EDVARD GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16

Edvard Grieg was born on June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway, and died there on September 4, 1907. He composed his only Piano Concerto in 1868 and revised it regularly up to the last year of his life. The composer first dedicated the score to Rikard Nordraak, a Norwegian composer whom he had met in 1864. The second edition of the Concerto was dedicated to Edmund Neupert, a fellow countryman who was soloist at the first performance of the piece in Copenhagen in 1869. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

Grieg’s familiar and popular Piano Concerto is one of those works that becomes so popular that it moves out of the “serious” concert hall and too often becomes restricted to hearings at Pops concerts or other programs of “light classical music.” This is a shame, because the Concerto was one of the most important steps on Grieg’s path toward the creation of a national Norwegian music. After completing his course at the Leipzig Conservatory (where one of his classmates was a young Englishman named Arthur Sullivan), he returned north and settled in Copenhagen, the only Scandinavian city with an active musical life. There he met Rikard Nordraak, another Norwegian composer just one year his senior, whose influence on him was to prove decisive, especially after Nordraak’s premature death at the age of twenty-four. Grieg spent several years in the musical backwater of Christiania, Denmark (now called Oslo), where he was the director of the Philharmonic Society, fighting the good fight for music of real substance on his programs. He was later to look on these years as “entirely unproductive,” since his time was almost totally taken up with performance rather than composition.

Following the birth of a daughter on April 10, 1868, Edvard and his wife Nina (a fine singer for whom he wrote many of his songs) spent a pleasant and productive summer in a cottage at Søllerød, Denmark, where he experienced a creative outburst that resulted in the Opus 16 Concerto. From the very beginning, it has been regarded as Grieg’s finest large-scale accomplishment (he generally found the small keyboard miniature to be more congenial to his temperament) and as the fullest musical embodiment of Norwegian nationalism in Romantic music.

The winter following this splendidly fruitful summer was discouraging, as Grieg found himself once again trapped in the indifference and philistinism of Christiania. He had been rejected for a state traveling grant; it seemed unlikely that any new application would be favorably received. Then, suddenly, he received a gracious letter, apparently unsolicited, from Franz Liszt, in which Liszt expressed the pleasure he had received in perusing Grieg’s Opus 8 Sonata for Violin and Piano and invited the young composer to visit him in Weimar if the opportunity should arise. This letter opened doors that had up to then been firmly shut: not long after, Grieg received his travel grant, which allowed him to take Liszt up on his invitation a year later.

In the meantime, he had attended to the premiere of the new Concerto as well as repeat performances to introduce the work to Denmark and other cities in Norway. At about this time, too, he discovered a treasury of Norwegian folk music transcribed into piano score. He delved avidly into the collection and began to realize how a composer might make use of folk elements in his works. From this time, Grieg’s interest in the formal classical genres began to decline—of that type, he produced only a string quartet and two sonatas after this date.

It took until February 1870 for the Griegs to catch up with Liszt, not in Weimar but in Rome. When they did, though, the meeting was highly gratifying for the young man. Liszt promptly grabbed Grieg’s portfolio of compositions, took them to the piano, and sight-read through the G major Violin Sonata, playing both piano and violin parts. When Grieg complimented him on his ability to play from a manuscript at sight like that, Liszt replied modestly, “I’m an experienced old musician and ought to be able to play at sight.” On a later visit, in April, Grieg brought his Piano Concerto, and this time Liszt’s sight-reading was even more remarkable: he played at sight from the manuscript score the entire Concerto, both orchestral and solo parts, with ever-increasing enthusiasm. Grieg recounted the incident in a letter home:

I must not forget one delightful episode. Toward the end of the finale the second theme is, you will remember, repeated with a great fortissimo. In the very last bars, where the first note of the first triplet—G-sharp—in the orchestral part is changed to G-natural, while the piano runs through its entire compass in a powerful scale passage, he suddenly jumped up, stretched himself to his full height, strode with theatrical gait and uplifted arm through the monastery hall, and literally bellowed out the theme. At that particular G-natural he stretched out his arm with an imperious gesture and exclaimed, “G, G, not G-sharp! Splendid! That’s the real thing!”* And then, quite pianissimo and in parenthesis: “I had something of the kind the other day from Smetana.” He went back to the piano and played the whole thing over again. Finally he said in a strange, emotional way: “Keep on, I tell you. You have what is needed, and don’t let them frighten you.”

* The G-natural in question occurs five measures before the end of the Concerto.

Though the Concerto was popular from the start and was published in full score only three years after its composition, Grieg himself was never entirely satisfied with it, and he continued to touch up details of both the orchestral and solo parts for the rest of his life. A few critics have attacked the work—notably Bernard Shaw and Debussy—and it has certainly been overplayed and mistreated, especially in the Broadway musical, Song of Norway, very loosely based on Grieg’s life; but it retains its freshness and popularity nonetheless.

The basic architecture is clearly inspired by Schumann’s Piano Concerto in the same medium and key, though the piano part is of Lisztian brilliance, blended with Grieg’s own harmonic originality, which was in turn influenced by his studies of Norwegian folk song. One Norwegian analyst has pointed out that the opening splash of piano, built of a sequence consisting of a descending second followed by a descending third, is a very characteristic Norwegian melodic gesture, and that this opening typifies the pervasiveness of the folk influence. At the same time, it clearly reflects the sudden entrance of the piano at the very beginning of Schumann’s famous Concerto. For the rest, the first movement is loaded with attractive themes, some obviously derived from one another, others strongly contrasting, a melodic richness that has played a powerful role in generating the Concerto’s appeal. The animato section of the first movement includes figurations of the type used by folk-fiddlers; the lyric song of the second movement is harmonized in the style of some of Grieg’s later folk song settings; and the finale consists of dance rhythms reminiscent of the halling and springdans. –© SL