Edvard Grieg’s great-great-grandparents, John Greig and Anne Milne, are buried in the kirkyard at the village of Rathen, near Fraserburgh in North-East Scotland. John Greig had been a tenant farmer near Cairnbulg. After the battle of Culloden in 1746, his son Alexander, who had strong Stuart sympathies, emigrated to Bergen in Norway which, thanks (?) to the Vikings, had cultural and linguistic links with Scotland. He settled down there, and built up a fish and lobster exporting business. He adopted Norwegian citizenship, and ‘Norwegianised’ the family name, changing it from Greig (pronounced Greg) to Grieg (pronounced Greeg).
Edvard Grieg was first taught music by his mother, a talented amateur pianist. When the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull heard his piano playing, he persuaded his parents to send him to the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, which Grieg came to detest. During his time in Leipzig, however, he heard Clara Schumann playing her late husband’s piano concerto, (which became a model for his own), and also saw the famous, or infamous, Richard Wagner conducting his opera Tannhäuser.
A key meeting was with the gifted young composer Rikard Nordraak, who wrote what is now Norway’s national anthem, but who died aged 24. Grieg later said that, “the traditional way of life of the Norwegian people, together with Norway’s legends, history, and natural scenery, stamped itself on my creative imagination from my earliest years” but, “from Nordraak, I learned for the first time to know the nature of Norwegian folk tunes and my own nature”.
Grieg was reserved, retiring and modest. As a republican, he placed little importance on decorations and medals bestowed by royalty, but he did find them useful for attaching to the top of his luggage when travelling. As he explained, “the customs officials are always so kind to me at the sight of them”.
While at Leipzig, he suffered from pleurisy, which damaged one of his lungs, and left him with increasingly precarious health and strength throughout his life. In his last years, he withdrew to the tranquillity of his home at Troldhaugen, overlooking the Hardanger fjord near Bergen where, after his death, his ashes were sealed in the side of a cliff.
His music was expressed in smaller rather than large forms, apart from an early symphony, and his well known piano concerto. But although he composed mainly ‘miniatures’, he wasn’t a miniature composer. He ranks with Sibelius and Dvorák in the late 19th century’s upsurge of musical nationalism. His music is romantic, lyrical, tuneful, and full of the idioms of Norwegian folk music and dance. Debussy, characteristically, thought his music had “the bizarre and charming taste of a pink bonbon stuffed with snow.” The conductor Hans von Bülow was rather more generous in describing him as “the Chopin of the North”.
Essential listening includes his beautiful and stirring Piano Concerto, the Peer Gynt Suite no.1, and the Norwegian Dances. For the more adventurous, his Lyric Pieces for piano provide rewarding listening. So do his songs, and here is a very brief video of one of his finest, “In the Hills”, beautifully played and sung in a 2020 Norwegian TV concert …