A Brief History of Edvard Grieg
In today’s episode we’ll be talking about none other than Edvard Grieg. Grieg was a Romantic-era composer (the same time period as Liszt and Chopin) who has a few really important compositions, but he tends to be lesser-known, especially to non-pianists.
In today’s video we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty on his life and times. Without further ado, let’s discuss Grieg!
Basic details on Edvard Grieg
Edvard Grieg was born in 1843 in Bergen, Norway, and is one of Norway’s most prominent composers of all time.
Interestingly, Grieg’s family had Scottish roots (the clan Gregor), eventually settling in Norway in the late 1770s.
Like many prominent composers, Grieg was born into a musical family – his mother was his first piano teacher.
Anyway, when Grieg was 15, a musician and family friend noticed Grieg’s talent, convincing his parents to send him to the Leipzig Conservatory. Thus began Grieg’s musical adventures, where he enjoyed the concerts, but disliked the formal study of music. About his study in the conservatory he said he left “as stupid as when I entered it”.
Grieg spent most of his life being sickly. When he was just 17 years old, he almost died from both tuberculosis and pleurisy (another lung disease). His left lung was permanently destroyed, and he had a sort of scoliosis.
That wasn’t the end of it. Throughout his life he had many respiratory infections and died from lung and heart failure.
Because of his poor health, he often traveled to spas (a common medical practice – Chopin did the same).
Edvard Grieg’s Career
After almost dying, Grieg instead went on to perform as a concert pianist, making his 1861 debut in Sweden. The next year he finished school and went on to perform in his hometown (Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique).
Between 1863-66, Grieg lived in Copenhagen, Denmark. He met and mingled with notable musicians and composers, including the Norwegian Rikard Nordraak of the Norwegian national anthem fame. When Nordraak died in 1866, Grieg composed a funeral march for him.
Love life and marriage
In 1867 at age 24, Grieg did the thing where he married his first cousin Nina. She was a musician as well – a soprano singer. The two of them had one child named Alexandra, who tragically died as a toddler from meningitis. It was around this time that he composed his very famous and only piano concerto in A minor.
Liszt and Grieg were friends from afar, even though they’d never met. Liszt, as we know, was wildly famous and also very generous – Liszt wrote a testimonial for him to Norway which enabled Grieg to receive a travel grant.
The two met up in Rome in 1870, where they went through Grieg’s first violin sonata. Liszt loved it. They visited again, where Liszt famously sight read Grieg’s (very difficult) piano concerto in A minor. He not only sightread the piano part, but the orchestration as well, and gave Grieg some advice on improving the orchestration. Grieg mentioned to Liszt that he played the first movement too fast.
But it was a cordial experience for all involved.
Grieg eventually headed back to his hometown of Bergen to be the Music Director of the orchestra between 1880-1882 (when he was nearly 40 years old). Much later, in 1894 and 1906, Grieg would go on to receive honorary doctorates from both the University of Cambridge and Oxford respectively.
He was strongly influenced by Norwegian folk music, and would continue to incorporate them in his compositions throughout his life.
Grieg and Tchaikovsky
Grieg met up with Tchaikovsky, another Romantic-era giant, in 1888. The two met up in Leipzig, and Grieg was awestruck. Tchaikovsky thought well of Grieg as well, saying Grieg’s music had “beauty, originality and warmth”.
Grieg miraculously made it to reasonable old age, despite his lifelong health issues. He made it to the turn of the 20th century, and the Norwegian government gave him a pension.
In 1885 Grieg and his wife settled into their forever home in Troldhaugen (in the mountains outside of Bergen).
Grieg was one of the first composers to record his piano music – in 1903 he made 9 gramophone recordings in Paris, recordings which you can still listen to today.
Grieg died in Bergen, Norway in 1907, when he was 64. The official cause was a heart attack after a long period of illness.
I love his last words – “Well, if it must be so”. That gets me, guys. That gets me.
His funeral brought a crowd of 40,000 people in the streets. His funeral march for Nordraak was played (as per his request), in addition to the Funeral March movement from Chopin’s second piano sonata.
Grieg was cremated and his ashes were entombed in a mountain crypt near his Troldhaugen home. His wife’s ashes were placed alongside his once she died.
One of Grieg’s most famous compositions was the music for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, which you can learn more about in the “Music of Grieg” video. His three violin sonatas and piano concerto are very well-known.
He also wrote the Holberg Suite, originally for piano, but later arranged for strings. He wrote songs as well – using lyrics from poets of the tyme like von Goethe, Heine and others.
He was a gifted pianist and his piano music is some of my favorite – particularly his collection of Lyric Pieces, very playable compared to pieces by, say, Liszt.
I always like to cap off these history videos with a discussion on personality. Grieg is hard, however, since there isn’t as much information about him. He just wasn’t as famous as guys like Chopin.
He seemed like a pretty solid and steady dude. No second and third wives or mistresses, no stormy friendships, just genial relationships all around. The distinct lack of drama and dirt on Grieg means he was either incredibly private, or just a decent dude.
One thing we know about him, speaking in his favor, is that he once cancelled concerts in Paris to protest the Dreyfus Affair. It was basically an anti-semitic scandal. About the scandal Grieg wrote that he hoped the French might,
“Soon return to the spirit of 1789, when the French republic declared that it would defend basic human rights.”
He received a good amount of hate mail for that stance, but you have to give it to the guy for doing it.
Another personal fact is that Grieg and his wife were Unitarians – a branch of Christianity that doesn’t deify Jesus as in the holy trinity.
Tchaikovsky found his eyes, “not very large, but irresistibly fascinating”. He was a small man, probably as a result of sickness, weighing around 110 pounds throughout his life.
Another thing we know about Grieg is that he needed absolute quiet in order to compose a piece. He often wrote in his mountain abode in Troldhaugen.
I hope you enjoyed this look on Grieg! Stay tuned for more Grieg-themed videos in the near future.