Edvard Grieg’s music is always Romantic but never sentimental, and his adventurous rhythms and daring harmonies can often be traced to the influence of Norwegian folk music. Although Grieg received a formal musical education in Leipzig, Norwegian folk music remained central to his work, the distinctive flavour of his music being attributed to his desire to reconcile classical and folk influences. Grieg wrote no operas, but his music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – which consists of much more than the two famous suites – occasionally reaches Wagnerian intensity. Wagner’s music was a continual fascination for Grieg, seeing Wagner’s Tannhaüser fourteen times during his student days in Leipzig and attending the premiere of the Ring Cycle in 1876 at the inaugural Bayreuth Festival.
Grieg later embarked on his own operatic project, based on Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s play Olav Trygvason. The work was never completed, but the music that survives shows a heavy reliance on Wagner’s declamatory vocal style. Peer Gynt is in many ways the opera Grieg never wrote. Ironically, in the light of the fame it brought him, he found the composition of the music incredibly difficult. Intending it to exude ‘exaggerated Norwegian nationalism’ to match the irony of Ibsen’s play, the music took on a life of its own and the irony was soon lost. ‘Morning Mood’ has also lost its original connotations through continual re-appropriation, even being used to advertise the reviving qualities of instant coffee. It was originally meant to be a description of sunrise in the Sahara desert. If it sounds more like sunrise in the fjords, that’s because the melody is based on the four notes to which the sympathetic strings of the Hardanger fiddle, Norway’s national instrument, are tuned. These sympathetic strings lie beneath the bowed strings and give the instrument its particular resonance.
Norwegian fiddle music was a continual source of fascination. Grieg’s work with this music included piano transcriptions of Johan Halvorsen’s collection of Norwegian peasant fiddle dances. The Norwegian identity of Grieg’s music hasn’t always been fully appreciated, but the intention was always to embody Scandinavian, rather than specifically Norwegian, cultural values. An intriguing aspect of Grieg’s musical style is its harmonic ingenuity. His distinctive use of harmony and timbre anticipates the impressionistic effects of Debussy, who likened his music to a pink sweet. Grieg’s use of repeated open fifths in the accompaniment textures of his piano works, most notably Bell Ringing, was also ahead of its time. The idea would reappear again in Western classical music almost a century later with the minimalist experiments of American composers like Steve Reich.