Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, 15 Junes 1843 and died in the same town, 4 September 1907. He was not only the foremost composer Norway has produced but the first Scandinavian composer to win universal acceptance abroad—indeed, he is one of the handful of popular composers through whom many find their way to music. The family originally came from Scotland, his great-grandfather changing the spelling of his name from Greig to Grieg on assuming Norwegian nationality in 1779. Hagerup was his mother's maiden name and also that of his cousin Nina. He showed early talent as a pianist, and when in 1858 the violinist-composer Ole Bull, a distant relative of his mother, heard him play he persuaded Grieg's parents to send the 15-year-old to Leipzig. There he studied with E. F. Wenzel, a keen advocate of Schumann, Moscheles, and Reinecke, and heard Clara Schumann playing her husband's Piano Concerto in A minor, on which his own was later to be modelled. But he was not happy there and in 1860 was afflicted by an attack of pleurisy which resulted in a collapsed lung. For the rest of his days he was plagued with respiratory problems and struggled through life on one lung.
Grieg's early training and his immersion in the Leipzig tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann formed the basis for his musical grammar, but Norwegian folksong—whose treasures he discovered some years later in Lindeman's Norske Fjeldmelodier (‘Norwegian Mountain Melodies’) and through his friendship with Rikard Nordraak (1842–66)—was the foundation on which his distinctive musical language developed. After Leipzig he went to Copenhagen and took lessons from Gade who, on being shown some of Grieg's smaller pieces, told him to write a symphony; this he finished in 1864. He often complained in later life that his early studies at the Leipzig Conservatory left him with little understanding of the orchestra, and after hearing Svendsen's D major Symphony in 1867 he withdrew his own and forbade its performance. (However, a photocopy of the autograph was surreptitiously spirited away to the USSR and played on Moscow Radio, so the case for upholding Grieg's ban went by default. The work was performed at the 1981 Bergen Festival and subsequently recorded, and is included in the complete edition currently in progress.) The concert overture I Høst (‘In Autumn’), which followed two years later, was not much more successful. Grieg was in his early 20s at the time and finished it in March 1866 while staying in Rome. Later in life he related that he showed the piece to Gade, who dismissed it as ‘a load of rubbish’ and urged him to go home and think of something better. Before presenting it at the Birmingham Festival in 1888 he completely rescored it.
His reputation at the time was primarily as a miniaturist, resting on the piano music and songs, though this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that in the G major Violin Sonata op. 13 or the A minor Piano Concerto op. 16 he was able to handle longer-breathed musical ideas and think in terms of paragraphs rather than sentences, to commanding effect. But the concerto was the last work of any scale that Grieg attempted, and only three others were to follow: the C minor Violin Sonata op. 45, the Cello Sonata, and the fine G minor String Quartet, which served as a model for Debussy's quartet in the same key. The Piano Concerto, composed in 1868, survives unceasing exposure only to emerge perennially and indestructibly fresh. Yet it is in the ideas themselves rather than the ingenuity of their development that its strength lies.
In 1867 Grieg married his cousin, the singer Nina Hagerup, for whom he composed many of his songs and who was their most persuasive advocate. He set many of the great Norwegian poets of the day including Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and, of course, Ibsen. In 1872 he composed music for a production of Bjørnson's play Sigurd Jorsalfar in Christiania (as Oslo was then known). Although Grieg had met Ibsen in Rome in 1866 they had not become close. But it was obvious to Ibsen from the comments Grieg had made about his early play Brand that he had a real understanding of and feeling for his work. Ibsen had never intended Peer Gynt to be staged, but in 1874 when his ‘dramatic poem’ was going into its third printing he decided to adapt it as a play, and it was to Grieg that his thoughts turned when the idea of incidental music first surfaced in his mind. The great success of their enterprise in 1876 took both author and composer by surprise, and neither expected the play to make any headway outside Norway. Grieg's score is more extensive than is popularly believed, and runs in its entirety to no fewer than 32 numbers, amounting to almost 90 minutes of music. Later productions in Copenhagen (1886) and Oslo (1892) entailed revision of the score and in some places extra musical numbers.
In the 1880s Grieg briefly directed the Bergen Harmonien (now known as the Bergen Philharmonic), but in the latter part of that decade and throughout the next he vigorously pursued the life of the travelling concert virtuoso, playing and conducting his own music. He visited England in 1888, and it was there that he gave his last concert in 1906. More than any other artist before him (with the exception of Musorgsky) he evokes the character of a nation's music. Yet in his songs he hardly ever quotes folk music directly, though his music breathes its spirit. Only ‘Solveig's Song’ uses a borrowed tune. Throughout his life, both in the songs and in the piano music there is a growing response to the musical language of Norway, and his awareness of its harmonic originality deepened continually. The harmonic astringency of the Slåtter (‘Norwegian Dances’ op. 72, 1902) even suggests Bartók at times. Here and in the ten books of Lyric Pieces there is an undying freshness and directness of utterance.