At an early age, Edvard Grieg (Norwegian, June 15, 1843—September 4, 1907) showed a strong interest in playing the piano. He spent hours sitting at the piano, picking out melodies and making up his own songs. While his father groomed Edvard’s brother John to take over the family mercantile business, his mother cultivated Edvard’s interest in music. He wasn’t a cooperative pupil; he preferred to discover music by himself; rather than practice etudes, he chose to improvise and compose his own tunes. In school, he was a poor student. Everything was secondary to his music exploration.
Edvard’s uncle, Ole Bull, was a famous violin virtuoso. In the summer of 1858, Uncle Ole visited the family, and Edvard was called on to play piano for him. After he had heard him playing some of his own small compositions, the uncle had a serious conversation with the boy’s parents, convincing them to enroll him in the music conservatory in Leipzig, Germany. (This conservatory was founded in 1843 by Felix Mendelsohn, and was reputed to be the best music school in Europe.)
Having spent his youth in the small city of Bergen in Norway, Grieg experienced culture shock in the metropolis of Leipzig with its narrow streets, tall buildings and crowds of people. He battled homesickness and his inability with the German language, but quickly adjusted. His stay in Leipzig exposed him to the greater European music tradition: he studied the works of Mozart and Beethoven, but also the compositions of more modern composers like Mendelsohn, Schumann and Wagner. During this time he contracted pleuritt, a kind of tuberculosis, which plagued him for the rest of his life. His left lung collapsed, which bent his back and greatly reduced his lung capacity. Nevertheless, he successfully graduated from the conservatory in 1862.
Edvard Grieg gave his first concert August 18, 1861, in the Swedish city of Karlshamn. His debut in his hometown came the next year. Among other works at this concert, his string quartet in d-minor was performed, a work that has disappeared without a trace. Grieg’s goal was to compose Norwegian music, but as a realist he knew that he had to go abroad to immerse himself in an environment that could help him develop as a composer; so he went to Copenhagen, the only Scandinavian city with a rich cultural life on an international level.
The time in Denmark was a happy one for Grieg. He made several lifelong friends, the most important of which was his cousin, Nina Hagerup. They had grown up together in Bergen, but Nina moved with her family to Copenhagen when she was eight years old. Nina was an excellent pianist, but it was her voice that fascinated Grieg. He was so charmed by his cousin that they were secretly engaged in 1864. They married on June 11, 1867.
The Griegs went from Copenhagen to Kristiania (Oslo) in order to participate in the building of a Norwegian music scene in the Norwegian capital. Their daughter Alexandra was born on April 10, 1868. That same year Grieg composed his brilliant piano concerto in a minor. This masterpiece was his breakthrough as a composer, and he was recognized as one of the greatest composers of his day.
In the early 1870s, Grieg collaborated extensively with the Norwegian author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, setting Bjørnson’s poems to music. Their most ambitious project was a national opera based on the history of the Norwegian king Olav Trygvason. The work progressed well in the beginning, but after a while they both lost some of their inspiration and conflict arose between the two. As the work on the opera came to a half, it freed up time for Grieg to compose music for the Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem Peer Gynt. Bjørnson felt so betrayed by Grieg’s abandoning their opera that a conflict rose between them that lasted almost 16 years.
Setting music to Peer Gynt wasn’t as easy as he had thought it would be, but on the February 24, 1876, the play was performed for the first time on Christiania Theater in Oslo, and was an immediate success. Alongside the work with Peer Gynt, Grieg also set music to six poems by Ibsen. In 1888 and in 1893 Grieg published respectively the Peer Gynt Suite I and II, which contained the most popular melodies from the play Peer Gynt. These two suites are among the most played orchestral pieces in our time.
Grieg traveled extensively and found new ways to insert Norwegian folk music into his compositions. In late 19th century France musicologists spoke about two main styles of music: the Russian school and the Norwegian School. On his many journeys he became acquainted with the composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Frederic Delius, and Camille Saint-Saens. His music influenced the works of Bela Bartok, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy.
Even though Edvard Grieg was well paid by Peters Verlag in Leipzig for his compositions, it was through his tours that Grieg received his main income. His heavy touring schedule, combined with his weakened lungs, took a great toll, but he was able to return to Norway and Troldhaugen for the summers, and through walks in nature get his energy back before he left again in the autumn. In September 1907 he and Nina planned to participate in the music festival in Leeds, England. They left Troldhaugen for the season and lodged at Hotel Norge in Bergen, waiting for the boat that would take them to England via Oslo. Grieg fell seriously ill and was hospitalized in Bergen, where he died on September 4th 1907 of chronic exhaustion.
Edvard Grieg was fortunate to be a successful composer while during his lifetime. His most famous works were his Piano Concerto in A Minor and the music for Peer Gynt, but he was also known for his Romances and smaller piano pieces.