A rainy day. The wind is howling. A man is alone at home. He has just lit a fire in the fireplace. He makes himself a cup of tea. Desperate efforts to feel better when he feels miserable. He is lonely. He stares out of the window at the rain, at the clouds at nothing. He is waiting and he doesn’t know what he’s waiting for. Life? Death? Salvation? Can you picture it? Here’s the soundtrack matching the beginning of this unfolding drama: Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, in their orchestrated version.
A gentle introduction, full of nostalgia, deepening with every bar – wonderful! A sense of Nordic tragedy, the language of another Scandinavian composer, Jean Sibelius, that you may find in his symphony “Kullervo”. The nostalgia of the first of the six pieces is balanced by the timid hope raised in the second piece. The first sunrise after the long Northern winter comes to my mind. A single ray of light breaking through the darkness, another, one more – crescendo – reflecting on the iced landscape.
No. 3 starts dynamically, with massive sounds from the brass in the low register contrasted by feather light parts for the strings and the brass in the high register – is that a piccolo flute I hear? You will tell me. The fourth piece opens on an optimistic, dynamic tone, full of energy, a springlike awakening à la Schumann, or no rather in the fashion of Debussy and Ravel spring to my mind. This fourth piece is a lovely… lyrical one!This one truly deserves that label! The last piece finally begins in an interesting way: a melody increasing quickly in volume – a resumé of Ravel’s “Boléro”. After this appetizer it continues in a way reminiscent of Ravel too. Let’s see – did they meet, know each other’s music? Grieg lived from 1843 until 1907, Ravel from 1875 to 1937, more than a generation later.
I found a scientific study by Juliette L. Appold for the Grieg Society comparing the three composers’ biographies. Appold points out that the “physical meeting point” of the three was Paris. Grieg had stayed several times in Paris and took an interest in French music. “[Maurice] Ravel’s acquaintance with Grieg’s music is documented in one of his first childhood-compositions which was based on Ase’s death of ‘Peer Gynt'”, she writes. And during a visit to Norway aftre Grieg’s death Ravel said: “I am fairly certain, that Edvard Grieg’s influence was much more significant in non-Nordic countries than here in the north. The generation of French composers, which I am part of, was strongly attracted by Grieg’s music. Next to Debussy there’s no other composer, whom I feel more related to, than Grieg.”
Grieg gave some of the pieces, originally written as solo piano compositions, specific titles: No. 1 “Gjetergutt” (Shepherd’s Boy), No. 2 “Gangar” (Norwegian March) and No. 3 “Trolltog” (March of the Dwarfs). No. 4 is simply called “Notturno” and No. 5 “Scherzo”, while Grueg named No. 6 “Klokkeklang” (Bell Ringing). He composed the work between 1889 an 1891. He orchestrated and arranged Nos. 1 to 4 later as his “Lyric Suite”. Op. 54 as a whole constitutes the fifth of several books of lyric (piano) pieces.
My recording by the Gothenburg Symphonic Orchestra under Neeme Järvi interestingly features five orchestratal pieces, and I after a little research I fund out where that fifth delightful piece comes from. For the orchestral version, Grieg inverted the order of the pieces: Shepherd’s Boy, Bell Ringing, Norwegian March, Notturno and March of the Dwarfs. The piece “Bell Ringing” was orchestrated by Anton Seidl. Seidl was an Hungarian conductor (1850-1898), famous at his time for his interpretation of Wagner’s operas.
© Charles Thibo