questions with Death; despairing, he makes his way to the hut of Solveig, the woman he had loved and left at various points in the preceding acts. She comforts him with a cradle song, though the music that closes the Suite No. 2 is her radiant song from the end of Act IV, a foreshadowing of her redeeming devotion to him.

—John Henken