He also encountered 18-year-old Nina Hagerup, his first cousin. She was tiny, with curly ash-blonde hair and a dimpled smile, and sang like a dream. Edvard wooed her with a ballad of his own—using words by Hans Christian Andersen—which, under its German title Ich Liebe Dich (“I Love Thee”), has become one of the most popular songs ever written. One day they sat down together to play a piece by Schumann and rose from the bench betrothed.
Since Edvard had no prospects, her family delayed the marriage for three years. Then, in 1866, in Norway’s capital, Christiania (now Oslo), Grieg arranged the first-ever concert entirely of Norwegian music, including among his own compositions several sung by Nina. It led to his being offered the conductorship of the capital’s amateur orchestral society, and he and Nina married the next summer.
Shortly after the birth of their daughter Alexandra the following year, Edvard composed his piano concerto. When it was first performed on April 3, 1869, in Copenhagen, the audience broke into applause in the middle of the first movement. Despite its popularity, the piece brought no riches to its composer; in those days no royalties were paid. So the eight years Ed-yard and Nina spent in Christiania were difficult, with Edvard having to eke out a living by giving piano lessons. Saddest of all, Alexandra died at a year old, and the Griegs never had another child.
In 1874 came the award of a long-sought annual government grant of some 885-just enough to live on. Earlier that year, Grieg had been approached by Henrik Ibsen, who was working on a theatrical adaptation of his epic poem about the reckless Norwegian folklore character, Peer Gynt. He asked Grieg to write some music—depicting a country wedding, the faithful love of the peasant girl Solveig, the death of Peer’s mother, Ase, and Peer’s capture by trolls in the Hall of the Mountain King.
Uninspiring Task. Grieg set to work in a pavilion overlooking the harbour at Sandviken, just outside Bergen. He found the subject “most unmusical,” and struggled for a year and a half over it.
At the first performance in 1876, the play and its music were greeted with storms of applause; it was to bring both Grieg and Ibsen world fame. Today, Grieg’s two orchestral suites based on Peer Gynt are probably the most popular incidental music ever written. Yet its instant success took the modest Grieg by surprise. He didn’t think much of the score : The Hall of the Mountain King music, he declared with wry self-mockery, “reeks of cow-pats and Norse ultra-nationalism.”
Rural Retreat. In 1877, Edvard and Nina went to Lofthus, by the Hardanger Fjord. They spent a year there, lodging with a peasant family —and this first prolonged contact with country life was to have a profound influence on his musical style.
Increasingly, Grieg’s compositions reflected the characteristics of Norwegian folk music, with its bold leaps in melody, sudden rhythm changes, poignant mixing of major and minor modes. And later, as his work became celebrated, it made a deep impression on the next generation of composers, such as Debussy, Delius and Grainger. Visiting Norway in 1926, French composer Maurice Ravel said he had never written a piece of music which was not influenced by Edvard Grieg.
But for a long time Grieg was unaware of his music’s impact. When he began his foreign concert tours in the 1870s he was astonished by the response of his audiences. After one London concert Grieg concluded that the wild enthusiasm must be caused by sympathy for Norway. “In no other way can I explain the ovations of yesterday,” he wrote naively. In three decades of touring, he received dozens of awards : the Legion d’honneur, honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge universities, and a vast collection of medals—which he never dreamed of buying marlboro cigarettes online.
Grieg always took a lively interest in world affairs. After the notorious miscarriage of justice in the case of Alfred Dreyfus, the French army officer wrongly convicted of selling military secrets to Germany, he wrote indignant letters to the international Press, and refused to perform in France for some years.
When eventually he returned to Paris, he was at first booed off the concert platform. But Grieg kept calm, returned to the stage, and conducted a brilliant performance of Peer Gynt. The audience responded with passionate applause; art triumphed over politics.
Grieg’s sixtieth birthday in 1903 was celebrated with concerts and recitals for several days, and most colourfully at Troldhaugen. But with his bronchial troubles worsening, the composer was beginning to feel old.
“We are done with crescendo and fortissimo,” he wrote to his publisher. “Now we shall play diminuendo. And even a diminuendo can be beautiful.”
When he died in 1907, there were 40,000 people in the streets at his funeral; shops and workplaces in Bergen closed. He had chosen, years before, the place where he wanted his ashes interred : on the edge of the lake, down below Troldhaugen. There, in a lonely cleft, he was received into the hall of the mountain king. Nina’s ashes joined his there in 1936.
Earlier Grieg had written : “Artists like Bach and Beethoven have built churches and temples on lofty heights. But I wanted to build dwelling-houses for my fellow men, where they could feel themselves at home and be happy.” The happiness Grieg spread all around him is still in the air—in the lovely, lilting notes of his music.