Edvard Grieg: Holberg Suite


Composed in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Dano-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg, Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite exemplifies stereotypical 19th century dance forms. The suite was initially composed for piano, but a year after it was written, Grieg changed his mind and orchestrated it for string orchestra. Set in five movements, Grieg aimed to echo as much of the music that was popular in Holberg’s time, making it an early attempt at neoclassicism. 

Who was Ludvig Holberg? During the 18th century, Holberg (1684-1754) put Scandinavia on the map in the theatrical circle. His comedic theatre works were dubbed “the Molière of the North” – in reference to the popular French dramatist from before Holberg’s time. Norway, too, wanted to ride on Holberg’s success, as for some time the dramatist had lived in Bergen – Grieg’s hometown. So when the bicentenary of Holberg’s birth had come around, the city of Bergen wanted to celebrate. 

A festival was put on in December of that year, with the dark and stormy winter not putting the people of Bergen off at all. Grieg, who at this point was one of Europe’s most popular composers – was enlisted from the beginning to write a cantata for male voices to be performed outdoors around the new Holberg monument that was being erected in the central marketplace. Grieg was also asked to write another work to be performed in the concert hall. 

The cantata, which was performed in terrible weather, was soon forgotten. However, the dance suite became popular. Originally entitled From Holberg’s Time, the Baroque-inspired dance suite became one of the composer’s most popular works. Grieg initially dismissed the piece, calling it “a perruque piece” – after the 18th century powdered wigs. Despite this, the strings orchestra version we know today is still widely performed around the world.


The Music

Set in five brief movements, Holberg Suite is a work of playfulness, gentility and historically-informed practices. As with all Baroque suites, the work begins with a Praeludium – it’s Prelude. 


Movement I – Praeludium 

Thoroughly in a toccata style, the flow of the opening prelude is exciting and joyous in character. The energetic figures flow throughout the movement and the rushing scales cascade through this spritely opening. This prelude is but a mere warm up for what’s to come.


Movement II – Sarabande

Known as a slow and stately dance in 3/4 the Sarabande is gentle in character. The gentility woven throughout this movement highlights Grieg’s effective melodic writing. As the texture begins to thicken and become deeper in sound, Grieg writes a gorgeous counter-melody for the cellos. The slow, but flowing movement in this dance makes it one of the highlights of the suite.


Movement III – Gavotte

A moderate-tempo dance, the Gavotte is charming in character. Originating from France, the contrasting dance – the musette, was initially danced to with a bagpipe accompaniment. Luckily Grieg just stuck with the string orchestra on this occasion! Although there are no bagpipes present, Grieg does try to emulate the characteristics of the instrument by employing low drones in the lower strings to create that effect. 


Movement IV – Air

The fourth movement is not a dance, but an elegiac song. Shadowing past works such as J. S. Bach’s Air for the G String, Grieg’s fourth movement is sorrowful, but incredibly beautiful. The only movement to be in a minor key, the poignant lyricism from Grieg shines through the tonality. This movement highlights Grieg’s lyricism paired with the beautiful slow Baroque style. 


Movement V – Rigaudon

Closing with a Rigaudon, the vivacious character of this dance makes for an ideal finale. Featuring soloists around the orchestra, the cheerful character of this movement is joyful, but very polished in style. This finale movement encapsulates Grieg’s love for folk tunes and the rustic style of composing, with the polished elements of Baroque dances. 


Final Thoughts

Edvard Grieg’s enigmatic Holberg Suite is full of melodic delights. From the opening prelude to the cheerful Rigaudon, the whole suite perfectly pays homage to the music that was around in Ludvig Holberg’s time. Initially put aside by Grieg, the work has remained one of the composer’s most-loved works. Although perhaps not as famous as his Peer Gynt suites, Holberg Suite is loved for many different reasons. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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