Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen 15th of June 1843, in the Grieg family’s house in Strandgaten 152.
Edvard Hagerup Grieg (b. 15 June 1843, d. 4 September 1907).
Family: Married in Copenhagen 11 June 1867 with his first cousin Nina Hagerup. One child: Alexandra Grieg (1868 - 1869) dead from meningitis.
Famous compositions: Piano Concerto in a minor, Incidental music for Ibsen’s drama “Peer Gynt” (Morning Mood, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Solveig’s Song a.o.), Lyric Pieces for piano, Holberg Suite, Last Spring
Edvard Grieg's parents were Alexander Grieg and Gesine Judithe Hagerup. He grew up in a successful merchant family, together with his brother John (born 1840) and his sisters Maren (born 1837), Ingeborg Benedicte (born 1838) and Elisabeth (born 1845). Very early he showed a strong interest in music and for the piano as instrument. He could sit at the piano for hours, exploring all kinds of tunes on his own.
Grieg recollects this when he says:
Why not begin by remembering the wonderful, mystical satisfaction of stretching one’s arms up to the piano and bringing forth – not a melody. Far from it! No, it had to be a chord. First a third, then a fifth, then a seventh. And finally, both hands helping – Oh joy! – a ninth, the dominant ninth chord. When I had discovered this my rapture knew no bounds. That was a success! Nothing since has been able to excite me so profoundly as this.
That a child with such a talent as Edvard Grieg’s had a mother like Gesine Hagerup Grieg and a father who could support economically, had to give great results. Since he wasn’t the oldest son, Edvard didn’t have to take an education that could make him capable of taking over the family-business; this was instead his big-brother John’s destiny. With loving, but firm guidance, his mother led Edvard forward into the wonder of music.
School years in Bergen
Edvard wasn’t the most disciplined pupil. He preferred to discover the music himself. Instead of the compulsory etudes he preferred to improvise and play and finding new tunes and melodies. However, despite the certain amount of reluctance, his love for music grew into what was to become, in his innermost spirit, the right thing to do in life – to be an artist.
His marks were quite bad and give a good account of his deepest interests. His interest lay in music. A nickname he got at school was Mosak, because he had answered Mozart when the teacher had asked which composer had composed a work called Requiem. The other pupils had not heard about Mozart, or other composers, and found it strange that Edvard, who didn’t contribute much in class, could answer on this question.
A talent is discovered
The hero in the young Edvard Grieg’s dreams was the «fairytale-uncle» the famous violin virtuoso Ole Bull. Ole Bull’s brother was married to Edvard’s aunt, but it was first of all through the musical environment in Bergen that Ole Bull and Grieg’s parents got to know each other. In the summer of 1858 Ole Bull came on a visit to Alexander and Gesine Grieg at Landås Estate. The event became, according to Grieg, the most important single event in his life. Edvard Grieg had to play for the world-famous violinist, and after he had heard him playing some of his own small compositions, Ole Bull became very serious and spoke slowly with Grieg’s parents. After that he came over to Edvard and said: «You are going to Leipzig to become an artist!» - and Grieg went...
Studies in Leipzig
Edvard Grieg ended his education in Norway and went to the music conservatory in Leipzig, Germany. This conservatory was founded in 1843 by Felix Mendelsohn, and was reckoned to be the best and most modern conservatory in Europe.
Even though Edvard Grieg had dreamed his whole youth to become an artist, it was a strange experience to come from a small city like Bergen to a European metropolis with narrow streets, tall buildings and crowds of people. The first time was a time with homesickness and language-problems, but shortly he started to feel at home. As teachers in Leipzig he had some of the best pedagogues in Europe: Ignaz Moscheles in piano, Carl Reinecke in composition and Moritz Hauptmann, whom Edvard Grieg had the greatest respect for. During his stay in Leipzig Edvard Grieg came in contact with the European music-tradition, first of all he studied the works of Mozart and Beethoven, but also the compositions of more modern composers like Mendelsohn, Schumann and Wagner. Unfortunately he got pleuritt, a kind of tuberculosis, which marked him for the rest of his life. His left lung collapsed, which made his back bend, and greatly reduced his lung-capacity. Nevertheless he graduated from the conservatory with excellent marks in 1862.
Edvard Grieg gave his first concert 18th of August 1861 in the Swedish city of Karlshamn. His debut in his hometown came the year after. Among other works at this concert, his string-quartet in d-minor was performed, a work that has disappeared without a trace. Edvard Grieg’s goal was to compose Norwegian music, but as a realist he knew that he had to go abroad to get in contact with an environment that could offer him a development as a composer. Thus Grieg went to Copenhagen, the only Scandinavian city with a rich cultural life on an international level.
The time in Denmark was a happy time for Edvard Grieg. He met several persons that should become lifelong friends of his, the most important was his cousin Nina Hagerup. They had grown up together in Bergen, but Nina moved with her family to Copenhagen when she was eight years. Nina was an excellent pianist, but first of all it was her beautiful voice that fascinated Grieg. Grieg was so charmed by his cousin, that they were secretly engaged in 1864. In spite of the true love between Edvard and Nina, none of their parents were present at the couple’s wedding on the 11th June 1867.
The Griegs went from Copenhagen to Kristiania (Oslo) in order to participate in the building of a Norwegian environment for music in the Norwegian capital. It became a period of hard labour, both concerning the establishing of a Norwegian musical-life and concerning their daily income.
Their daughter Alexandra was born on the 10th April 1868. The same year Edvard Grieg composed his brilliant piano concerto in a minor, during a stay at Søllerød in Denmark. This masterpiece became his final breakthrough as a composer, and after this he was reckoned as one of the greatest composers in his time.
The joy of the success as a composer was to be short; on the 21st May 1869 their daughter Alexandra dies from meningitis while visiting their family in Bergen. The fact that they didn’t have a child was maybe the main reason why Edvard and Nina didn’t become a normal couple, but ended up as a two artists that travelled around in Europe without proper roots. This situation became clearer in 1875 when Grieg’s parents died. Now they didn’t have a home in Bergen to come home to. In addition to this, Edvard Grieg felt that he had stagnated artistically. The situation reached a critical point in 1883 when Edvard left Nina. The intervening force that rescued their marriage was Grieg’s incomparable friend Frants Beyer. He persuaded Grieg to reconcile with Nina, and they went to Rome in order to start the reconciling process.
Frants Beyer also convinced Grieg that he needed a proper home, something to come home to after long tours abroad. Beyer helped Grieg to buy a place at Hop, in the outskirts of his hometown Bergen, and in 1885 Edvard and Nina Grieg could move into their villa at Troldhaugen.
Grieg, Ibsen and Bjørnson
On the beginning of the 1870’s Edvard Grieg co-operated extensively with the Norwegian author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, which led to Grieg composing music to Bjørnson’s poems.
Grieg and Bjørnson’s most ambitious project was a national opera based on the history of the Norwegian king Olav Trygvason. In the beginning the work went forward quickly, but after a while they both lost some of the inspiration and a conflict raised between the two. The conflict concerned what had to be done first; the music or the libretto. When there came to a halt in the work with the opera, Grieg found time to compose music for the Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem Peer Gynt. To start working with Ibsen, before the opera was finished, made Bjørnson so dissatisfied that a conflict rose between Grieg and Bjørnson, a conflict that lasted for almost 16 years.
Setting music to Peer Gynt wasn’t as easy as he had thought it would be, but on the 24th February 1876, the play was performed for the first time on Christiania Theater in Oslo, and was an immediate success. Alongside the work with Peer Gynt, Grieg also set music to six poems by Ibsen. In 1888 and in 1893 Grieg published respectively the Peer Gynt Suite I and II, which contained the most popular melodies from the play Peer Gynt. These two suites are among the most played orchestral pieces in our time.
An established composer
As a composer Edvard Grieg was fortunate to be a success while still alive. First of all it was because of his piano-concerto in a-minor and the music for Peer Gynt, but also as a composer of Romances and of small piano-pieces Grieg became famous and relatively wealthy.
Grieg spent much time on travels, and received impressions from the big musical metropolis like Leipzig, Prague, Berlin, London and Paris, as well as the Norwegian mountains. He found new ways of approach to the Norwegian folk music, with the result that in the late 19th century France they spoke about two main stiles in music; the Russian school and the Norwegian School. On his many journeys in Europe he met, and became a good friend of, other composers like Peter Tchaikowsky, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Frederic Delius, Camille Saint-Saens, Julius Röntgen and more. He influenced other composers, first of all Bela Bartok, but also Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy are influenced by Edvard Grieg.
Even though Edvard Grieg was well paid by Peters Verlag in Leipzig for his compositions, it was said that they flagged at the publishers every time they received a new collection of Lyric Pieces, it was through his tours that Grieg received his main income. He was indefatigable on his concert tours. With only one lung working it is astounding that he managed to cope with the life on tour. Luckily he was able to return to Norway and Troldhaugen for the summers, and through walks in the nature get his energy back before he left for Europe in the autumn. The extensive touring with innumerable concerts, combined with a weak health condition was to put an end to his life. His body couldn’t take more, even though his will to continue absolutely was present. In September 1907 he and Nina planned to participate on the music-festival in Leeds, England. They had left Troldhaugen for the season and lodged at Hotel Norge in Bergen, waiting for the boat that should take them to England via Oslo. Grieg became seriously ill and was hospitalised in Bergen, where he died on September 4th 1907 of chronic exhaustion.