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Ludwig van Beethoven


Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites/ Holberg Suite


Edvard Grieg: Diaries, Articles, Speeches


Grieg, Chopin & Saint Saens Piano Concertos / Previn, Rubinstein, London Symphony Orchestra


Edvard Grieg

Perhaps most famous for his orchestral Peer Gynt suite, Edvard Grieg was a beloved son of Norway and is today remembered for his nationally inspired compositions.  During his lifetime he was a celebrated composer who met with such luminaries as Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Ibsen.  He is also credited with inspiring Debussy and Ravel.  Grieg was so popular in his day that his funeral was a national, even international, affair, which drew political and musical royalty to pay their respects.  At his request, his composition, the Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak, a friend and famous Norwegian nationalist, was played in Grieg’s memory.

A Love of Norway

Edvard Grieg was born on June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway, the fourth of five siblings. His father, Alexander, had inherited a fish-export business and British consulship in Bergen, but musical talent had long been evident on his side of the family.  Moreover, Gesine, Grieg’s mother, was a singer, pianist, and piano teacher, and was a popular accompanist.  His sister, Maren, and brother, John, also exhibited musical talent early on, at the piano and cello, respectively. 

Grieg did not do exceptionally well in school, but by the age of nine had become deeply interested in composition. At the time Grieg was born, Norway had only recently declared independence (1814) from its ultimately untenable union with Denmark and had just entered a period of romanticized cultural nationalism.  In place of this political alliance, Norway had entered a different kind of political union with Sweden, which allowed it to be a separate state, but united with Sweden under one monarch.  This arrangement lasted until 1905.

Grieg was greatly influenced by this nationalistic period.  During his youth, Gesine had occasion to accompany the famous violinist Ole Bull, a symbolic figure in this nationalist movement, and who was related to Gesine through a family marriage.  Bull, upon a visit to the Grieg family in 1858, heard the young Edvard play his own compositions and suggested that the Griegs send their son to study at the Leipzig Conservatory.

Having entered the conservatory, Grieg felt dissatisfied with the conservative atmosphere there, which looked to the musical past.  In contrast, he preferred to seek his inspiration in the works of more recent masters such as Chopin, Wagner, and Schumann.  Still, he received an impressive education, studying piano with Ignaz Moscheles, who had known Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and eventually completing his studies in composition with composer and conductor Carl Reinecke. 

A bout with pleurisy (inflammation in the lungs) in 1860, which led to a collapsed lung and a lifetime of respiratory troubles, did not deter Grieg from his work.  His Four Piano Pieces, op. 1, were presented in the final conservatory concert in the spring of 1862, upon his graduation.  They were published by C.F. Peters the next year, along with the Four Songs for Alto, op. 2, which he had also written as a student.

New Musical Inspiration

Returning to Bergen, Grieg began to build his reputation as a performer and composer, with concerts that resulted in very favorable reviews.  But Grieg soon felt a need to continue his education, and relocated to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1863.  There he found a mentor in the composer Niels Gade, who offered criticism and advice to the younger man.  His suggestion that Grieg attempt a symphony resulted in a work that was performed several times in Copenhagen, Bergen, and Christiania (now Oslo).  Though Grieg later marked his manuscript with instructions that the piece was not to be performed again, he did include two of its movements in his Two Symphonic Pieces, op. 14, for piano duet (1869).

There were other important musical influences developing in his life as well. Grieg’s maternal uncle Herman Hagerup lived in Copenhagen with his family, and the young composer fell in love with his cousin Nina, a gifted singer. The two were engaged by the summer of 1864, despite the objections of their parents (related partly to apprehensions about their close familial link), and Grieg dedicated his Six Songs, op. 4, to his fiancée.  Grieg’s 170 songs, and his own autobiographical statements, bear testimony to Nina’s influence on Grieg’s development as a composer for the voice. 

Around this time, he also produced The Heart’s Melodies, op. 5, a group of songs set to Danish texts by the famed author Hans Christian Andersen, whom he had met in Copenhagen. There Grieg also became acquainted, through Ole Bull and through Rikard Nordtraak (the young composer of Norway’s national anthem), with the Romantic nationalist interest in Norwegian folk music.  This inspiration proved to be profoundly important to Grieg’s music and career.

A musical sense of Norwegian nationalism, which became the hallmark of Grieg’s style, made its first appearance in Humoresques, op. 6, a piano piece dedicated to Nordraak.  The two composers, along with a few Danish friends, created a group in 1865 that they called “Euterpe,” meant to promote new Scandinavian music.  In that year, Grieg also completed a Piano Sonata, op. 7, and a Sonata in F major for Violin and Piano, op. 8. 

Toward the end of the year, Grieg and Nordraak had intended to travel to Italy, but Nordraak was detained in Berlin by an illness that soon proved fatal.  Grieg, who was already in Rome when news of his friend’s death reached him, immediately began work on the Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak for piano.  In Rome, Grieg went on to compose a concert overture, In Autumn, op. 11, an orchestral work based on one of Grieg’s own songs, “Autumn Storm.”  An important meeting also resulted from the Rome trip, with the renowned playwright Henrik Ibsen.

When he returned from Italy, Grieg, still unmarried but preparing to take on the responsibilities of marriage, tried unsuccessfully to attain a position as a theatrical conductor or cathedral organist.  Unemployed, he settled in Christiania and finally, in order to make a living, established a music academy in 1867 with his friend, Otto Winter-Hjelm.  Having achieved some financial security through his teaching, Grieg at last married Nina that summer.  Though friends attended, neither the bride’s nor the groom’s families were present at the ceremony, due to persistent objections to the union. The couple had a daughter, Alexandra, in the spring of 1868, but she died of a fever just over a year later.

Also in 1868, Grieg began work on what eventually yielded ten books of small, folk-influenced piano works, composed over thirty years, which were collected later as Lyric Pieces (the last set was published in 1901).  And, although he is primarily associated with such short musical forms, Grieg also produced a few very successful works on a larger scale.  Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, first performed in 1869, to this day is one of his best-known compositions.  It attracted great interest and approval upon its debut, and this success helped Grieg to secure funding for plans to travel once more.  Later that year, he traveled with Nina to Rome, where he was able to meet with Franz Liszt.  Liszt received Grieg and his music with great enthusiasm. 

Once again in Christiania, Grieg set texts by the celebrated Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, for several cantatas and songs.  Grieg produced his first theatrical compositions for Bjørnson’s play Sigurd Jorsalfar, performed in 1872 in Christiania.  The composer and the playwright also discussed the possibility of collaborating on a Norwegian opera, to be titled Olav Trygvason.  The project progressed as far as a few scenes, but Grieg and Bjørnson did not work well together, and eventually dropped the endeavor.

In 1874, Henrik Ibsen asked Grieg to contribute incidental music to his new play Peer Gynt (it had been a poem first), resulting in some of Grieg’s most popular music.  The play (originally written in 1867) was first staged with Grieg’s music in February 1876, and the music became a double set of suites, op. 46 and 55.  Within the year, he had also written a number of pieces inspired by the natural surroundings at his new quarters in Lofthus; these included Six Songs, op. 25, “The Mountain Thrall,” op. 32, for baritone, horns, and strings, and a String Quartet in G minor, op. 27.

The Mature Composer

Though in the late 1870s Grieg began to experience periods in which poor health prevented him from producing new music, performances of his already established and popular works occupied much of his time.  By 1880 he was ready to resume writing, and turned to the work of a compatriot for the text of his Twelve Songs to Poems of A.O. Vinje, op. 33  (two of the songs had been composed earlier, but the majority date from 1880). 

Grieg transcribed two of these songs for string orchestra as Two Elegaic Melodies, op. 34, after he became conductor of the Bergen Harmonic Society.  His duties with the orchestra, from 1880-1882, largely kept him from his own creative pursuits, but in 1882 he was able to complete a cello sonata.  This work was written for his older brother John, an accomplished cellist who had attended the Leipzig Conservatory during Grieg’s final years there.  It was a resounding success at its1883 premiere in Leipzig.
Grieg’s marriage was undergoing some strain, and when he undertook a tour of Europe in 1883, it was alone.  He stopped in Bayreuth to see the opening of Wagner’s opera Parsifal, then traveled to Weimar to visit Liszt again, and to work with the Court Orchestra, and then continued across Germany and Holland in a series of recitals.  Nina had been staying in the home of friends, who were able, through letters, to convince the Griegs to reconcile and to meet in Leipzig for further travels in 1884

That year, Bergen celebrated the 200th anniversary of its native playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth, and Grieg composed the Holberg Suite, op. 40, in honor of the event.  Initially it was a piano piece, modeled after the eighteenth-century keyboard suite, but Grieg adapted it as a suite for string orchestra following the premiere.

On New Year’s Day, 1888, Grieg found himself at a lunchtime meeting in Leipzig that is now legendary to scholars of Western music history.  Dining at the home of the violinist Adolph Brodsky, Grieg shared the meal with his fellow composers Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  The latter immediately became a lifelong friend, and Grieg also formed a lasting friendship with Frederick Delius around the same time in Leipzig. He would later (1896) reconnect with Brahms as well during an extensive visit to Vienna.  On another tour, shortly after the storied lunch, Grieg made a wildly successful debut in London.  The income from his recitals abroad helped to finance a new home, which he called Troldhaugen.

On one of his journeys abroad, in 1889, Grieg spent time in Paris, conducting the Colonne Orchestra.  There, he made the acquaintance of many figures in contemporary French music, including Vincent d’Indy.  Grieg’s music made quite an impression in France; he is considered to have been very influential on the music of composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. 

In the 1890s, Grieg worked on further contributions to his sets of Lyric Pieces, and completed the set of nineteen piano pieces titled Norske folkeviser (Norwegian folk songs), op. 66.  The evidence in these works of a renewed interest in Norwegian nationalism was supplemented by some direct activism.  In 1891, Grieg spoke at an event of the Student Society in Christiania, and made a statement supporting the elimination of the symbol for the Swedish-Norwegian union from the Norwegian flag.  His dedication to Norway was returned by its people, as demonstrated on the occasion of the Griegs’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, when an extravagant festival was organized in Bergen to honor (and surprise) the composer.

Celebrating Grieg in his Final Years

Grieg suffered from ill health in the early 1890s.  Nonetheless he began work on one of his most masterful compositions, the song-cycle Haugtussa, in 1895, set to the very recent poetry of Arne Garborg. It took time to complete, and was published as a set of eight songs in 1898.  In 1896, he started his Symphonic Dances, op. 64, but did not finish work until 1898.  It was published in 1899, and remains an extremely popular part of concert repertoire.

That same year, Grieg was invited by Édouard Colonne to conduct in France again, but he refused due to his feelings regarding the Dreyfus case, which had occupied much international attention since its instigation in 1894. Émile Zola’s famous letter, “J’accuse,” had been published in 1898, and Grieg permitted the publication of his own letter refusing the invitation.  Grieg’s letter caused its own international incident, and Grieg even received threats over the incident.

Over the next several years, Grieg continued to make appearances throughout Europe and at home, often conducting, playing, and performing his songs with Nina.  Numerous European leaders and institutions honored him, and his sixtieth birthday celebration surpassed the festivities of his twenty-five year wedding anniversary.
After Haakon VII took the throne of a now entirely independent Norway in 1905, Grieg made a trip to England, and the monarch asked him to deliver his greetings to King Edward VII.  Grieg detailed his English sojourn in a diary, reporting that while he played for Edward, the king’s continued conversation during the music forced Grieg to stop (more likely in deference than in frustration, but it did apparently perturb the composer).  During this time, his creative efforts focused on works for the piano, producing the last book of Lyric Pieces, op. 71, and the Norwegian Peasant Dances, op. 72.  

Grieg’s travels continued, undeterred by his failing health, to the last year of his life. A final trip to England was arranged, but he never had the chance to take it.  He died on September 4, 1907, at the age of sixty-four.


Horton, John and Nils Grinde: ‘Grieg, Edvard (Hagerup)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 7 February 2006), <>.

Horton, John.  Grieg.  The Master Musicians series.  Ed. Stanley Sadie. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1979 (1974).
Layton, Robert. Grieg.  The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers series. London: Omnibus Press, 1998.