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Edvard Grieg was born on 15 June 1843 in Bergen. He showed an early interest in music and the piano, no doubt influenced by his mother, Bergen’s best piano teacher. Despite a normal portion of reluctance to practise, Grieg’s love of music grew until the only thing he wanted to be was a musician.

Grieg enrolled in the music conservatory in Leipzig, where he developed his knowledge of the European musical tradition. He focused primarily on the works of Mozart and Beethoven during his studies, but also spent time getting to know the more modern composers, like Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner. He left the conservatory with excellent marks in 1862.

Edvard Grieg wanted to write Norwegian music, but realised that he would have to leave the country to develop as a composer. He therefore moved to Copenhagen, where other composers like Niels W. Gade, C.F. Emil Horneman, August Winding and Gottfred Matthison-Hansen lived. Gade in particular was highly regarded, and became Grieg’s first real musical idol.

Several of the people Grieg met in Denmark would prove to be lifelong friends. They included the Norwegian composer Rikard Nordraak, whose enthusiasm for all things Norwegian soon rubbed off on Grieg. The most important person Grieg met in Copenhagen, however, was his cousin, Nina Hagerup. Grieg became quite enamoured of her, and they became secretly engaged during the Christmas holidays in 1864. The engagement was made public in the spring of 1865, and Grieg’s engagement present to Nina was four songs with texts by the couple’s good friend Hans Christian Andersen (Melodies of the Heart, Opus 5).

The Griegs moved from Copenhagen to Christiania to help to build a Norwegian music community in the capital. The family lived off Edvard’s conducting jobs and his income as a private piano teacher, and he had little time for composing. In 1868, however, Grieg composed his piano concerto in A minor. This masterpiece marked his breakthrough as a composer, and after its publication he was considered to be among the foremost composers of his time.

Edvard and Nina led a nomadic life, touring extensively around Europe. This restless pattern was strengthened in 1875, when Grieg’s parents died within a few weeks of each other, leaving him without a home in Bergen. In addition, he felt that he was stagnating both artistically and intellectually.

Matters came to a head in 1883, when Edvard left Nina. He was, however, persuaded to seek a reconciliation with Nina by his close friend Frants Beyer, who also convinced him that he needed a home to which he could return after tours abroad. Beyer helped Grieg to purchase a plot of land at Hop, outside Bergen, and in April 1885 Edvard and Nina were able to move into their new home, Troldhaugen.

Grieg worked extensively with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson at the beginning of the 1870s, writing music for a number of Bjørnson’s poems, his melodrama Bergljot, the choral work Land Sighting and the play Sigurd Jorsalfar. The pair’s most ambitious project, an opera based on the story of the Norwegian king Olav Trygvason, ended in a conflict over what should have higher priority – the music or the text.

The shelving of the opera project gave Grieg time to compose music for Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem Peer Gynt. This led to a breach between Grieg and Bjørnson that lasted almost 16 years.

The premiere of Peer Gynt took place at Christiania Theatre on 24 February 1876. Grieg followed up the work’s immediate success by writing music for six of Ibsen’s poems (Six Songs, Opus 25). In 1888 and 1893, Grieg published the most popular melodies from Peer Gynt in Peer Gynt Suite I and Peer Gynt Suite II, which are among today’s most-performed orchestral works.

Grieg became both famous and relatively well-off. He pioneered new approaches to Norwegian folk music, and in France there was talk of two particularly active styles in the late 1800s: the Russian school and Norwegian school.

On his many trips to Europe, Grieg met and became good friends with composers like Peter Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Fredric Delius, Camille Saint Saens and Julius Röntgen. He also had a strong influence on later composers, particularly Béla Bartók but also Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

Despite having only one functioning lung, Grieg managed to keep up the exhausting lifestyle of a touring musician for many years. Eventually, however, his lifestyle took its toll and put a premature end to his career. Grieg fell seriously ill while he and Nina were waiting for a boat from Bergen to Oslo, from where they were to travel to England to participate in a music festival in Leeds. He died on 4 September 1907, shortly after being admitted to hospital.

(This biography has been taken from www.troldhaugen.no, which also offers a more comprehensive biography in English, French, German and Norwegian.)

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Edvard Grieg, 1880Photo: Foto E. Bieber / The Grieg Archives / Bergen Public Library

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