Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite No.1

Grieg was simultaneously nationalistic and cosmopolitan in his approach to composition and that was due to his extensive travelling around Europe throughout his lifetime (1843-1907). Grieg believed that his music represented the beauty and rural truths of the Norwegian landscape, but at the same time still represented Europe as an incredibly inclusive, cultural hub for the arts. Grieg was a true musical painter and his roots were so firmly tied within Norwegian folk music that the evocations of nature that can be heard in certain compositions is overwhelming. The first suite from Henrik Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt, was first and foremost written as incidental music, and the order that they movements appear within the suite differ from that of when they appear as separate pieces within the drama.

 

The Context

Grieg and Ibsen first met in Italy in 1866 and after Grieg was commissioned to do Peer Gynt, it premiered in Oslo in February 1876, with the orchestra being conducted by Grieg. Therefore, Ibsen asked Grieg to write the incidental music for his drama, Grieg was very keen, but soon the doubt as to whether he could actually complete this tricky task set in. The show is packed full of intense drama, comedy and tragedy, and with all of these themes buzzing around, Grieg found it notoriously difficult to compose on the short time scale that Ibsen had set and because of this Grieg lost some enthusiasm due to the high level of complexity.

Grieg commented in a letter to a friend in 1874 that, “Peer Gynt progresses slowly and there is no possibility of having it finished by autumn. It is a terribly unmanageable subject.” Within the whole play, Grieg wrote 33 separate pieces of incidental music, however the two famous suites were hand-picked by Grieg himself, and show off the highlights of the show. The outline of the story is fairly simple – Peer Gynt is the protagonist of the story and the drama is set around his travels, dreams and crimes. Thus, each act is accompanied but incidental music which compliments the theme. At first, all of the incidental music was published as a piano duet, and after Grieg’s death in 1907, the suites were orchestrated for a full orchestra, and subsequently published.

Henrik Ibsen (L) and Edvard Grieg (R)

The Music

Movement I: Morning Mood 

The first movement within the suite is entitled Morning Mood, and it is one of Grieg’s most well-known compositions. It starts with a beautiful flute solo which sets in the main theme, which is then taken over by the oboe. The strings play a simple accompaniment and the whole atmosphere is dominated by this theme of nature. The main theme is slightly manipulated, which leads to a climactic section where the strings take over in an upper octave. The powerful transitional chord is at the heart of this movement, with the music proceeding it beginning to calm down.

Even without its title, this piece paints a strong sound of nature and the natural landscape, and you can really hear Grieg’s roots within the rural land. This piece captures the beginning of the day in the mountains and forests of Norway and everything is peaceful and positive within the drama and Peer Gynt’s dreams. The piece ends with a reprise of the main theme from the flute and oboes, and the horns and strings delicately lead in for the final tonic chord of the piece.

 

Movement II: Aase’s Death

The second movement within this suite is entitled Aaes’s Death and it is a very big shift in tone from the previous movement. As shown in the title, this movement is about the death of Aase, who is Peer Gynt’s mother. The scene behind this piece is awfully tragic – Aase is dying alone on one of the mountains in the Norwegian wilderness and nobody is there to help her. This movement is haunting and dark, which emphasises Grieg’s more emotional hand and masterful grip on powerful music.

The movement starts with the strings playing block chords together, and this sets the dark tone for the rest of the piece. There are some beautifully timed pauses where the whole section stop and then after about two seconds, come back in with the next sequence of chords. Each time the section returns it is slightly louder. Although it is terribly sad, this movement is absolutely beautiful and Grieg’s masterful string writing is emphasised and utilised to the maximum here. There are a handful of small climaxes within the movement, but nothing goes above forte. Also, by only using the string section is keeps this whole movement contained and very haunting. The movement ends on tonic chords being played with a pause in between them which creates a very creepy feel for the end of the movement, which is supposed to represent her death on the mountain.

 

Movement III: Anitra’s Dance 

The third movement is depicting a seductive dance which emphasises the grace and beauty of Anitra, who is a daughter of a chieftain, and Peer Gynt is infatuated with her. This movement acts as the fun and playful scherzo of the suite. Its in 3/4 time and has a waltz feel to it, with the pizzicato string sections creating a more chaotic and fast-paced feel to the movement. The idea of gracefulness can definitely be heard with the mix of pizzicato and acro (bowed) strings that play at the same time. The movement ends again on a tonic chord after a fast ascending sequence by the strings which is the preceded by a short tonic-dominant ending by the basses. When you think it’s all over the strings then play the tonic chord an octave up, with the accompaniment of the triangle.

 

Movement IV: In the Hall of the Mountain King

The final movement of the suite is the ever-loved In the Hall of the Mountain King, which is another of Grieg’s instantly recognisable works. This movement depicts an unusual dance of gnomes, that in the story are actually chasing Peer Gynt, which is why when the recognisable melody is played repeatedly, it gets more and more aggressive. The melody is passed around the whole orchestra and there is barely a moment where not one instrument is playing this theme. Each time it comes back it gets more savage, which is representing the gnomes chasing Peer Gynt around the mountains. The extensive use of the bass sections of the orchestra and the high ranges of the upper winds make this a very excitable piece and the use of percussion, notably crash cymbals make ‘the chase’ even more anticipating. The whole movement is crafted from this one melodic cell and the beauty of it is that Grieg’s use of dynamic variation and orchestration makes the piece bashfully iconic in its own right. This is a great piece to finish the suite as it ends on an excitable crash from the cymbals. A brilliant piece that fits in wonderfully with the suite and indeed the themes of the play itself.

[The movements that Grieg chose for this suite, as aforementioned, do not correspond to where they come in the show. Morning Mood is the prelude to Act 4; Aase’s Death is the end of Act 3; Anitra’s Dance comes from the middle of Act 4 and In the Hall of the Mountain King is heard in Act 2 of the play.]

Happy Reading!

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