An Optimistic Sonata for a Happy Moment

Grieg Sonata (1)
Sunset at the seaside. © Charles Thibo

This sunset makes me a little nostalgic. A week at the Channel. A cozy evening in a beachhouse. Dinner outside, tea and cookies inside when the fresh land breeze had set in. Reading, chatting, watching the sun, the few seconds it takes to disappear, that magic afterglow in the sky. And Edvard Grieg. A happy moment.

In 1867, during the three weeks of Grieg‘s honeymoon, the composer wrote his Sonata No. 2 for Piano and Violin in G major, Op. 13. Such a happy piece! I have two delightful recordings, one by Nikolai Lugansky and Vadim Repin and another one by Augustin Dumay and Maria Joao Pires. Grieg used Norwegian folk elements in the piece, a natural part of his musical language, and this certainly adds to the sonata’s optimistic mood.

The German musicologist and conductor Habakuk Traber characterizes the piece with these words: “It begins with an elaborate, slow introduction, featuring the work’s two basic trends. Virtuoso decorations and passages refer to folk traditions and their inherent improvisatory facet. At the same time, both approaches reveal the core of the principal theme in the fast section. […] The second movement uses a calmer metre to explore the emotional range of that [i. e. the first movement’s] secondary theme, its central section adding further, contrasting colours to the basic character of the Allegretto. In the finale, Grieg returns to the leaping dance, augmenting the atmosphere of the first movement’s principal theme with energetic momentum.”

According to the US music editor Thomas May Grieg’s success tapping into Norwegian folk became mistaken for genuine folk tunes. Liszt’s use of Czech folk elements would lead to a similar confusion. In Grieg’s case it led to a genre “that focused on [Grieg’s] gifts as a miniaturist and master of song forms, as opposed to the more complex long-form structures of sonatas and the like”, says May. But Grieg held his three violin sonatas in high esteem. After a retrospective recital he wrote to a friend that “these three works are among my very best and represent different stages in my development: the first, naïve and rich in details, the second, nationalistic; and the third, with a wider horizon.”

Grieg wrote the second sonata at a fairly young age, he was barely 24 years old. Nine years earlier he had started his formal musical education at Leipzig Conservatory, a place he despised for its sterile and pedantic teaching methods. Nevertheless one of his teachers, Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, succeeded in arousing in Grieg a lifelong fascination with Robert Schumann’s music. Grieg had piano instruction from Ignaz Moscheles, whom we have met in an earlier post, and in his last year in Leipzig, he studied composition with Carl Reinecke, whom we have met too in a post. Reinecke gave him the task of writing a string quartet and an overture, although he had learnt little about either instrumental style or formal construction. To complete his studies he moved to Copenhagen and took lessons with Nils Gade, the recognized leader of the Scandinavian Romantic school.

Even though Grieg had been deeply influenced by the German Romantic school, he quickly developped a musical language of his own and the use of native folk elements – song themes, rhythms – made this possible. The sonata with its distinctive dance-like elements gives ample testimony of Grieg’s ambition to transcend the music styles he had been taught.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “An Optimistic Sonata for a Happy Moment”

    1. “PeerGynt” – that’s quite a lovely suite and hopefully I will get around to write about it. I am tempted to believe that the “Scottish influence” may well have its own origin in Norse culture, prevalent in Scotland between the 8th and 15th century. So Grieg would actually have returned to his very distant roots! I found an interesting link:

      I wasn’t aware that Grieg’s family was from Aberdeenshire!

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