Edvard Grieg will forever be associated with Norway and Norwegian Folk Music. He is in fact of Scottish descent, his great grandfather having left Scotland after the Battle of Culloden to settle in Norway. Although the family tradition was the post of British Consul in Bergen passed down through three generations, other careers seemed more suitable to the young Edvard. His mother taught him to play the piano, and his skill on that instrument was quickly recognised by the violinist Ole Bull (a relative by marriage) who encouraged his musical talents. On Bull's recommendation, Greig was sent to study at the Leipzig Conservatory which had been founded by Mendelssohn. Although he didn't like his time there, and developed pleurisy which irreversibly weakened his lungs, the experience certainly influenced his future musical development. At Leipzig he was a contemporary of Arthur Sullivan and he attended performances given by Wagner and heard Clara Schumann play her late husband's (Robert Schumann's) Piano Concerto. On leaving Leipzig he returned firstly to Copenhagen in Denmark where he met Niels Gade and made friends with Rikard Nordraak who wrote the Norwegian National Anthem. Although Bull was also a champion of Norwegian music, it was largely Gade's influence that was to persuade Grieg to look to the folk music of his native land, and perhaps the fact that Norway was ruled by Sweden for much of Grieg's life was also to bring out the nationalist in him. (Prior to that Norway had been subject to Danish rule.)
Against their families' wishes Edvard married his cousin, Nina Naderup who was a singer, and they setlled initially in Oslo (then called Christiania). Tragedy struck again when their only daughter died from meningitis at the age of 13 months. His wife was a major inspiration to Grieg and he composed many songs for her. Franz Liszt had heard Grieg's music, gave him encouragement and invited him to visit Liszt in Rome. There the story is that Grieg presented the older composer with a handwritten copy of his new Piano Concerto which Liszt performed fluently from sight. Grieg returned to Norway with a new confidence, founded the Norwegian Academy of Music and gave the first official performance of the Piano Concerto. Another major turning point in his career was that the poet Henrik Ibsen contacted him and asked him to provide incidental music for "Peer Gynt" which was to become very popular. Grieg became celebrated across Europe and was given an annuity by the government which allowed him to give up teaching and concentrate on composing and promoting his music through concert tours. Grieg's music was much admired by other composers, including Brahms and Tchaikovsky. He toured many European cities including several visits to England where he received honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Grieg's marriage went through a rocky period, perhaps resulting from his performing career conflicting with his wife's singing engagements, but the couple patched things up and remained together until his death in 1907. It is thought that his weakened health and the demands of his tours as a pianist contributed to his final collapse. The couple are now buried in a tomb in the mountainside near Troldhaugen, their main summer home a few miles South of Bergen.
Edvard Grieg's music had synergies with Chopin's since he concentrated mainly on the piano. His Lyric Pieces for piano are all fairly short and reminiscent of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words, and he has been labelled a "miniaturist" due to his affinity for short pieces rather than large-scale works. Indeed Grieg attempted to write a Symphony at one stage but did not complete it. The Piano Concerto is one of his largest works and is often compared to and recorded with Schumann's Piano Concerto which is in the same key of A minor. Like Schumann, Grieg's music sets out to be attractive and balanced rather than powerful with big dramatic statements in the German tradition, and his songs show his essentially romantic nature.
His style was firmly traditional being rooted in melody and structure, while some of his contemporaries were moving towards the Late Romantic and Modernist periods, though this may be due in part to the fact that he wrote his most famous music as a young man. Nevertheless Grieg's music is full of unusual harmonic inventions so he did help to push classical music in new directions. The other main factor within Grieg's music is his use of Norwegian Folk Song, occasionally existing melodies but usually original themes strongly based on the style of his local folk traditions. In this respect his music mirrored Dvorak's use of Czech folk styles and other "nationalistic" composers from various countries, and paved the way for the later Scandanavian composers Carl Nielsen from Denmark and Jean Sibelius from Finland. The lyrical and programmatic nature of Grieg's music was also to influence some of the French impressionist composers such as Debussy and Ravel.
To hear a remarkable (though modern!) recording which shows how Grieg played some of his own Lyric Pieces and other works, check out our review of the Grieg Piano Concerto and other historic recordings. At the current time we have the following works by Greig on mfiles, including three of his Lyric Pieces for piano all available for immediate download:
Among recordings of Grieg's most famous music there is much to choose from, though the following CDs can be recommended as a good place to start. You will often find Grieg's Piano Concerto paired with Schumann's in the same key of Am, or with other piano concertos as here:
The following external links provide other sources of information about Grieg, his life and music: