Edvard Grieg, Norwegian Treasure

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.

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Wordless Wednesday: Cat’s Claw on the Back Wall

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Thoughts for Memorial Day

“Ceremonies are important. But our gratitude has to be more than visits to the troops, and once-a-year Memorial Day ceremonies. We honor the dead best by treating the living well.”- Jennifer M. Granholm

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.”- G.K. Chesterson

“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory there would be no civilization, no future.”- Elie Wisel

Today we remember those who died in service to our flag. Let us never forget their sacrifices.

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Scripture Break 44

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Flower of the Day: Bower Vine

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The Lost Art of Handwriting

When I was a little girl, we all looked forward to second grade, because starting in January, we would begin the rite of passage known as “writing in cursive,” those elegant, flowing, sophisticated letters that we couldn’t yet even interpret. I attended a Catholic elementary school in the 1960s, and penmanship was a very important subject. We learned the Palmer method. From third grade on, we would be allowed to write with pens instead of pencils, but not ball-point pens; only fountain pens could be used.

Sadly, our earliest handwriting lessons were warmup exercises, such as practicing slanty lines and loops. It took so long to get to writing actual letters, and longer still to connecting them together into words. When we finally learned enough to write our own names, though, we were so proud. Especially me, though my achievement came later than others’, hindered by the length of my name: Andrea Rannertshauser.

Until high school, all of our assignments were handwritten in the required Palmer script. Heaven forbid we should get sloppy when tired; that would necessitate a rewrite. Our teachers had very high standards for us. Our handwriting had to be legible.

In high school we would learn how to type; from then on our assignments would be done on typewriter. I was never a good typist and had to employ correction tape to disguise my mistakes. Often I needed to retype papers that had too many corrections. This was 20 odd years before personal computers would become commonplace. I wrote my Master’s project on a manual typewriter.

And when we did research in the library, there were no photocopiers. If you wanted to copy information from a reference book, you had to do it by hand, preferably on index cards.

No computers or cell phones meant no email or texts; long distance phone calls were very expensive, so people wrote letters by hand (or typed them) and mailed them. The recipient would get it in a week’s time, and maybe in another week, you’d receive a reply. We oldsters had to be very patient when we were young.

Today, cursive is not taught in most elementary schools. The world is a different place at a different pace, with technology advancing so rapidly the educational system struggles to keep up. Something as archaic as handwriting had to make way for time in the computer lab starting in kindergarten. While children learn to print, by first grade they’re already starting to do assignments on computer. They don’t have as much practice with handwriting. When I was still teaching general elementary music, I sometimes could not decipher my 5th and 6th graders’ handwriting. They didn’t make their letters and numbers with care.

Back in the day, writing was taught at the same time as reading. You learned to recognize letters as you learned to write them. We couldn’t read cursive until we understood how the letters connected. That happened as we learned to write.

Students who don’t write cursive have difficulty reading it. That means soon there will be few people who know how to read historical documents made before printing was widespread—documents like the Declaration of Independence in its original, handwritten form. We’re losing two skills, handwriting and the reading of handwritten works.

Whenever I have to sign a document, people always comment that I have beautiful handwriting. Ironically, in school I got Cs in penmanship. But I always say, “Thank you. The nuns made sure I had good penmanship.” Their lessons stuck.

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Playing with Matches

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Wordless Wednesday: Prickly Pear

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John Philip Sousa, All-America Composer

When I taught elementary general music, one of the objectives for Grade 1 was to be able to recognize march music. So, of course, we practiced conducting in cut time, and marched to the music of John Philip Sousa. He was quite a character, and my students enjoyed hearing about his life.

Sousa was born on November 6, 1854, in Washington D.C., near the Marine barracks where his father played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band. He was the third of ten children in the family. He grew up surrounded by military band music, and when he was six years old began music lessons, studying voice, violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone, and alto horn.

John Philip loved adventure, and when he was 13, tried to run away and join the circus as a musician. His father intercepted him, and instead enlisted him in the Marine Band as an apprentice so he could keep an eye on him. (Can you believe he was allowed to do that? I doubt that would be allowed today. He must have had connections. John Philip’s rank during this time was “boy.”) He remained in the Marine Band until he was 21 (except for a hiatus of 6 months). In addition to his band training, he studied music theory and composition. During his enlistment, he wrote his first piece, Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes.

After his discharge from the Marines in 1875, Sousa began performing on violin, touring, and eventually conducting theater orchestras, including Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore on Broadway.

On December 30, 1879, Sousa married Jane Bellis. While on tour in St. Louis, Sousa received a telegram from the Marine Corps offering him the conductorship of the Marine Band; so the couple moved back to Washington D.C. in 1880. For the next 12 years, Sousa conducted the band known as The President’s Own, serving under Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Arthur, and Harrison. He raised performance expectations for the Band, threw away most of their music, transcribed orchestral pieces for them, and composed new marches.

Sousa resigned from the Marine Band in 1892 to organize his own civilian concert band. He continued to conduct, compose, and tour for the rest of his life, right up until his death on March 6, 1932.

John Philip Sousa wrote 136 military marches and is rightfully celebrated as the March King.

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Video of the Day: Making Easter Eggs the Ukrainian Way

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