Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King has proven as durable as few other 19th-century orchestral pieces – appropriated for film trailers, married to TV commercials, reworked in video games, pumped up by heavy metal bands.
Unlike Vivaldi's Four Seasons or the Pachelbel Canon, this three-minute potboiler was originally intended to accompany another work of art, as part of the incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.
This fall has been particularly good to the 1876 orchestral piece. In The Social Network, David Fincher’s film about the rise of Facebook, an arrangement of Grieg’s work accompanies a pivotal action scene — the only action scene, in fact — that has been receiving much attention.
The bravura sequence, shot at the Henley Royal Regatta on London's River Thames, features a particularly ominous electronic arrangement of the piece. The camera follows the Winklevoss twins, two members of the Harvard rowing team, played by Armie Hammer and Josh Pence. The plunking beats and minor chords, arranged for electronics by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, grow more animated as the two characters race to the finish line. The whole scene is marked by a striking depth-of-focus technique that turns everything but crucial elements into a blur. Although the scene is unavailable online the soundtrack is.
A more lighthearted use of Mountain King is out this fall too, in a new ad campaign for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7. The commercial takes aim at people who spend their lives glued to the phone, instead of enjoying life: a parent stares at a screen rather than play with his son; people on the beach gaze at their phones instead of enjoying the sun and sand; someone on a roller coaster stares at his phone rather than enjoying the ride. Friends, loved-ones and strangers all deliver the same punch-line — "Really?"
Grieg, a melancholic composer who took fierce pride in his Norwegian heritage, might be puzzled by the iconic status of Mountain King. In a letter to a friend he called the piece, "something that I literally can’t stand to listen to because it absolutely reeks of cow pies, ultra-Norwegian-ness and trollish self-sufficiency."
The music describes an episode in which the hero Peer Gynt sneaks into a king’s castle, only to make a dash to escape from the King and his trolls. The galumphing cello and bassoon opening suggests Peer Gynt's slow, careful footsteps. Eventually the trolls spot Peer and give chase and the music itself becomes increasingly louder and more melodic, hitting a crashing climax before Peer successfully escapes.
As with Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra or the Barber Adagio, the piece leapt the bounds of the concert hall in the 20th century, appearing in films as diverse as The Idiot, a 1951 drama by Akira Kurosawa to the Tiny Toon Adventures cartoon series. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn made a swinging jazz version in the Peer Gynt Suites of 1960.
"We liked what we did, and we had fun doing it, but we did not try to do better than the symphony people," Ellington wrote. "There was a certain amount of humor in it, and unfortunately the Grieg Society in Norway barred it. I don't think Grieg would have barred it."
That was just the start. Grieg's piece has since been sampled, synthesized, and arranged for heavy metal cellists, progressive rockers, and even The Who, which recorded a raucus version in 1967. It has become so popularized — some might say bowdlerized — that it may be difficult to hear with fresh ears.
Randall Foster, who oversees licensing at the Naxos label, believes that the popularity of In the Hall of the Mountain King can be traced back to cartoon and Halloween associations. "To me, it’s menacing," he said, adding a visual analogy. "It’s building and building and building until the waters crash on the sides of the land. There’s no way to listen to it without having that menacing feeling."