Edvard Grieg: The Time Traveler

Classical Music Composers Montage, Image Source

The following blog is taken from thoughts I had prepared to present before a concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on December 5, 2007. This concert (and my preconcert lecture) were snowed out. It was a very big disappointment for me at the time because I was so excited about this music. I hope you will join me in this #virtual concert series.

The Holberg Suite, Op. 40 composed by Edvard Grieg. (1843-1907)

I must confess I was not familiar with this piece but I have enjoyed getting to know it for this concert. I began my study by wondering who was this Holberg fellow? And why were the Scandinavians so in love with him that they had an entire festival for him on his 200 birthday 1884?

I soon learned that Holberg was a popular writer of the 17th century. And so, I began my investigation of this music by casting around to find out the story line for one of Mr. Holberg’s stories. I soon came across information on a novel that he wrote that was the Danish equivalent to Gulliver’s Travels called “The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground.”

A concise description of the plot from Wikipedia

“The novel starts with a foreword that assures that everything in the story is a real account of the title character’s exploits in the Underworld… His curiosity drives him to investigate a strange cave in a mountainside above the town, which sends out regular gusts of warm air. He ends up falling down the hole, and after a while he finds himself floating in free space. After a few days of orbiting the planet which revolves around the inner sun, he is attacked by a gryphon, and he falls down on the planet, which is named Nazar.” 

As fascinating as this sounded, I made note of this for future reference and turned again to Grieg and his music. I wanted to unlock the mystery of what Edvard Grieg was thinking when he was writing his fine string ensemble worked called Holberg Suite. I decided to focuse instead on the little sub-title that Grieg gives this work “From Holberg’s Time” and reminded myself that Holberg lived during the same time period as Bach and Telemann.

Grieg, the 19th century Romantic begins to think about this time of the 17th century and I think he looks at it with great nostalgia. Like most of us when we look back we seem to think that life was easier, less complicated and less stressful. The people of that time lived a sort of charmed life with no problems or bills.

Grieg does a sort of time travel back to this period and in doing so he writes string music that will be based on the dances of the Baroque period. But instead of having just contrasting dances he, like a true romantic and like Mr. Holberg, tells a story.

With his music we can hear the story of aristocrats whose daily occupation is entertainment. They would travel sometimes for several days to visit a friend and then stay for quiet a long time. The host would not mind them staying for several weeks and months because their presence would be a diversion. It would break up the monotony of country life and, after all, they had servants to take care of all the unpleasant things.

These videos are from a performance of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. I love their videos because of their fine ensemble playing without music and also they are dressed in less formal attire I have enjoyed listening and watching them as they are just having a good time.

As we listen, think of this as a sort of musical Downton Abbey and let’s give each movement a descriptive title:

I. Praludium “A carriage ride into the country”

Holberg Suite Movement I: Praeludium

II. Sarabande: “A morning of exploration and wonder”

Movement II: Sarabande

III. Gavotte “A very fine meal”

Movement III: Gavotte

IV. Air “A good night’s sleep filled with pleasurable dreams”

Movement IV: Air

V. Rigaudon “A country barn dance”

Movement V: Rigaudon

Coming Soon: The music of J.S. Bach, Telemann and Elgar.

May God’s Peace Be With You!

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