Edvard Grieg ‘Peer Gynt Suite No. 1’: Welcome to Norway!

As I was reading through my list of blog ideas this afternoon one particular suite of music caught my attention, and that was Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. Grieg’s music was heavily reliant on nationality and the natural landscape, and this suite is no exception to that! Grieg was simultaneously nationalistic and cosmopolitan in his approach to composition and that was due to his extensive travelling around Europe throughout his lifetime (1843-1907). Grieg believed that his music represented the beauty and rural truths of the Norwegian landscape, but at the same time still represented Europe as an incredibly inclusive, cultural hub for the arts. Grieg was a true musical painter and his roots were so firmly tied within Norwegian folk music that the evocations of nature that can be heard in certain compositions is overwhelming. The first suite from Henrik Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt was first and foremost written as incidental music, and the order that they movements appear within the suite differ from that of when they appear as separate pieces within the drama.

Grieg and Ibsen first met in Italy in 1866 and after Grieg was commissioned to do Peer Gynt, it premiered in Oslo in February 1876, with the orchestra being conducted by Grieg. Therefore, Ibsen asked Grieg to write the incidental music for his drama, Grieg was very keen, but soon the doubt as to whether he could actually complete this tricky task set in. The show is packed full of intense drama, comedy and tragedy, and with all of these themes buzzing around, Grieg found it notoriously difficult to compose on the short time scale that Ibsen had set and because of this Grieg lost some enthusiasm due to the high level of complexity. Grieg commented in a letter to a friend in 1874 that, “Peer Gynt progresses slowly and there is no possibility of having it finished by autumn. It is a terribly unmanageable subject.” Within the whole play, Grieg wrote 33 separate pieces of incidental music, however the two famous suites were hand-picked by Grieg himself, and show off the highlights of the show. The outline of the story is fairly simple – Peer Gynt is the protagonist of the story and the drama is set around his travels, dreams and crimes. Thus, each act is accompanied but incidental music which compliments the theme. At first, all of the incidental music was published as a piano duet, and after Grieg’s death in 1907, the suites were orchestrated for a full orchestra, and subsequently published.

There are four movements in the first suite and each of them depict a different theme/landscape/emotion, and two of them are especially famous in Grieg’s orchestral repetoire.

Morning Mood 

The first movement within the suite is entitled Morning Mood and it is one of Grieg’s most well-known compositions. It starts with a beautiful flute solo which sets in the main theme, which is then taken over by the oboe. The strings play a simple accompaniment and the whole atmosphere is dominated by this theme of nature – it’s absolutely wonderful. The main theme is slightly manipulated, which leads to a climactic section where the strings take over in an upper octave. I love this section as it makes me feel all tingly and happy inside – which is made all the more special when the climax releases and the brass enters with a powerful transitional chord. Even without its title, this piece paints a strong sound of nature and the natural landscape, and you can really hear Grieg’s roots within the rural land. I absolutely love this movement I think it is truly wonderful and is a complete credit to Grieg’s compositional style. This piece captures the beginning of the day in the mountains and forests of Norway and everything is peaceful and positive within the drama and Peer Gynt’s dreams. I find Grieg’s blending of timbres within this movement in particular absolutely jaw-dropping as it’s just so smooth and easy on the ear and it is a clear representation of a sunny, peaceful morning. The piece ends with a reprise of the main theme from the flute and oboes, and the horns and strings delicately lead in for the final tonic chord of the piece (what a joy!).

Aase’s Death

The second movement within this suite is entitled Aaes’s Death and it is a very big shift in tone from the previous movement. So this movement, as shown in the title is about the death of Aase, who is Peer Gynt’s mother. The scene behind this piece is awfully tragic – Aase is dying alone on one of the mountains in the Norwegian wilderness and nobody is there to help her. This movement is incredibly haunting and dark, which emphasises Grieg’s more delicate hand and masterful grip on powerful, yet simple music. The movement starts with the strings playing block chords together, and this sets the dark tone for the rest of the piece. There are some beautifully timed pauses where the whole section stop and then after about two seconds, come back in with the next sequence of chords. Each time the section returns it is slightly louder, which really tugs at the old heartstrings. Although it is terribly sad, this movement is absolutely beautiful and Grieg’s masterful string writing is emphasised and utilised to the maximum here. The simplicity of this movement is where the beauty lies and I hope you all enjoy how scarily eerie, yet desperate it feels, which really highlights the scene within the drama. There are a handful of small climaxes within the movement, but nothing goes above forte which keeps it reigned in and it doesn’t feel like it overcompensates for the situation at hand. Also, by only using the string section is keeps this whole movement very sophisticated and very haunting. The movement ends on tonic chords being played with a pause in between them which creates a very creepy feel for the end of the movement, which is supposed to represent her death on the mountain.

Anitra’s Dance 

The third movement is depicting a seductive dance which emphasises the grace and beauty of Anitra, who is a daughter of a chieftain and Peer Gynt is infatuated with her. This movement acts as the fun and playful scherzo of the suite. Its in 3/4 time and has a waltz feel to it, with the pizzicato string sections creating a more chaotic and fast-paced feel to the movement. The idea of gracefulness can definitely be heard with the mix of pizzicato and acro (bowed) strings that play at the same time. This movement wants to make me sway as I listen to it, and its twee character oozes positivity and is a very playful movement to listen to. This is the shortest movement of the suite, perhaps due to its speed and the part of the story it covers. The movement ends again on a tonic chord after a fast ascending sequence by the strings which is the preceded by a short tonic-dominant ending by the basses. When you think it’s all over the strings then play the tonic chord an octave up, with the accompaniment of the triangle.

In the Hall of the Mountain King

The final movement of the suite is the ever-loved In the Hall of the Mountain King, which I am sure a big percentage of you will have heard at some point in your lifetimes. This movement depicts an unusual dance of gnomes, that in the story are actually chasing Peer Gynt, which is why when the recognisable melody is played repeatedly, it gets more and more aggressive. The melody is passed around the whole orchestra and there is barely a moment where not one instrument is playing this theme. Each time it comes back it gets more savage, which is representing the gnomes chasing Peer Gynt around the mountains. The extensive use of the bass sections of the orchestra and the high ranges of the upper winds make this a very excitable piece and the use of percussion, notably crash cymbals make ‘the chase’ even more anticipating. The whole movement is crafted from this one melodic cell and the beauty of it is that Grieg’s use of dynamic variation and orchestration makes the piece bashfully iconic in its own right. This is a great piece to finish the suite as it ends on an excitable crash from the cymbals. A brilliant piece that fits in wonderfully with the suite and indeed the themes of the play itself.

The movements that Grieg chose for this suite, as aforementioned, do not correspond to where they come in the show. Morning Mood is the prelude to Act 4; Aase’s Death is the end of Act 3; Anitra’s Dance comes from the middle of Act 4 and In the Hall of the Mountain King is heard in Act 2 of the play.

The lyrical and programmatic splendour of Grieg’s music is one of my favourite traits about his music, and this suite is at the crux of this. The simplicity of the suite really shows Grieg’s wonderful compositional style and his close links to Norway which bleed into his music. I’m a massive fan of Grieg and this suite is no exception – happy listening!

Recommended Recordings:

Berlin Philharmonic (Karajan) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyM2AnA96yE