Edvard Grieg: The Opera Composer That Might Have Been

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Long-time readers of my articles for Operavore know that I like to muse about certain questions about composers. One general theme is why some of them were inclined toward opera and others not. Although Rossini, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini wrote non-operatic music, these works seldom come to mind when we talk about these composers.

Others, such as Handel, Mozart, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Philip Glass, were equally proficient in operatic and orchestral composing. Then, there is the great majority of composers who did not go near opera, which requires all sorts of gifts and a broad vision to create.

But there is a subset of orchestral composers who wrote gorgeous songs and had a clear understanding of the human voice. One was Mahler, whose operatic potential I explored a couple of years ago. Another is Norway’s Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), whose beloved wife Nina was a soprano for whom he wrote many songs. They have always been staples in the recital programs of Scandinavian artists such as Anne Sofie von Otter, Monica Groop, and Jussi Björling. Here is Norway’s Kirsten Flagastad singing “Jeg elsker dig” (I love you), one of his most popular songs. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme performed it twice in her concert with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall on April 25.

Grieg came to mind because the Collegiate Chorale will be performing Song of Norway at Carnegie Hall on April 30 with an excellent cast. This work from 1944 is a sort of Broadway musical/operetta that adapted Grieg’s music to recount some episodes from Grieg’s life. It is quite touching, in great part because it is infused with heart-tugging melodies from works such as the Norwegian Dances, music for Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, the Scherzo in E and, above all, his Piano Concerto in A minor, which is one of the most popular works in the entire orchestral repertory.

Song of Norway was created by Robert Wright and George Forrest, who fashioned a narrative set in Norway and Italy, where Grieg spent a lot of time. It was a huge hit in New York when it premiered, running for more than two years, and was the first Broadway musical to open in London after World War II. It had an 18-month run there too. It occasionally surfaced through the years in important revivals, but has not been heard in New York since 1981.

I like to visit the homes of composers when I travel. Vienna is full of them, of course, and individual Italian towns have the residences of their native sons. They tell us a great deal about the milieu in which a composer’s aesthetic was formed. In this regard, few composer’s houses are more telling, and more pleasing, than Troldhaugen, Grieg’s home in Bergen, Norway. 

Bergen, and other towns nestled in fjords on Norway’s gorgeously rugged west coast, lived off the bounty of the sea (and, only in recent decades, North Sea oil). Whenever I hear Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, pictures of these places materialize in my mind. 

Because of a lung condition, Grieg spent most of the year away from the cold Norwegian climate, living in Italy and Germany and playing a constant round of concert tours that included his piano concerto. He returned each spring and summer to this idyllic spot, which inspired his melodic gifts. Not only is there the charming home he shared with Nina, but on the grounds is a concert hall that is a mecca for lovers of his music.

Near Troldhaugen are some major roads, but the Norwegians smartly put up acoustical panels along their sides so that traffic noise does not permeate the neighborhood. I think of this longingly as I write this article with all of my windows shut but doing little to block the horrific noise of jackhammers, huge vehicles and all kinds of electronic sounds that are tolerated in American urban life, especially in New York. Grieg would never have written the music he did had he lived in Manhattan.

Grieg born in Bergen on June 15, 1843. This date was convenient in that it means that his birthday comes in the nicest time of the year, one with almost endless light. As such, it is the centerpiece of the annual Bergen Festival, one of my favorites in Europe. I attended for the first time in 1993 for the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth. One of the highlights was a performance of the piano concerto by a then little-known local youth named Leif Ove Andsnes, who is now one of the world’s foremost pianists.

Grieg is often referred to as Scandinavia’s greatest composer. Norway also produced the region’s foremost playwright, Henrik Ibsen, and painter Edvard Munch. Ibsen and Grieg were contemporaries and their paths crossed in Oslo, then known as Christiana. They both frequented the Amalfi Coast, where they reveled in the gorgeous scenery and weather and in what Ibsen referred to as “the wine cup.”

Grieg wrote music for Ibsen’s long and rollicking play, Peer Gynt, also under the influence of the wine cup. Had it been a full opera, Peer Gynt would be in the vein of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger or perhaps Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, each with considerably humanity and the latter with a frothier spirit. 

Other works by Ibsen, a compelling storyteller whose plays have perfect structure, would have been fascinating operas had Grieg set them to music. The title character of Hedda Gabler is an intelligent and unstable woman trapped by the conventions of her time and makes quite a dramatic gesture to escape from it. Oddly enough, I think Puccini could have composed a magnificent opera about Hedda. 

Other Ibsen plays that Grieg (or someone else) could turn into good operas are The Lady from the Sea, The Master Builder (coming to BAM next month) and Ghosts (which would be more of a chamber opera akin to Britten’s The Turn of the Screw). Little Eyolf, a lesser-known Ibsen play about the death of a child, would have been given a sensitive treatment by Grieg, who was familiar with the material and settings of the play.

As a matter of fact, Grieg did take a stab at an opera about Olav Tryggvason, who was King of Norway from 995 to 1000. His is a rather epic story of sea battles, deep relationships with women, conversion to a new religion and the desire to spread mass conversion to others before meeting a dramatic death. He was a warrior king, in some ways a sort of Norwegian Simon Boccanegra. Longfellow wrote a poem about Olaf Tryggvason in 1863 that was Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite. The character remains an important, if controversial, figure in the Norwegian imagination.

I first came across the music from Grieg’s Olav Tryggvason when I was in high school and a member of New York’s All-City Chorus. We performed the music that does exist from the opera, Olav Tryggvason, which says a lot about the quality of musical education in New York’s public schools four decades ago. I had a solo that began, “And it was Olav Tryggvason, sailing o’er the great North Sea/seeking a new and distant kingdom, where yet unknown was he.”  

The music is lyrical and majestic and I have wondered if a musicologist might endeavor to create a Song of Norway-type work that uses the existing score and creating a larger story around it. The Norwegian-language text was adapted from Knut Jørgen Moe and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), the latter being one of Norway’s most famous writers and winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize for Literature. These words would be the place to start to create a a new version, using the music Grieg wrote for the opera as well as other music from his catalogue.

The project, intended to be the Great Norwegian Opera, fell apart when Bjørnson and Grieg had a quarrel in 1873. It was due, in part, to the writer’s notion that Grieg intended to collaborate with Ibsen on Peer Gynt. Bjørnson had completed three scenes that Grieg did compose. Here are selections, in three parts, from from the music of Olav Tryggvason that does exist. In addition, a link from a scholar in Arkansas who specializes in the work. Perhaps this will be the person to create a new Olav Tryggvason!