Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Schumann Quartet: The Music of Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg in 1876
This post resumes the “look behind the scenes” from the other two works on the Schumann Quartet's program Saturday night, November 9th, at Market Square Church. You can read about the two works by Mozart and Alban Berg on the first half of the program here.

Given the tempestuous nature of Grieg's quartet – at least the main part of its first movement – and the intensity of both Mozart's and Berg's works, you might think they've put the Drang before the Sturm.

What is it about this work from his mid-30s that makes it sound so different in style yet so immediately recognizable as Grieg, even though most American listeners are familiar only with his miniatures like the short pieces making up the music written for Peer Gynt and the various folk-inspired dances. Oh yes, and that Piano Concerto written when he was 24.

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It was around New Year's, 1888, and three famous composers found themselves in Leipzig and were having dinner at the home of Adolph Brodsky, the concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Johannes Brahms was in town to conduct his “Double Concerto” and perform his new C Minor Piano Trio. Tchaikovsky was on a major European tour, making his Leipzig debut in early January, conducting his Suite No. 1 in D Minor in a few days. Grieg was a frequent visitor to the city and had many friends there but I couldn't find any specific references to concerts he might have been giving at the time.

Tchaikovsky had, as yet, not met either of the other two composers. He and Brahms would have a chilly relationship and took no effort to hide the fact they disliked each other's music. But with both of them, Grieg had a warm friendship, a mutual admiration both personally and musically (in fact, Tchaikovsky would later dedicate his concert-overture Hamlet to Grieg).

When the guests – who included several other notable Leipzig musicians – sat down to dinner, Frau Brodsky placed Nina Grieg between Brahms and Tchaikovsky as a kind of buffer. At one point, she stood up and protested she could no longer sit there, the tension made her so nervous. Her husband gallantly slipped into her place, saying “I have the nerve!”

We tend to forget composers whose music we so much admire had personal lives and sometimes interacted not just as musicians but as otherwise “normal” people. Frau Brodsky also remarked about this dinner how Brahms had been coveting the jar of strawberry jam, protesting he would share it with no one else, and they all laughed. “It was like a children's party, not a gathering of great composers.” Brodsky, over the after-dinner cigars and drinks, even played some magic tricks for his guests, and Brahms, especially amused, demanded an explanation how each was done. (Oh, if only someone could've snapped a selfie at that dinner party...)

In his diary, Tchaikovsky noted his first impressions of Grieg who, at the time, was 44 and would publish his famous 1st Suite from Peer Gynt that same year. “There entered the room a very short, middle-aged man, exceedingly fragile in appearance, with shoulders of unequal height, fair hair brushed back from his forehead, and a very slight, almost boyish beard and mustache. There was nothing striking [in his appearance]… but he had an uncommon charm and blue eyes, not very large, but irresistibly fascinating, recalling the glance of a charming and candid child. I rejoiced... it turned out this personality... belonged to a musician whose warmly emotional music had long ago won my heart. It was Edvard Grieg.”

At a concert of chamber music a few days later, Grieg and his wife would sit with Tchaikovsky to hear the Russian's Op.11 String Quartet No. 1 and the Piano Trio. They would again meet – without Brahms – at the Brodsky home for dinner, where Nina Grieg sang some of her husband's songs, the composer at the piano, much to Tchaikovsky's delight.

Chamber music was a special world for Grieg, though he wrote only three violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and one complete string quartet, the one in G Minor, Op.27, written ten years before this Leipzig dinner. For the Norwegian composer, known mostly as a composer of miniatures – though had he written nothing more than his early Piano Concerto in A Minor, one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire, he would've been a “one-hit wonder” – chamber music with its “large-scale, multi-movement forms” was a daunting challenge and a professional goal, not always easily accomplished. His solution, at least in this string quartet, might strike one as an imaginative working of various miniatures honed into a gradually larger format much like a mosaic or montage.

There's a much-quoted letter written shortly after he'd completed it: "I have recently finished a string quartet,” he wrote to a close friend, “which I still haven't heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written."

Grieg (1879)
But the letter continues (quoted in Grove's Dictionary 1980): “I needed to do this as a study. Now I shall tackle another piece of chamber music; I think in that way I shall find myself again. You can have no idea what trouble I had with the forms, but this was because I was stagnating, and this in turn was in part on account of a number of occasional works (Peer Gynt, Sigurd Jarsalfar and other horrors) and in part on account of too much popularity. I have thought of saying 'Farewell, shadows' to all this – if it can be done.”

(You might be shocked to find him referring to some of his most popular music as “horrors,” but such are composers' reactions to some of their own works. Tchaikovsky loathed The Nutcracker, perhaps because it became too popular at the expense of works he felt were far more significant.)

Something that has always intrigued me about Grieg's quartet is its opening, not really a slow introduction, but more of a “motto” that recurs throughout the piece, much the way Tchaikovsky would be doing with the “Fate Motto” that opens his 4th Symphony, written about the same time. I wondered if this had any significance for Grieg – or was it just a nice thematic idea? Given his frame-of-mind as he was writing this work and the importance he placed on it (finding himself again and all that), remember he wrote it a year after his score for the incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, this “horror” that had consumed two years of his time and energy.

So it's very revealing to discover it comes from a song published a year earlier, Spillemænd (“Fiddlers” or “Minstrels”), Op.25 No. 1, which sets a poem by Henrik Ibsen about a water spirit who would give minstrels great gifts of musical abilities in exchange for their happiness.

Enough said.

Now, given that insight, listen to all four movements of Grieg's String Quartet in G Minor, Op.27, in this version with the score, performed by the Copenhagen Quartet:

The 1st Movement, Un poco andante - Allegro molto ed agitato, opens with the “motto theme” that will appear in various guises through the course of the entire quartet. The dramatic main part of the movement contrasts a stormy section with one of Grieg's more lyrical song-like tunes (starting at 1:58), based on the “motto theme.” These elements then play out in various contrasting segments, juxtaposed, intertwined to create a greater structural unity than the initial “miniature” impression would suggest. At 6:29, the initial “storm sequence” returns and continues in standard sonata form till the “motto theme” returns in an emotional climactic point (at 9:56) which eventually exhausts itself into a benedictory statement in a hushed G Major (at 10:57) before ending in a stormy G Minor, after all.

The 2nd Movement (begins at 11:55), is a Romanze: Andantino, begins with a gently swaying waltz-like dance switching (at 13:14) into “an intoxicating whirl around the dance floor” before regaining its composure (at 14:38) and all its initial social niceties, occasionally breaking out into passionate if momentary and usually abruptly truncated whirls, as if the young couple's parents are, for the moment, not always watching them.

This is but a tentative warm-up for the intricate motions of the 3rd Movement (18:07), an Intermezzo: Allegro molto marcato - Più vivo e scherzando which would imply the more laid-back, dance-like (or walk-in-the-country) interludes that Brahms would replace the more traditional scherzo with (though, by 1878, Brahms had only recently completed his 1st and 2nd Symphonies). However, it begins with a dramatic statement based on the opening “motto theme,” once again before turning into another dance, not quite so sociably regular (full of “cross-rhythms”) as the 2nd movement's Romance, but not quite the folksy mood we normally expect from Grieg (he was, after all, not “intending to bring trivialities to market”).

But then, at 20:25, the cello introduces an out-and-out folk-dance for the “middle section” (usually called “the trio” though nobody knows why). You might notice the initial imitation as one instrument enters after another with the tune, in a kind of a faux-fugue. Then the opening section returns before ending in a folksy fluster at the end.

The 4th Movement (24:30), Finale: Lento - Presto al saltarello, opens with a statement of the “motto theme,” once again (this time starting on the same pitch but in different octaves, from the upper to the lowest register of the quartet), before breaking out into what I can only describe as a Norwegian version of an Italian saltarello, a dance similar to the old tarantella whose frenzied motions were supposedly inspired by those of someone bitten by a tarantula. However, whatever Grieg calls it here, its musical origins can be found in the typical Nordic springdans or halling, athletic dances young men might dance at weddings. Grieg had used similar dances in the finale of his Piano Concerto. It continues with various contrasting moments until, at 31:57, the opening motto makes one last emotional appearance before rounding the work off in a blaze of G Major glory.

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Looking back to the source of that “motto theme” and that letter I'd quoted, it's not surprising to realize how he doubted his own abilities, a “miniaturist” who lacked experience – the Piano Concerto and a couple of violin sonatas aside – especially the technique needed to deal with “larger forms” which required a different kind of creative thinking. There are several letters written to his friend, Robert Heckmann, a violinist and music critic, looking for advice and, openly or not, positive reinforcement.

In one response, Heckmann told him “I quite honestly could find no sign at all in the quartet of your imagination having been paralyzed.” He would help him with revisions of various sections of the quartet and assured him he would premiere it at a concert in Cologne in October of 1878 if it were ready in time. It was, he did, and Grieg dedicated the quartet to him. By the way, a year later, Heckmann would premiere the 1st Violin Sonata of Johannes Brahms in Bonn.

(In the previous post, I'd mentioned Grieg wrote three string quartets and his String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor is the second of them. Technically, the first quartet was a student work, assigned him by his composition teacher in Leipzig, Carl Reinecke, never published and since lost. The third of these quartets was begun in 1891 but he only left the first two movements more or less complete. Two more movements may have been sketched, but his friend the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen edited only the first two movements, had them performed at his home the month Grieg died and published them the following year. Though rarely performed, it has occasionally been paired with the G Minor Quartet in recordings. You can listen to it, here.)

When Grieg sent his new G Minor quartet to his publisher, they rejected it on the grounds, given all the “double-stops” in the string writing, perhaps the work should instead be a string quintet or maybe a piano quintet? So he sent it elsewhere instead.

It's that rich, almost orchestral texture Grieg gets from his players, requiring each one to play full chords at dramatic moments so it sounds like more than four instruments playing. And G Minor was a good key for that, several pitches of the open strings fitting in the scales of G Minor and its closest related tonalities.

Much is also made of Grieg's “adventuresome” harmonies and its leaning towards an impressionist style – one we associate with French painting and the music of Claude Debussy – except given Grieg's absorption of Norwegian folk music, many of these “adventuresome chords” are the result of trying to harmonize a tune that does not necessarily conform to standard classroom procedures of Late-18th Century classical style.

Just as other composers inspired by their own folk music discovered, this juxtaposition of worlds led to what we would think of as their own “nationalist” voices: while initially colorful – for instance, those odd “augmented” intervals and scales Grieg used in his “orientalist” moments like Peer Gynt's “Dance of the Mountain King's Daughter” which he detested and complained “reeked of cow-pies” – these added sonorities eventually led to the assimilation of folk and art music, as Dvořák, Mussorgsky or Bartók would do, where it became more difficult to determine what was “original” and what belonged to an authentic folk (or folk-like) melody.

Writers claim Grieg's G Minor Quartet was a major influence on the development of Impressionism and particularly Debussy who also wrote a string quartet in the same key (!), despite Debussy's open antipathy to Grieg's music. One writer points out the similarities between the opening of Debussy's quartet and the opening of Grieg's which means, I guess, the opening of Tchaikovsky's B-flat Minor Piano Concerto could've been inspired by the finale of Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata?

But then I found another writer who said “Scholars call Grieg a ‘miniaturist’ due to his petite stature [footnoted source not found]. His music reflects this description.” Being short certainly didn't stop Schubert or Wagner from writing long pieces! Hasn't modern science pretty much debunked such things as Victorian phrenology? Oh, well... as usual, I digress... 

Was Grieg's folk-music influence simply the result of his being born in Norway? He studied in Germany, primarily in Leipzig, with German teachers and was given German composers as his role-models simply because, when he was growing up, there were no Norwegian composers to emulate. It wasn't till he lived in Copenhagen for three years and met the Danish composer Niels Gade (you can read about him in my post from this past Summermusic performances) that he became aware of music outside the German sphere and began to take more of an interest in composition.

(Keep in mind, since the 16th Century, Norway had been a Danish territory; after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, it was ceded to Sweden in a union similar to Austria-Hungary where the Swedish king would also be the King of Norway. It didn't become independent until 1905, two years before Grieg died, and the king it chose in a popular election had been the Crown Prince of Denmark who became King Haakon VII – Haakon VI had died in 1380, but once again I digress...)

Ole Bull
A key figure in the emergence of Norwegian music was the violinist Ole Bull – Schumann considered him the equal of Paganini – who would go on to have an international career, a curious association with Pennsylvania, and who got caught up in the growing nationalist movement of the 1840s, calling for independence from Sweden. At the time, the official language in Norway (despite being part of Sweden) was Danish and in 1850, Bull co-founded the first Norwegian-language theater in the country in his hometown of Bergen. Eight years later, he meet the 15-year-old Edvard Grieg – Bull's brother had married the sister of Grieg's mother whatever level of cousinship that would be called – and realized the sickly boy growing up in culturally isolated Bergen had musical talent so he arranged to send him to Leipzig to study piano at the Conservatory there.

By the way, it is intriguing to consider that Grieg wrote his quartet while spending the summer at a family home in the Hardanger region of Norway, south of Bergen, home of that most folksy of Norwegian folk instruments, the Hardanger fiddle!

Rikard Nordraak
But a more immediately influential friend was the young composer Rikard Nordraak whom he met in Copenhagen in the 1860s. One of his patriotic songs, Ja, vi elsker, became the de facto national anthem of the Norwegian nationalist movement.

Considering what it meant to be a Norwegian composer, Nordraak wrote,
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“They talk of carrying rocks to Norway but we have enough rock. Let us simply use what we have. Nationalism, in music for example, does not mean composing more Hallings and Springar such as our forefathers composed. That is nonsense. No, it means building a house out of all these bits of rock and living in it. Listen to the unclothed plaintive melodies that wander, like so many orphans, round the countryside all over Norway. Gather them about you in a circle round the heart of love and let them all tell you their stories. Remember them all, reflect and then play each one afterwards so that you solve all riddles and everyone thinks you like his story best. Then they will be happy and cleave to your heart. Then you will be a national artist.”
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Unfortunately, Nordraak died of tuberculosis in 1866 at the age of 23. The Funeral March young Grieg composed for his friend was something the composer asked to be played at his own funeral – at a time when Norway had finally become, almost 40 years after Nordraak's death, an independent nation.

– Dick Strawser

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