Peer Gynt: Mastery of the Norwegian Spirit
Henrik Johan Ibsen was born in 1828. An illustrious playwright of the 19th century, he was responsible for many famous works, including Peer Gynt. Considered as the father of realism, Ibsen was one of the principal proponents of Modernism in theatre. He passed away in 1906.
Edvard Hagerup Grieg, who was a pianist and composer, was born in the year 1843. Universally accepted as one of the greatest Romantic era composers, his work with Norwegian folk music in his pieces helped Norwegian music gain international foothold. Grieg composed the music for Peer Gynt, which was widely appreciated by music lovers around the world. He passed away in 1907 from heart failure.
Peer Gynt was an incidental music, composed by Norwegian composer and pianist, Edvard Grieg. The piece was written to convert Ibsen’s play into a musical phenomenon, which it rightfully did. It was in the year 1867, in Italy, when Ibsen wrote this allegorical play, comprised of five separate acts. A story about a Norwegian anti-hero, it was originally not meant for stage performance.
Ibsen, eventually, changed his mind and in 1874, got in touch with his close friend, Edvard Grieg to persuade the latter to compose music for the play. Grieg completed the composition by the autumn of 1875, despite finding the play too complicated at the beginning. The stage premiere happened in 1876 at the Mollergaden Theatre in Oslo and it was conducted by Grieg himself.
In the year of 1885, Peer Gynt resurfaced in Copenhagen. It was then that Grieg decided to modify and improve the music in his vision. New pieces were added for both this and the subsequent 1902 revival of the play. Considering the length of the drama and the accompanying incidental music, full-scale productions are a rarity, though it was among the most popular pieces of the early 20th century.
The story of behind the play is wrought with Norwegian traditions and typicality. The protagonist or rather, the anti-hero Peer Gynt is one with a personality of “fantastic imagination as well as delusions of grandeur”. As a youth, he is a prankster who abducts a bride and carries her off to the mountains. Thus, begins his adventures, which vary from realm of the Mountain King to foreign continents to a fateful conclusion.
For Act I, Edvard Grieg, wrote two original Norwegian dance tunes for this scene; one was a form of a Halling, while the other was a Springer. The dances were originally meant for the Hardanger fiddle which was a folk instrument utilizing sympathetic strings.
The Prelude to Act II is better known as the opening of the Peer Gynt Suite No. 2: The Abduction of The Bride; Ingrid's Lament. The music here is typically violent and energetic and beautifully projects the distress of the young bride Peer kidnapped and then abandoned in the mountains.
For Act III, Grieg utilizes the music of Ase’s Death, already included in Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, which is heard both during the prelude and the conclusion of the act.
Morning Mood acts as the Prelude to Act IV, whose setting is the African desert. In The Thief And The Receiver, two criminals are introduced, who have robbed an emperor. Musicians, along with women salute Peer with a colorful Arabian dance, after he gets rid of the robbers. The daughter of a Bedouin chief performs the famed Anitra's Dance, with a strings & triangle musical score, designated Tempo di mazurka. Peer Gynt's Serenade is Peer’s attempt to impress Anitra but to no avail.
For Act V, the opening is with the Peer Gynt's Homecoming: Stormy Evening On The Sea. The epilogue is marked by Solveig's Cradle Song and this is the end of Peer's lifetime of adventures. Typical of Grieg's style, one can hear the Whitsun Hymn in the distance.
The following are elaborations on notable songs from the play:
- Morning Mood: This is the opening of the first suite and it wonderfully displays the start of the day with the picturesque mountains and forests of Norway in the background.
- Aase's Death: This is an elegy where which signifies the death of Peer’s mother Aase. Grieg composed a most haunting piece with this and it clearly shows his masterful grasp of combining the mundane with power.
- Anitra's Dance: An extremely attractive dance sequence exuding sensuality. This displays the Bedouin chieftain’s daughter Anitra in all her grace and beauty.
- In the Hall of the Mountain King: Grieg's most famous tune, this is an energetic piece which shows the dance of gnomes. The melody is of an ascending nature, with each repetition making it swifter and more aggressive.
Without any doubt, the music of Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg is one of the most well-known and sought-after pieces around. An already well-written story by Ibsen is brilliantly complimented by Grieg's tunes which are a mix of thoughtfulness and pace. Indeed, of all the world-famous pieces, Peer Gynt earns its place among the “crown jewels” of melodic variations.
If you like to learn more about Edvard Grieg who composed music for Peer Gynt please visit our "About Edvard Grieg" page.
- Grieg's Peer Gynt on Classic FM
- Grieg's Peer Gynt on Kennedy Center
- Grieg's Peer Gynt on Favorite Classical Composers