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Christmas 1887. Good friends at a game of cards: From the left: Nina and Edvard Grieg, Johan Halvorsen, Fredereick Delius and Christian Sinding.
Foto: Edvard Grieg Museum

A Man of Visions

Publisert: 09/18/2002 av Kjell Skyllstad


"In the beginning to me it all seemed like a dream," wrote the fifteen-year-old Edvard Grieg upon his arrival in Leipzig, the city that was to leave its indelible mark on his musical career. "I looked and listened and didn't have the slightest idea that there was even more that I could possibly do."

Thus this sensitive young man voraciously absorbed all the overwhelming impressions offered by the music metropolis, impressions which were later to be transformed into new hopes and visions. Edvard Grieg was born in the 1840s, a decade filled with the dreams of young Hegelians and the Utopians’ visions of a new society. Artists all over Europe, such as Heine, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner, were inspired by the works of social utopians and reformers such as Owen and Saint-Simon.

The focus was on the future. In 1843, the year of Grieg's birth, Ludwig Feuerbach published his "Grundsätze einer Philosophie der Zukunft" (Principles of a Philosophy of the Future) and Richard Wagner, who had joined the radical "Junges Deutschland" (Young Germany) student movement, had just completed the opera Rienzi, a revolutionary musical manifesto. After the unsuccessful uprising in Dresden in 1848, he published “Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft" (The Art-Work of the Future) in 1850 in Zürich, where he had fled as a political refugee.

As was the case in Leipzig, the concept of music of the future was associated with Wagner and considered practically synonymous with revolutionary trends in music. Grieg himself did not escape being labelled a nonconformist when the string quartet he had composed for his teacher Carl Reinecke was withdrawn from a public concert programme in 1861 because the influential violinist Ferdinand David regarded it as too futuristic. This was probably due to Grieg's advanced treatment of harmony, which even during his years at the conservatory had broken new ground in musical expression.

However, the composers of the Leipzig school were not quite ready for these bold glimpses into the future. Although they shared the dream of a peaceful existence beyond convention and social conflict, they were aware that they were dreaming for something that would never come true. Dreams are destroyed by the harsh realities of life, leaving only resignation and pain. Visions expressed in music can only survive in the composer's imagination. This feeling of romantic distance gives rise to a longing for southern climes, a dream of light, as expressed in Schumann's Sehnsucht, Op. 59, No. 1(1842).

Eventually the dream takes shape, a dream of the ideal music, which cannot be achieved or realized in any composed music. This romantic aspiration forms the aesthetic basis for the German art of Lieder.

Edvard Grieg was not, of course, impervious to these influences. The dream of southern limes, for example, is vividly reflected in Grieg's life and works. Or as he himself put it, "If the artist is exposed to sunlight, the whole person comes alive." His musical depictions of Southern Europe convey a hectic, almost ecstatic mood.

Yet even Grieg's first songs, such as opus 2 and 4 to texts by Heine, are infused with this atmosphere of longing. His entire vocal production is characterized in some way or other by this romantic yearning, both in his choice of texts and in his visionary musical interpretations of them. It runs like a vibrant inner cantus firmus through all his songs, from "I Stood Before Her Portrait", opus 2 (Heine), to the first of the songs of the Mountain Maid, opus 67 (Arne Garborg). Veslemøy, the clairvoyant young shepherdess who has been rejected by her lover, is fleeing from the harsh realities of life. In her vision she comes into contact with the innermost forces of nature. Grieg pursues this same course in his final opus, Four Psalms, a redeeming vision of heaven, in its ethereal musical web one of the most enthralling choral works of the Romantic period.

Edvard Grieg carries Schumann's vision of unity between man and creation further in his songs and, to a large extent, in his Lyric Pieces, in some of the most characteristic works of the Romantic era, and indeed of music history. His vision of nature plays a major role in these compositions, or as he himself put it: "The dream of my life is to capture the nature of the North in music." Thus, his music unfolds like a vast lyrical panorama, an open space with internal and external dimensions. With his surprising harmonic modulations and sequences to ever new realms, he creates a lyrical musical landscape whose echoes can be heard in contemporary Norwegian music as well.

Another unique feature of Grieg's works is the spiritual dimension he evokes in his slow movements, for example in the opening of Violin Sonata No. 2, the second movement of Violin Sonata No. 3, and the incomparable middle movement of Piano Concerto in A Minor. Here he conjures up the immense mountain landscape, the boundless view into the distance, the bird's-eye view, which the Utopian Ernst Bloch associates with the slow movements of the Romantic era. The rhythmic drive of Grieg's music makes these glimpses of another reality doubly liberating.

Thus, Grieg's music is visionary and transcendental in a broader sense. We are familiar with the process of liberation he was forced to undergo, which he himself described in his comments on Humoresques, opus 6 (1865): "We hated the Establishment with reckless abandon and dreamed of a new super-super-super Norwegian future." The work was to be his first real plunge into the future. For it was precisely through the rediscovery of national roots, of folk music, that Grieg approached the primeval musical source that was to expand and transcend the aesthetic boundaries of Romanticism. The early work Humoresques contains the germ of Norwegian Peasant Dances, opus 72, and thereby the threshold to a world of music which Bartok was to reveal for a wide public. It is the innovative Grieg we are commemorating at this anniversary celebration, a composer of creative genius who endeavoured in his life and music to expand the limits of our consciousness and put us in touch with our own creative powers.

In the final analysis, Grieg's life work also contains a vision of a courageous, innovative individual who actively engages in the events of his day. Grieg's actions throughout his lifetime demonstrate that his dream was not only that of a musical future for Norway. He was an ardent champion of democracy and a staunch opponent of all forms of tyranny and oppression.

At a time when the shadows of anti-Semitism and racism are again looming over Europe, we remember his courageous conduct in the Dreyfus affair. We remember his conviction that art and science are the best means whereby nations can communicate with one another. And we remember his commitment to peace and international understanding, expressed primarily in the example he set as an ambassador of culture. In Grieg's active philosophy of life lies his transcendence of Romanticism in his vision's transcendence of the dream and, therefore, ultimately the transcendence of the distinction between life and art. Grieg's vision poses a challenge to our perception of reality.

Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.1 - 1993 No. 1


Related companies:

Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen

Related persons:

Edvard Grieg

Related articles:

04.09.2012 From the Vault: A Man of Visions

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