by Neville Cohn
They were the oddest of odd couples.
Edvard Grieg was the tiniest of men with a lifelong history of poor health. With his shock of white hair, Norway’s greatest composer looked, in maturity, rather like some superannuated Scandinavian elf. His friend, Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger, was, in physical terms, Grieg’s antithesis, a fitness fanatic who, at all times, seemed positively to radiate energy; he’d think nothing of having a run of many miles immediately before giving a recital, on one occasion bounding into the concert hall doing somersaults.
Grieg fell seriously ill from overwork while studying music in Germany on a scholarship; he is now thought to have suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome.
Due to frequent illness, he was obliged often to cancel or re-schedule almost as many concerts as he participated in.
Grieg, who died on 4th September 1907, believed passionately in the
equality of all human beings. Grainger, though, would have none of this. He was an out and out racist, who believed that Nordic, blue-eyed blondes were the ultimate manifestation of racial purity and despised just about everyone else. Hitler would have approved. He wouldn’t even use standard Italian tempo indications such as allegro, andante or presto in his compositions because of his bizarre prejudice towards people of the Mediterranean.
For all these fundamental differences in outlook, the two men formed a close friendship, so much so that Grieg gave or bequeathed many unique artifacts to Grainger: numerous autograph or printed scores of the composer’s music with his remarks and corrections scribbled on the margins, many letters between Grieg and his wife Nina (all translated into English by Grainger), Grieg’s gold pocket watch and chain and an ivory napkin ring. These and more go towards making up one of the most important collections of its kind outside Norway, housed in the Grainger Museum on the campus of Melbourne University.
Apart from his creative musical genius – and despite his physical frailty – Grieg had the courage of a lion. At the time of the sensational Dreyfus case – in which an innocent French army officer was wrongly accused, tried and sentenced for treason – Grieg boldly took up Dreyfus’ cause and, weighing vigorously into the controversy,
expressed outrage at this injustice despite receiving threats of physical harm. The tiny man flatly refused to cancel conducting engagements in France despite a very real risk to his safety.
Famous for his straight talking, Grieg stopped midway through a piano recital because King Edward VII was talking; he refused to continue until the monarch shut up. He was nonetheless courted by royalty: Queen Victoria invited him to play for her at Windsor Castle, and the German Kaiser, who knew a thing or two about music, invited Grieg onto his yacht where the Kaiser’s orchestra played some of Grieg’s music.
In this centenary year of the death of Norway’s most loved composer, concerts and symposiums devoted to his music are being presented across the world from Japan to Germany, across Scandinavia and in Australia, Britain, Russia and many American countries.
It’s a shame that Perth music aficionados won’t have the opportunity in this centenary year of listening to a live performance of Grieg’s most famous longer work – the Piano Concerto in A minor. Despite being clobbered by more than a few musicologists who tut-tut about the concerto’s structural weaknesses, audiences – and pianists – can’t have enough of it. There are umpteen recordings of it in the catalogues. And for pianists seeking to play the work in accordance with Grieg’s instructions, there is available on compact disc, a dubbing of the original piano roll recording which Grainger made of the Piano Concerto. It’s a performance that has immense credibility as all the tempi and phrasing received the blessing of Grieg himself.
In the latter years of the 19th century, Grieg was arguably the most popular composer in Britain. His concerts, mainly as conductor, were such a strong draw that, almost invariably, hundreds of disappointed concertgoers would be turned away from halls where it was standing room only if you were lucky enough to gain admission. And in Bergen, Norway, whenever Grieg and his wife went for a walk, children would follow them, Pied-Piper-like, singing and whistling some of the composer’s best loved melodies.
Grieg’s fame in those years derived substantially from his so-called Lyric Pieces for the piano, delightful miniatures such as Butterfly, Puck and Wedding Day at Troldhaugen which were firm favourites with innumerable amateur pianists.
Grieg and his wife Nina (who were first cousins) had a famously rocky marriage. At times, Nina would feel jealous of Edvard‘s fame – but in strictly musical terms, she did a great deal to enhance her husband’s reputation through the artistry she brought to her singing of Grieg’s many fine songs.
To mark the centenary of Grieg’s death, Perth concertgoers will be able to hear soprano Sara Macliver with David Wickham at the piano in the Haugtussa songs, one of the composer’s most profoundly moving works. They are settings of Arne Garborg’s poems about a young girl who has the gift of insight into the supernatural world.
* The performance takes place on Sunday 9th at 3pm in the Music Auditorium at the W.A.Academy of Performing Arts. An attractive program, entitled Diamonds in the Snow, also includes songs by Sibelius and Schubert.