Edvard Grieg, Opus 74-- Fire Salmer
Chorale describes its Northern Light concert as focused on twentieth century music. Our earliest composer, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), barely makes it under the wire. Most of his compositional output is 19th century, and sounds like it—as a young man, he studied the German Romantic tradition in Leipzig, and was particularly influenced by the music of Robert Schumann; he is generally listed as Late Romantic. In the past few years, though, the category “National Romanticism” has come more and more into vogue, and allows for the inclusion of a lot of music and composers-- for instance, Rachmaninoff and other, lesser-known composers of the Moscow Synodical School; Dvorak; Smetana; Vaughan Williams and other English “pastoralists”—which had previously been relegated to a dusty corner of academia reserved for stubborn anachronists who just weren’t up to the revolutionary explosions inaugurated by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Grieg can arguably be described as the inventor of Nordic National Romanticism-- after his years in Germany, he returned, first to Demark, then to Norway, with the express purpose of forming a serious, high-level national music, both instrumental and vocal, from materials found in Norwegian folk music-- melodies, harmonies, rhythms. Content with his role as a composer and performer of “small” pieces, he wrote hundreds of songs and piano works which are characterized both by their “nordic-ness” and by their authentic personal voice-- Grieg had something very individual to say, and he found new and inventive ways to say it, right up to his death.
Grieg’s Fire Salmer (Four Hymns), Opus 74, for baritone soloist and mixed choir, was his final composition, composed in the second half of 1906. He adapts melodies from L.M. Lindemann’s collection Older and More Recent Norwegian Folk Tunes, an anthology upon which he drew heavily throughout his career. Like much of his later music, these motets are particularly notable for their harmonic inventiveness: he is very adept at adapting the modes of his source material—neither major nor minor—and at harmonizing it in a manner which sounds and feels authentic, rather than somehow contrived or “colorful.” There is nothing about these four motets which inspires nostalgia or “pining for the fjords”-- rather, they have a conciseness, urgency and drive which earns them a place with the finest choral compositions of their time. In one of the motets, Guds Søn har gjort mig fri, the soloist sings in a straightforward B flat Major tonality, while the men of the choir accompany him in a constantly shifting and disturbing version of b flat minor—and Grieg handles the resulting clashes so confidently, one never questions either his skill, or the result.
Like Brahms, Grieg grew up in a Lutheran milieu, a member of the Lutheran state church; also like Brahms, he was not very comfortable with the tradition, often treating it, musically, with a kind of ambivalence which is very far removed from the religious fervor of such contemporaries as Anton Bruckner and Max Reger. His setting, in the first motet, Hvad es du dog skjøn (How beautiful you are), of a paraphrase from the Song of Songs, is passionately secular and sensual in nature; and his text painting in the third motet, Jesus Kristus er opfaren (Jesus Christ is risen) is anything but triumphant or rejoicing. Altogether, Grieg’s responses to his source material, with which his intended listeners were intimately familiar, is surprising, subversive, and almost painfully personal. I expect he felt he had nothing to lose, that pursuing his personal vision was what he had left to him—as he wrote in his diary during the period of Opus 74’s composition, “These small works are the only thing my wretched health has allowed me…The feeling ‘I could, but I cannot’ is heartbreaking. In vain I am fighting against a superior force and soon, I suppose, I shall have to give up completely.” And indeed, he died just one year later, ten months after their completion.
The language of the texts is an interesting puzzle in itself. Called “Bokmål” or “Riksmål,” it is actually more Danish than it is Norwegian, and reflects the centuries during which Norway was, effectively, a colony of Denmark, with Copenhagen as its governmental and cultural center. Written texts fostered by the state church, such as those in these hymns, would have been in bokmål, as would all government documents—really, anything written down (bokmål means “book language”). Norway did not gain its political independence until 1905, only two years before Grieg’s death—but Grieg was an active, inspiring voice in the development of Norwegian nationalism, and helped focus attention on the development of an indigenous Norwegian language. In much of his vocal music, he sets texts in “Nynorsk,” an invented language which is actually an amalgam compiled of dialects from throughout the country, and which has become one of the two official languages of Norway since that time. Bokmål did not die out, however— it continues to this day, but is pronounced with a distinctively Norwegian accent, which differentiates it from Danish, which it resembles on the page. I have two very good recordings of Opus 74, one by a Danish choir, one by a Norwegian choir-- each choir sings the same words, but with its native pronunciation—how strange! Chorale is learning the Norwegian pronunciation.
Grieg sets text beautifully. Much of his best compositional output is found in his vocal music—he composed hundreds of songs, and toured with his wife, a soprano, presenting concerts with her of his music. Many of these songs were translated into German when they were published, but are far better and more expressive in Norwegian-- he clearly loved his own language. I expect that the relative obscurity of the language has kept both the songs, and these motets, from becoming well known—which is a loss; this is profound music. It will be a struggle to learn these works—but I have no doubt both singers and members will be immensely rewarded.