When was it composed?
In 1874 Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, asked Grieg to write incidental music for his verse epic Peer Gynt. At first Grieg was enthusiastic but found it more difficult then he had thought. In August 1874 he wrote to a friend: Peer Gynt progresses slowly, and there is no possibility of having it finished by autumn. It is a terribly unmanageable subject.
When and where did it premiere?
The complete score was first performed at the play’s premiere on February 24, 1876 in Christiania (present day Oslo). It was a great success however Grieg refused to attend. He was upset that the theatre management had given him strict timings, provided “a weak orchestra” and been more concerned with emphasising “crowd-pleasing stage effects” than the music.
He finally attended a performance nine months later and in his diary recorded “had the honour of being rapturously acclaimed both in the middle of the piece (after Solveig’s Song) and at the end, when I had to leave my seat in the stalls and appear on the stage.”
Greig composed 29 pieces for the play and his friend Johan Halvorsen edited and published a “complete” score in 1908. However he made cuts and added other music by Greig. The original score was published in 1988 edited by Finn Benestad.
Will we be hearing all 29 pieces?
No. Though there have been performances in recent years – both theatrical and concert – of the complete score we’ll be hearing one of the Suites that Grieg himself composed from the original.
What’s a “Suite”?
A Suite (pronounced “sweet”) is a selection of short pieces that are played one after the other. Often they are dances and were very popular during the Baroque period. Bach, Handel and Couperin wrote well-known suites for orchestras and solo instruments using popular dance forms of the period.
They were no longer fashionable in the Romantic Period but towards the end of the 19th century returned to favour. Composers began arranging dance and incidental movements from operas and ballets that could be played at concerts. Perhaps the most famous is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which includes the most popular dances from his ballet The Nutcracker.
As we saw from his diary entry Grieg was more than aware of the popularity of his music for the play but he knew the audience would be limited to playgoers. In 1888 and 1891, he extracted eight sections to make two four-movement suites: Suite No. 1, Op. 46, and Suite No. 2, Op. 55. We’ll be performing the first of the two.
What movements will we be hearing?
Morning Mood (Morganstemning) in E Major – Prelude Act IV
It’s often thought that this piece describes sunrise in the Fjords of Norway however in the play it accompanies daybreak on the coast of Morocco.
Unusually, the climax occurs early in the piece at the first forte, which signifies the sun breaking through.
The Death of Åse (Åses død) in B Minor – Act III
Peer returns to his mother Åse’s cottage, as she lies dying. Peer describes her bed as a royal coach for a joyful journey to a resting place “east of the sun and west of the moon.”
In a brief 45 bars for the strings Grieg captures the sadness, anguish and resignation of Åse’s death.
Anitra’s Dance (Anitras dans) in A Minor – Act IV
In Morocco Peer encounters a Bedouin tribe and is attracted to the chieftain’s daughter Anitra. She seduces him with a dance and then robs him of his remaining possessions.
The dance is a very un-Arabian mazurka for strings and triangle. Grieg achieves a sinuous Oriental sound by muting the violins and alternating bowed and pizzicato (plucked) passages.
In the Hall of the Mountain King (I Dovregubbens hall) in B Minor – Act II
Peer meets the Mountain King’s daughter and rides with her on the back of a pig to her father’s throne room deep inside the Mountain. The trolls demand the death of the intruder and pursue him.
Two groups of instruments move in and out of different octaves until they eventually “collide” with each other at the same pitch. The tempo gradually speeds up to an increasingly frenetic prestissimo finale.
What instruments did the composer use?
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, strings
How long does it last?
The four pieces that make up the Suite take approximately 15 minutes to perform.
Can I hear a preview of the music?
There are as many versions available on the internet as there are orchestras and conductors. A quick search of YouTube or any of the other audio channels will give you a wide selection to choose from.
A performance of the complete score is available on YouTube. Per Drier conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with soloists and the Oslo Symphony Choir. It can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIk5oxSnrIw