Tuesday, 23 March 2010
The man, of course, is Norway’s greatest composer, Edvard Grieg. The longer I live here, the harder it is to look at Norwegian landscape without this guy’s music running through my head. At first, this was as a result of being a full-blown tourist, and experiencing ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’ through a loudspeaker on a tour boat while chugging up a fjord. How kitsch can you get? But now, it’s either my Ipod or just me...Grieg’s music and Norwegian landscape are inextricably linked.
I was rather hoping that, with a name like Grieg, we Scots might be able to claim a little part of Edvard. As it turns out, we can claim one eighth. His great-grandfather was fed up with Scotland after Culloden, so decided to emigrate from Fraserburgh to further his business opportunities as a fish merchant in Norway. (Grieg was apparently rather proud of his Scottish heritage, and always carried his watch-chain with a seal on it displaying the crest of the Scottish Grieg family.)
Edvard was born in Bergen, and grew up in the comfortable home the fish business could provide at the time. His mother was a gifted pianist and taught her talented and no doubt compliant son to play the piano too. (Warning: don’t try this at home unless your son is both of these and you have nerves of steel.)
But Edvard’s childhood was by no means idyllic. He was remarkably small and weak, and so was bullied ferociously at school. His lack of friends meant he found comfort at the piano keyboard, and soon he began to compose.
There are certain moments, short blips in time, when something happens that changes the course of one’s life. It doesn’t always do to ponder on ‘what if that hadn’t happened’. But when Grieg was 15, one such moment occurred. One of his father’s friends in Bergen was the violinist Ole Bull, whom we have already met. While visiting the family, Ole heard the 15 year old Edvard playing some of his compositions. ‘Kjempe flink’ he cried, by which he effectively meant, ‘Well, stone the crows, this kid’s on fire’. He persuaded the parents to send the boy to Leipzig to further his studies. It was a lucky break , and Grieg later said he knew one thing at that moment, ‘that a good fairy was stroking my cheek and I was happy’.
Leipzig was certainly an opportunity, but it wasn’t exactly heaven either. He was bullied and abused by his teachers and fellow-students, and was said to have wept continually. He later admitted his four years in Leipzig left him with nothing but tuberculosis and painful memories. The fish merchant career loomed once again. However, a private loan enabled him to go to Copenhagen where he met his cousin, the equally small Nina. She was a singer, and after playing duets together, they were soon engaged.
Ole Bull was in Copenhagen at this time too, and through him Grieg met his great and truest friend Rikard Nordraak. Ole and Rikard turned Grieg’s attention away from the pedantic classicism of German composition and towards the folk music of Norway. But no sooner had the two young men forged their friendship when Nordraak died from tuberculosis, and Grieg was left in a grief-stricken rage.
And so, with Grieg’s ‘Last Spring’ playing along in my mind, with its sensation of ice melting, snow vanishing, and the promise of new life, I can only marvel at the sound-track this man managed to create for his country. His life was not an easy one, but his melancholy and sense of loss, added to his intense feeling for Norway, undoubtedly contributed to the music he conceived. There is nothing like doing a spot of Norwegian rock-based-sea-gazing with Grieg in your ears. And if you listen to something like ‘Last Spring’, I challenge you not to weep.
Posted by Returning Scot at 11:54