Dereinst, Gedanke mein [3'05]
Prinsessen EG133 [3'44]
Hyperion is delighted to present a disc of Grieg’s songs. Grieg’s sheer range as a song-writer—from the shortest settings, folk-like and immediate, to the depth of distinctive inspiration that runs through every bar of the major cycle Haugtussa—places him without question among the finest masters of the genre. Arne Garborg’s verse-novel Haugtussa created a deep impression on Grieg. The resulting marriage of poetry and music is one of the miracles of the nineteenth-century song-cycle genre. Many regard this work as Grieg’s masterpiece: it is certainly one of the greatest song-cycles for the female voice ever written, revealing the composer at the very height of his powers.
These matchless examples of Scandinavian Romanticism are performed by the partnership of Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus and pianist Julius Drake, who drew great critical acclaim for their disc of Sibelius songs.
Other recommended albums
At the time of his death, on 4 September 1907, the reputation of Edvard Grieg was at its height. From about the mid-1880s he had become universally recognized as the greatest Scandinavian composer, the most significant of all Norwegian musicians. And while—more than a century after his death—we may consider his achievement to rest chiefly on a handful of orchestral scores, the Piano Concerto principal amongst them, together with several of his 66 Lyric Pieces for solo piano (written between 1867 and 1901), the G minor String Quartet and C minor Violin Sonata, rather than on his vocal music, it is salutary to realize that Grieg actually composed around 180 songs and almost 60 choral works, as well as many folk-song arrangements. This substantial body of vocal music demonstrates a number of factors, the most important being that his songs form arguably the most significant, yet still too little-appreciated, aspect of his entire output.
During his lifetime, and for some time afterwards, Grieg’s songs were known to every singer and were frequently heard in the recital room and in the drawing-room. At his last concert in London, at Queen’s Hall on 24 May 1906, Grieg accompanied Emma Holmstrand in eight of his own songs. Of the four piano solos he played on that occasion, just one was a Lyric Piece—perhaps the most famous of all, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (originally entitled The Celebrators are Coming), written to mark the festivities at his own and his wife Nina’s Silver Wedding anniversary, held at Troldhaugen, the Griegs’ home just outside Bergen, in 1892.
The widespread fame Grieg’s music enjoyed is illustrated by the fact that the earliest surviving cylinder recording, made in 1888, is of his song ‘God Morgen’, Op 21 No 2, sung by Augusta Lutken (c1855–1930). The first concerto recording ever made was of his A minor Piano Concerto, in 1909 (although the work was cut to fit the playing-time of early shellac discs). Mention of Nina Grieg brings into our commentary the most personal and significant source of inspiration for almost all of his songs. She became his constant muse from their first meeting in 1863, leading him to produce a body of work that spanned virtually his entire creative life. Grieg’s songs range from his first extant setting, dating from the last day of 1859, to his final song, composed in July 1905.
Nina was a soprano, and two cylinder recordings of her, made in the closing years of the nineteenth century, have survived. They are of Solveig’s Song from Edvard’s Peer Gynt music, sung unaccompanied, and a song by Rikard Nordraak, ‘Holder du af mig?’ (‘Do you like me?’), Op 1 No 3, with Edvard accompanying. Although the sound on these cylinders is poor, it is possible to make out the haunting quality of her voice, a voice which moved Tchaikovsky to comment in his diary for 1888, after hearing her sing for the first time: ‘I have been able to appreciate the many and precious qualities possessed by Madame Grieg. In the first place, she proved to be an excellent, although not very finished, singer; secondly, I have never met a better informed or more highly cultivated woman, and she is, among other things, an excellent judge of literature, in which Grieg himself was also deeply interested; thirdly, I was soon convinced that Madame Grieg was as amiable, as childishly simple and without guile as her celebrated husband.’
Such was Grieg’s fame that a number of biographies of him were published during his lifetime, one of the more important being by the American writer Henry Finck, to whom Grieg wrote in 1903 regarding his approach to song-writing: ‘For me, it is important when I compose songs, not first and foremost to make music, but above all to give expression to the poet’s innermost intentions. To let the poem reveal itself and to reinforce it—that was my task.’
It is clear from this admission, and from Tchaikovsky’s comments of fifteen years earlier, that the words of the poem were paramount to Grieg. This was not, in itself, something peculiar to him as the first great Scandinavian composer, but it helps explain why he found himself drawn to the distinctively Scandinavian romanse style, which has been best described by the Grieg scholar Beryl Foster as ‘a particular type of lyric song characterized by its mainly strophic form, a straightforward melodic line, a rather formulated emotional content and the largely supportive role of the piano accompaniment’. Ms Foster goes on: ‘It depends for its success on the composer’s ability to create a melody and accompaniment flexible enough to accommodate the various strophes, and on the talent of the performers for “reading between the lines” and “interpreting a half-told tale” as Grieg himself described the art of singing Schumann’s songs.’
The reference to Schumann is important, for Grieg’s early training was in Leipzig, and to the young Norwegian it was perhaps the older composer’s innovation of expanded piano preludes and postludes in song-settings that struck home most forcibly—adding an expressive commentary to the (forthcoming or just heard) vocal line, in which the composer contributes his instrumental exegesis to the experience. Grieg’s song-cycle Haugtussa, if not wholly influenced by Schumann’s Dichterliebe, at least owes something to the ethos of that masterpiece. Yet if, to Grieg, the importance of his chosen texts was paramount, it was remarkably fortuitous in historical terms that he was to be inspired by, and was able to collaborate (with their permission) with, several of the great Scandinavian writers of the day, including Ibsen, Bjørnson, Vinje and Garborg.
During the whole of Grieg’s composing life, which is to say the fifty years ending with his death, the Romantic movement flowered and reached its apogee. Yet for Grieg the most powerful influences were not the towering figures of Liszt or Wagner (although the former greatly encouraged him as a young man, and Grieg was not only present at the first complete production of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth, but also attended fourteen consecutive performances of Tannhäuser at Leipzig). It was the more intimate music of Schumann, Mendelssohn and, later, Hugo Wolf that exerted more significant influences—especially in Grieg’s earliest compositions. But what remains remarkable about Grieg’s music is that, from about the mid-1860s if not a little earlier, his singular creative character shines through; almost from the start, it appears, Grieg’s music could be the work of no other composer.
Grieg was certainly not aloof from the central aspects of Romanticism. The essentially Germanic Romantic notion of emfindsamkeit (personal expression or feeling) is echoed in Grieg’s choice of texts, which often reflected his personal circumstances, and yet also occasionally coincided with the emerging strands of Nationalism in music (having occurred in the other arts somewhat earlier)—which, in Norway’s case, led to the peaceful and democratic establishment of an independent kingdom in 1905. Good examples of this selection of texts that had a personal resonance with Grieg are found in the early group of four songs that make up his Hjertets melodier (‘Melodies of the heart’), Op 5, set to the endearing lyricism of Hans Christian Andersen (the title of the set is Andersen’s). Composed in Copenhagen in 1864–5, around the time that he met and was soon (secretly) betrothed to his cousin Nina Hagerup, these songs are the earliest examples of Grieg’s most distinctive and typical song-writing. There is a wonderful freshness and artless originality in these settings, presented in secret to Nina as an engagement gift. Do the ‘two brown eyes’ of the first song reflect Nina’s? One might like to think so, especially in the later musically climactic phrase at the words ‘I will never forget them!’. The third song, Jeg elsker Dig (‘I love you’), became, in numerous translations, the most celebrated of his early songs. It was this song that spread his fame worldwide, and almost fifty years after the composer’s death it entered the realms of popular music through a beautifully phrased recording in English by Frank Sinatra, coupled with a song by Tchaikovsky. Jeg elsker Dig is sung on this recording in the original single-verse setting, as Andersen’s text has it; Grieg was later angered at the unauthorized addition of a second verse by later authors, who were presumably under the misapprehension that a song with a single stanza is unacceptable. Unfortunately, these have been copied into almost all later editions, and have thus been frequently recorded.
Not including the three separate songs in the complete incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, almost thirty songs by Grieg were published between the Op 5 set and the Sex digte af Henrik Ibsen Op 25, published eleven years later in 1876. Among them was Grieg’s solitary song-setting from 1871, Prinsessen, which tells of a lone Princess who hears the sound of a horn-call from outside the castle. She is puzzled by the strange reaction the sounds rouse in her. Perhaps naturally, Grieg’s setting utilizes an original but folk-like theme, subtly varied as the uncertainties of her dream-like reactions unfold.
By 1876 Grieg’s Piano Concerto and the Peer Gynt music had spread his fame to a wider audience, but this growing recognition was not reflected in the composer’s personal life. His parents had both recently died, within a short space of time, and his marriage to Nina was going through a particularly stressful time. Perhaps, given his propensity for seeking poetry that reflected his personal circumstances, it was only natural that Grieg would be attracted by the more fateful, if not more aphoristic, expression of Henrik Ibsen. The first two songs of the Sex digte af Henrik Ibsen (‘Six poems by Henrik Ibsen’), Op 25, offer further examples Grieg’s chosen texts mirroring his personal life. Spillemænd (‘Minstrels’) derives from a Norwegian tale about a musician who is entrusted by a water-sprite with greatly expressive qualities, eventually settling the debt by forfeiting his own happiness. And in the haunting song En svane (‘A swan’)—referring to the legend in which a swan sings for the only time in its life as it approaches death—we may note Beryl Foster’s observation that ‘Grieg matches Ibsen’s masterly aphoristic lines with a striking and mature musical restraint’.
The third song from this set, Stambogsrim (‘Album lines’), depicts—as Beryl Foster has said—‘a scene barely glimpsed rather than seen properly’. This twelve-bar song (the shortest in Grieg’s entire output) reflects aspects of early settings by contemporaneous French Impressionists—Fauré, perhaps, or Duparc—in its subtleties and inferences, characteristics which are further alluded to in the other songs in the group. A study of the texts and of Grieg’s inspired reactions to them through his distinctive melodic lines and their harmonic accompaniments reveals the deepening of the composer’s art by this time.
The Sechs Lieder Op 48 date mainly from 1889 (the last four from August of that year), although it seems that the first two were composed in two days in September 1884. These six songs to German texts by different authors were his first settings of German poets since Grieg’s first sets of published songs, his Opp 2 and 4, which appeared in 1863–4. By 1889, the fractures in Edvard and Nina’s marriage had long been repaired, and if it is too fanciful to ascribe new-found happiness in the first song, Gruß, there is no doubting the genuine expressive character of it. In many respects these songs, varied in mood, are the closest Grieg came to the Romantic German lieder style. Lauf der Welt and (especially) Die verschwiegene Nachtigall are particularly well known, and in the latter Grieg resists the temptation to overdo the tiny nightingale call in the vocal line, echoed in the piano accompaniment. It is not only the German texts which tended to make this set particularly favoured by German singers—the composer’s mastery in the fifth song, Goethe’s Zur Rosenzeit, and the integration of accompaniment and vocal line in the sixth, Ein Traum, are no way inferior to Hugo Wolf’s contemporaneous Sechs Gedichte von Scheffel, Mörike, Goethe und Kerner.
Arne Garborg’s verse-novel Haugtussa (‘The mountain maid’; literally ‘A girl of the hill-spirits’) was published in 1895. Comprising no fewer than seventy-one individual verses, it created a deep impression on Grieg, who had first encountered Garborg’s writing a few years earlier. No sooner had Grieg read the book than he wrote to his friend Julius Röntgen about the possibility of setting parts of it: ‘I have been deep in a highly remarkable poem … Haugtussa. It is a quite brilliant book, where the music is really already composed. One just needs to write it down.’ This marriage of poetry and music is one of the miracles of the nineteenth-century song-cycle genre. Many regard Haugtussa as Grieg’s masterpiece, a claim which it is hard to resist. It is certainly one of the greatest song-cycles for the female voice ever written, revealing the composer at the very height of his powers. But Grieg’s initial intention to set parts of it went through several refining processes before he finally settled on the eight verses that make up his Op 67. This work is in many ways the culmination of various strands in Grieg’s earlier song-writing, from the relative innocence of the Op 5 set to, for example, the ‘knowing’ character of the German songs Op 48, especially Lauf der Welt. Although there is great originality in such works as the Piano Concerto, and a breadth of conception in pieces like the G minor String Quartet, Grieg’s sheer range as a song-writer—from the shortest settings, folk-like and immediate, to the depth of distinctive inspiration that runs through every bar of Haugtussa—places him without question among the finest masters of the genre.
Robert Matthew-Walker © 2008