The Northern Light Descended from Bergen

The harbour of Oslo. (c) Charles Thibo
The harbour of Oslo. (c) Charles Thibo

The first cadences could well illustrate the moment a discoverer’s ship leaves the port of Oslo: majestic, full of hope, peaceful. But Edvard Grieg had something totally different in mind when he composed the “Holberg Suite”, op. 40. He had been tasked to write a piece to commemorate the 200th birthday of the Danish poet Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754).

Back to Baroque

Since Holberg had lived in the Baroque era, Grieg, born in 1843 in Bergen (Norway), composed the suite “according to the old style” by using five types of movements characteristic for that period: Prelude, Sarabande, Gavotte, Air and Rigaudon. The result is a wonderful little masterpiece: Baroque music re-invented by a composer of the 19th century whose hallmark is the inclusion of Nordic folkloric elements. In this specific case he intended to render in the composition the somewhat coarse sound of popular instruments and the melodies of local dances.

Grieg took his first lessons with his mother, studied in Leipzig where he got in touch with the German romanticists, in Copenhagen and, thanks to Franz Liszt as a go-between – in Rome. In 1871 he founded a music association in Oslo to promote Scandinavian music and to give what we call today classical music a safe haven in Norway. He had a good understanding of Western European music through his education and developed over time a very personal style with an emphasis on smaller, refined piece rather than large orchestral works.

Sonatas for violin and piano

The Symphony in C Minor is the only symphony he wrote. He composed one overture called “Autumn”, op. 11, four Norwegian Dances, Op. 35, a single piano concerto and of course the suite “Peer Gynt”, that made his fame all over Europe. I would however draw your attention to his three sonatas for violin and piano. They betray Grieg’s training in Rome. I hear a faint echo of Baroque lust and frivolity in those pieces… and I adore it, yes!

The “Holberg Suite” has been recorded by the Gotenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi along with the Norwegian Dances, while the sonatas have been recorded by the wonderful Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires and the French violinist Augustin Dumax.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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