In June, we celebrate the life of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer and one of its national treasures. Regarded as one of the leading composers of the Romantic era, Grieg is most famous for the development of Norwegian folk music within his compositions, for bringing a custom sound to Norway’s music, and for sharing that music with a global audience. This is particularly notable considering that Norway wasn’t truly a free country during Grieg’s time (having been under Danish rule and then forced into a union with Sweden). Grieg saw the need for Norway to craft its identity, and he helped carve its musical personality.
Grieg’s compositions are heard everywhere--even today, you’ll hear Grieg’s songs in concert halls, commercials, and even cartoons. You’ll probably recognize some of his tunes from your favorite animated features, and today you can learn not only the names of those famous songs but more about the man behind the music itself.
Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway on June 15, 1843. His father Alexander was a merchant and town councilman; his mother, Gesine Judithe Hagerup, was a music teacher and politician’s daughter. Grieg’s began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six years old, and he continued to study music formally.
He attended Tanks Upper Secondary School and went on to attend the Leipzig Conservatory upon encouragement from Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, whom he met when he was fifteen years old. While at Leipzig, Grieg attended concerts and recitals and concentrated his studies on the piano; however, he did not enjoy the prescribed course of study for the degree program.
When he was seventeen, his body was subjected to two life-threatening lung diseases (pleurisy and tuberculosis); these illnesses would have a permanent and adverse impact on his health, including the destruction of his left lung and deformity of the thoracic spine. In spite of his health issues, Grieg forged ahead in his pursuit of a life rich in music, culture, and meaning.
Grieg’s career in music
Grieg debuted as a concert pianist in Karlshamn, Sweden, in 1861, and completed his studies at Leipzig the following year. He moved to Copenhagen, Denmark in 1863 and spent time learning from Norwegian composer Rikard Nordraak, the writer behind Norway’s national anthem. In Nordraak, Grieg found inspiration and patriotism, and used that as a means to fuel and convey the stories and scenes from his motherland into his music.
Grieg lived and worked in Copenhagen for three more years, eventually marrying his cousin Nina Hagerup. The couple became parents to a daughter, Alexandra, and it was after Alexandra’s birth that Grieg composed his first major work, Piano Concerto in A Minor. Sadly, Alexandra died from meningitis in 1869.
Notable career moments
The late 1860s brought Grieg personal success and tragedies; however, it was during this time period that his career as a composer began to flourish. Without even having met him, Franz Liszt wrote a testimony on Grieg’s behalf for the Norwegian Ministry of Education so that Grieg could receive a travel grant to Rome. Grieg made the trip to Italy twice to meet with Liszt, who wanted to perform Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and the Piano Concerto.
Word caught on about the Scandinavian composer, and Henrik Ibsen requested that Grieg compose the music for the premiere of his play, Peer Gynt. These songs are among the most famous of Grieg’s work. The music is replete with imagery of Norway’s mountains, angry trolls, and a happy ending, straight from the lore of the fjords.
In addition to his work with Ibsen, Grieg continued to compose for lyric poets and other writers, including von Goethe, Hans Christian Anderson, and Rudyard Kipling.
Later in life
Grieg received two honorary doctorate degrees (one from the University of Cambridge and the other from the University of Oxford). Grieg served as Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Grieg remains Bergen’s most celebrated citizen: countless statues bear his image and numerous buildings share his name. The Edvard Grieg Museum is housed at his former home, Troldhaugen--Grieg wrote Wedding Day at Troldhaugen to celebrate his and Nina’s anniversary at their home.
In his later years, Grieg battled numerous respiratory infections and other health issues stemming from his teenage illnesses. He died in a Bergen hospital on September 4, 1907, from heart failure.
Listen to some of Grieg’s compositions hear--you may very well be acquainted with these tunes and didn’t know that Grieg was the man behind the music!
From Peer Gynt: Morning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR8DJkIY6Yk
From Peer Gynt: In The Hall of The Mountain King: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PC7-29kM0SA
Piano Concerto in A Minor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1Yoyz6_Los
David Russell playing Grieg Lyric Pieces on guitar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI0UXrBWuHU
If you or your child are interested in taking music lessons at CCM’s Santa Clara location or Redwood City location, please contact us to sign up for a free 15-minute introductory lesson. We offer piano lessons, guitar lessons, violin lessons, and more. Start your musical journey today, and be on your way to becoming a better musician!