One wonders if there is some artistic virus that thrives in the people of Bergen, Norway, for three Scandinavian giants of the arts were born there. The first was Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) who would become one of Scandinavia's great literary figures. Some years later came a mighty duo - Ole Bull (1810-1880), a violin virtuoso who toured in the United States to great success and then...Edvard Grieg.
Musical fate would link the "baroque" Holberg to the "romantic" Grieg. Holberg had left his native Bergen as a young man to roam Europe in the early 18th century to ultimately reside in Copenhagen. He adopted Danish as his language and helped establish Danish literature, especially through his comedies which gained him the reputation as the "Moliere of the North."
To honor Holberg in 1884, the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Bergen organizing committee turned to their newest "favorite son" to compose a musical tribute. (Grieg was already internationally known for his piano concerto and music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt.) They wanted him to write a cantata to be sung in December at the time of the unveiling of a statue of Holberg in the Main Square of Bergen.
Grieg accepted half-heartedly and, in October, wrote to friends that not only was he bored in composing the choral work, but afraid of the event itself. Having had poor health most of his life, Grieg feared having to conduct outdoors in cold December and predicted, though somewhat humorously, what might happen:
I can see it now: snow, hail, storm, and thunder, a large male chorus with open mouths into which the rain pours, and me conducting with a rain coat, winter coat, galoshes, and umbrella! Then, of course, a cold or God knows what other kind of illness! Ah well, that is one way to die for one's country!
Well, he didn't die that way, though the uninspired cantata was forever laid to rest. But Grieg had a surprise. Four months later in March, 1885, he conducted the premiere in Bergen of a suite of pieces entitled Aus Holbergs Zeit ("From Holberg's Time.") Grieg had written the suite for piano the previous summer as his personal tribute to Holberg (before being asked to write the cantata.) With the orchestration, he produced one of his greatest works, full of strength and gentility, playfulness and meditation.
Grieg chose the musical language of the 18th Century, the era of Holberg, a type of French suite consisting of a Prelude, Sarabande, Gavotte/Musette, Air, and Rigaudon. The exhilarating pulsing sounds of the Prelude quickly set an upbeat mood. The following Sarabande provides a long lyrical line that masks the innate three-quarter time of this dance form. With the Gavotte, the formality of court ballrooms emerges, but the internal Musette brings a folk-song quality in contrast.
The Air that follows, one of Grieg's most beautiful creations, is marked "Andante Religioso." Here, as in the Sarabande, Grieg puts more emphasis on the deeper strings. In the concluding Rigaudon, the Norwegian peasant fiddler emerges, a tribute to the folk violinists of Grieg's beloved country. It is as if Grieg musically honored his fellow Bergenite, Ole Bull, a man who championed the young Grieg.
The Holberg Suite is now more commonly heard in its orchestral form, but it is important to remember that Grieg was firstly a composer for the piano, and the Holberg Suite exists in its original piano form. Einar Steen-Noekleberg has made it his mission to record the entire set of piano works of Grieg on 14 CD's (all published by Naxos - see the bar at left for more of this set).
He brings a freshness to Grieg that puts him up with Bartok and Sibelius in seeking to preserve his country's folk heritage. The music is played without the sentimentality that too often pervades performances of Grieg. Simple, folksy and honest.
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(Suite from Olden Times)
From complete piano works vol.4
From Holberg's Time. Suite In Olden Style, Op. 40
Melodies of Norway, EG 108
- I Went To Bed So Late
- Dance From Numedal
- Lullaby From Valdres
- Dance From Vinje
- Sjugurd And The Troll-Bride
- Halling From Osterdal
- The Boy And The Girl In The Granary
Peer Gynt Ste No. 1, Op.46, No.1
Slatter, Op. 72 (Norwegian Peasant Dances)
- Giboen's Bridal March
- John Vaestafae's Dance
- Bridal March From Telemark
- Halling From The Hills
- Prillat From The Church Play
- Myllarguten's Folk-Dance
- Rotnamsknut Halling
- Myallarguten's Bridal March
- Niels Revke's Halling
- Knut Lurasen Halling I
- Knut Lurasen Halling II
- Myllarguten Dance
- Havard Giboen's Dream On The Oterholt's Bridge
- The Goblin's Bridal Procession
- The Bride Of Skuldal
- The Girls Of Kivledal
- The Girls Of Kivledal