Edvard Grieg

Composer Edvard Grieg

The first Norwegian composer to gain a Europe-wide reputation, famous for his lyrical, shorter pieces.

Vital Statistics
Bergen, Norway, June 15, 1843
Bergen, September 4, 1907
Performed As:
Pianist, conductor
During Lifetime:
A revival of national consciousness, along with a flowering of artistic activity, including the painter Edvard Munch and poet/playwrights Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (Nobel Laureate and author of the lyrics to the Norwegian national anthem), helped lead Norwegians to regain nationhood peacefully, in 1905, after hundreds of years of domination by Denmark and Sweden.
Biographical Outline
  • Background and schooling, 1843-62: Born into an upper middle-class family, Grieg receives instruction from his mother, a highly regarded pianist, and progresses rapidly. During a visit to the Grieg home, internationally famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull hears Edvard play and suggests his parents send him to Leipzig Conservatory. He arrives in 1858, age 15. In 1860, he is sent home, briefly, to recover from a life-threatening attack of pleurisy, a lung disease
  • Becoming a composer, 1863-64: Grieg studies composition in his last year at the conservatory, and publishes a few student pieces. Shortly before his 19th birthday, he begins concertizing in Bergen. In May 1863, dissatisfied with his musical training, he visits Copenhagen, Denmark. At the suggestion of Niels Gade, a renowned composer, Grieg writes a symphony, which he later bans from performance.
  • Friends, folk, and family, 1865-68: Grieg spends a summer with Ole Bull and meets a fervent young nationalist composer, Rikard Nordraak, both of whom acquaint him with Norwegian folk idioms and lead him toward a Romantic nationalist style. In January 1867, he co-founds a Norwegian Academy of Music in Christiana (Oslo), and in June marries his cousin, Nina Hagerup, who becomes a prime interpreter of his songs in touring recitals. He writes his piano concerto in the summer of 1868 in Denmark, with his wife and newborn daughter, Tragically, his only child lives just 13 months.
  • 1868-1880: Catching Fire: Grieg publishes the first set of Lyric Pieces for piano, a series which quickly become standard repertoire worldwide. He visits Italy in 1869 and meets Liszt in Rome, who encourages him. Back in Christiana, Grieg collaborates with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson on two cantatas and the pair begin work on an opera. Eventually they both lose interest and Grieg takes up an invitation from Henrik Ibsen for incidental music to his play Peer Gynt. The project takes Grieg two years, but ends up as one of his most popular works from its 1876 premiere. A year later, Grieg finishes his String Quartet in G Minor. Chronic ill-health stops him from composing for a year, but performances of the string quartet, and the piano concerto (with the composer as soloist) enhance his reputation.
  • Fame and Mini-Fortune, 1880-1907: From 1880 to 1882 Grieg holds his last official position as conductor of the Bergen Harmonic Society. He divides most of his remaining summers between composing and walking tours of the Norwegian mountains. In the fall and winter, Grieg maintains an active performing career. He dies of a long-term respiratory ailment, at age 56. His funeral is a national event: The body is cremated, and the composer’s ashes are placed in an urn in a rocky crevice overlooking the fjord at Troldhaugen.
Fun Facts
  • Me, myself, and I: On his concert tours, Grieg played only his own music.
  • Operetta poster-boy: Grieg’s struggle during his formative period (1865-68) was made into a Broadway show in 1944 with his music as the basis for its songs. Song of Norway portrays Grieg as the composer of what is now Norway’s national anthem. Actually, his friend Rikard Nordraak wrote it.
  • From highlands to mountains: Grieg’s great-grandfather was of Scottish ancestry, and originally spelled his name Greig (commonly, Gregg).
  • The Romantic view: Grieg ruefully remarked about his successes: “Is it not true that when we have achieved something that for the moment seems to be of value, we are confronted by the heavy, dark glower of life’s disillusion that says: ‘It is nothing, nothing’?”
  • An original excuse: Grieg hated school so much as a youngster, he would repeatedly stand under drainpipes to get soaking wet. That way, he would be told to walk back to his quite distant home to change clothes, and thus avoid painful hours of instruction.
  • Troll story: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt is easily Grieg's most recognizable piece. It's been a favorite of art rock and prog-rock bands, and even The Who recorded a version. It was first used in movies in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and later became a staple of animation and horror movies. You'll hear it in advertisements, video games, anywhere a comically creepy theme is needed.
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Explore the Music

Grieg excels in smaller, evocative forms, especially songs, like the famous cycle Haugtussa (Mountain Maid) and piano pieces like the Lyric Pieces (of which he wrote five sets). Grieg is known most of all for his enduring melodies, such as “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt. He used boldly original and unusual harmonies, rhythms and scales derived from folk idioms, especially in his later works.

  • Song: Grieg's heart was in his songs, many of which were inspired by his wife. The greatest are the latest: the Op. 69 and 70 sets, to poems by Otto Benzon, Haugtussa (Op. 67), and a few stand-alone songs, such as The Gentlemen Rankers. Grieg was one of the greatest songwriters of the 19th Century.
  • Piano: As a concert pianist, Grieg wrote piano works for himself, of which the Ballade in G Minor is the most famous. But he is mainly known for the wealth of music he wrote for publication, for the amateur market. In addition to the Lyric Pieces, there are several sets of Norwegian dances, the Pictures From Country Life, the Waltz-Caprices, and a set called Moods (Stimmungen).
  • Orchestra: Orchestral music was a small part of Grieg’s output, but accounts for much of his best- known and popular music: the Piano Concerto, the music from Peer Gynt, and the Holberg Suite (orchestrated for strings from a piano work). The Symphonic Dances are also excellent.
  • Chamber music: Grieg wasn't big on chamber music. Aside from his famous string quartet, he wrote three violin sonatas and a cello sonata. Two movements of a second string quartet (in F) were also published posthumously.
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