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EDVARD GRIEG IN ENGLAND
by Lionel Carley

85 b/w illustrations
512 pages
Size: 23 x 15 cm
Binding: Hardback
First published: 2006
Price: 80.00 USD / £45.00
ISBN: 1843832070
ISBN: 9781843832072

Boydell & Brewer



Without the least attempt to want to flatter you, I can honestly tell you that you are now [1900] the best loved and most popular composer ever here!

England has been a generous and hospitable host to foreign composers and their music from Handel to Sibelius, probably Mendelssohn the most feted of them all. Lionel Carley’s utterly absorbing account of Edvard Grieg’s reception here raises as many interesting questions as it answers. Of all Grieg’s works - there are 74 published opuses - it is clearly the evergreen piano concerto (written in 1874 and highly praised by Liszt) which almost, but not quite, sends him into Room 101 for one-work composers. Of the rest it is the Lyric, Holberg and Peer Gynt Suites, with particular favourites the Hall of the Mountain King, and Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, which the public knew well then and still knows best today after the concerto which Morecambe and Wise used for their celebrated encounter with Andrew Preview. What was it that made Grieg’s music so popular in his day? Apart from the concerto, his popularity lies with some sonatas (three for violin and one for cello), songs, and above all solo piano music which disseminated his music and reputation throughout the salons and homes of the country, and which made him ‘the most popular musician in the home life of England since Mendelssohn’. That these players were inevitably ladies eventually irritated Grieg; ‘Yesterday at Cheltenham crammed full, but only ladies (more than 40 autographs)’ (December 1897).

But why are there no symphonies apart from one in C minor (‘never to be performed’ he wrote on this manuscript of this youthful work) and the Symphonic Dances, both of which are no more than on the fringes of the repertoire? Why no operas, no choral works in the standard fare, no concertos for any instrument beyond the single one for piano (such as a violin concerto for his close friends Adolph Brodsky or Johannes Wolff?), and no chamber music other than one completed string quartet (a second remains unfinished)? At a time when concert life was thriving in Britain in the latter part of the ‘long’ 19th century, from 1875 to 1914, thanks to the Philharmonic Society (despite the prickly relationship which emerges in Grieg’s correspondence with its secretary Francesco Berger), August Manns at the Crystal Palace, Charles Hallé in Manchester, Hans Richter in Vienna, London and Manchester, Dan Godfrey in Bournemouth, and Henry Wood in London, one would have thought that Grieg would have seized upon his popularity and produced work after work. And how did the folk music of his native Norway, which permeates his creativity, strike a chord with his adoring English public? All his vocal works relied on translation into English, but clearly anything Scandinavian was à la mode. ‘Norway had become the fashion, and they [Grieg and his wife] looked as if they had only just emerged from the fells’, as the Danish pianist Henrik Knudsen put it after their first London appearance in 1888. The hotel register of Smeby’s Hotel in Bergen for the summer of 1887 lists 559 visitors from England and Scotland, four times more than any other nationality including native Norwegians, while Violet Crompton-Roberts observed in A Jubilee Jaunt to Norway (1887) that ‘Norway is becoming more "the rage" every year’.

Not so far back in the family genealogy (four-plus generations) Griegs were found in Scotland; presumably at some point they had been Greigs, which remains to this day a common spelling error when it comes to the composer’s name. From 1797-1875 Griegs were unpaid vice-Consuls on behalf of Britain in Norway, the last being Edvard’s brother John. Apart from a private visit with his parents and brother in 1862 when he was 19, Edvard (1843-1907) paid five visits to Britain, the first in 1888, the last in 1906. The following year he was literally on his way to the Leeds Festival but got no further than Bergen from his country house called Troldhaugen, when he died in hospital on 4 September. And that appears to be the clue to so many riddles in Grieg’s character and his musical output, namely his health. It completely dominated his life and dictated his life schedule. He was a diminutive man, his short elfin body surmounted by a leonine head with a flowing (latterly white) mane of hair and piercing blue eyes. His life was plagued by illness, with bronchitis, asthma, rheumatism, insomnia and perpetual exhaustion after any form of exertion being his chief complaints. Many more than the five visits to Britain which did take place (in 1888, 1889, 1894, 1897 and 1906) were planned, but Grieg was forever cancelling due to the wretched state of his health. Even the award ceremonies to receive honorary Doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge Universities were deferred, the former by a week, the latter by a year. He needed money for the enormous cost of building Troldhaugen, so concert fees and royalties became a vital source of paying off his debts. Fortunately sales in sheet music of salon works rose significantly during and immediately after his tours (‘a rush for reprints of the piano pieces and the issue of song translations by several English publishers’ – The Musical World), but it did mean that he had to endure the rigours of playing and conducting as well as the rehearsals and the travelling. While not a keyboard virtuoso, by all accounts Grieg was a fine performer in both disciplines, for piano rolls survive and there are descriptive accounts of his conducting style, which was clearly affected by his fairly rudimentary English when he first came. Grove described it as ‘strange gestures, odd noises and strange words…[which] make everyone laugh until we find that the gestures, looks and words are the absolute expression of the inmost feeling’.

His audiences were enormous from the start, which was a Philharmonic Society concert on 3 May 1888 at St James’s Hall at which he played his piano concerto under Frederic Cowen (a ‘blockhead, so the orchestra left a lot to be desired’, he told his friend Frants Beyer), after which he accompanied two of his own Lieder (sung by Carlotta Elliot), and conducted his Two Elegiac Melodies for string orchestra. Grieg always had good connections as far as England was concerned; the right people liked him. Earlier as a student of Moscheles in Leipzig he had moved in a circle which included Arthur Sullivan, Walter Bache, Carl Rosa, John Francis Barnett, Franklin Taylor, Ethel Smyth and Edward Dannreuther, all subsequently active in England. The last named had premiered his piano concerto fourteen years earlier in 1874 at the Crystal Palace, while Henschel had already conducted the Two Elegiac Melodies in London. Richter found a serious lack of accuracy and discipline in the playing of London orchestras during rehearsals for his first appearance in 1877 and when he came annually from 1879 until he moved to Manchester in 1900, so clearly there was still room for improvement in 1888 when a reviewer (The Standard) wrote that Grieg, ‘in the second of the Elegiac pieces, obtained a pure pianissimo from the orchestra – one of the rarest things to be heard nowadays’. The clue to his popularity probably lies in the word ‘charm’ in a review (Musical Times, June 1888) which identified it as ‘the charm of the songs and pianoforte pieces which long since had made his name a household word’. The name Grieg may have been long familiar, but now the man himself had to be seen, as one later review (Musical News, 11 December 1897) put it, ‘The music of Grieg, and above all the presence of Grieg last Saturday, attracted a large audience’.

After that first orchestral concert in May 1888 he appeared as accompanist with his wife Nina, of equally diminutive stature (when photographed together they looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife) and who had a light, sweet soprano voice, together with violinist Wilma Norman-Néruda (Lady Hallé) in songs, violin sonatas and piano solos. As he put it to Tchaikovsky, ‘the English were served up with some of my smaller pieces’. Later in 1888 Grieg went to Birmingham for the Triennial Festival, famous from 1846 for Mendelssohn and his Elijah, followed (1882) by Gounod with his Redemption and Dvořák (1885) with The Spectre’s Bride, and since 1885 under Richter’s musical direction. That year Grieg (‘the little Norseman’ according to the Post) conducted his concert overture In Autumn and the Holberg Suite, for he was never tempted to produce choral music for such festivals, which, in his view, drew from English composers ‘all their big and boring works for choir and orchestra’. On the other hand one of the works on the programme was Dvořák’s Stabat Mater conducted by Richter. Dvořák too was very popular in England (making nine visits between 1884 and 1896) so the comparison becomes an interesting one. Both men worked at Birmingham, Leeds (though death intervened for Grieg), and for the Philharmonic Society, both were awarded honorary doctorates at Cambridge, both stayed at the south London homes of their publishers Littleton of Novello (Dvořák), and George Augener (Grieg), and finally both men used the proceeds from their London concerts to help finance their homes, respectively Rusalka and Troldhaugen (Grieg’s from 1885). A composer intriguingly missing from the list is Elgar. When Grieg’s music was first played (in his absence) under Charles Williams at the Three Choirs’ Festival (Worcester 1890) it was Peer Gynt Suite No.1, and on the same programme was the first hearing of Elgar’s overture Froissart, while in the same city in January 1901 Elgar himself conducted Grieg’s choral work Land-sighting, by which time the English composer was famous. But it would appear that there was no social intercourse or exchange of letters between the two composers.

Grieg would often accept concerts in Germany either before or after working in England. He was hugely popular there too (‘hundreds were turned away’, he reported to his friend Delius in February 1889) though not with the ‘abusive’ critics. While his relationship with them in that country never changed, it was, on the whole, a far better one in England, apart from Shaw, who ‘found the room filled with young ladies, who, loving his sweet stuff, were eager to see and adore the confectioner’, and described his music as possessing ‘sweet but very cosmopolitan modulations’, with an occasional ‘pretty snatch of melody’. Only on his last visit did the critics in England begin to carp about any lack of development in Grieg’s music, or indeed the lack of any new works at all; ‘Easily understandable, I’m afraid to say’, he wrote in his diary in the Spring of 1906, ‘as I haven’t been willing to talk with any interviewers’. However other English critics were capable of putting an iron fist into a velvet glove, such as this gentle sideswipe in the Musical Times of April 1889, which reviews the Griegs’ first appearance in Manchester using the especial flowery language of the day for such journals.

Herr Grieg was especially fortunate with his executants, for Sir Charles Hallé undertook his Pianoforte Concerto (Op. 16), and Lady Hallé so thoroughly co- operated with the composer in Op. 8 as to secure a perfect realisation of the pleasing duet. Madame Grieg, with modest powers as a vocalist, gave probably the most sympathetic interpretation possible of the little Lieder, which so happily display her husband’s fertility in bright, sketchy fancies, rather than gift of bold and sustained flight.

As to his treatment of his audiences high-born or low, Grieg apparently ‘once more rebuked the vulgar "insatiables" by declining an encore’, and on another occasion, by stopping playing, he chastised King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace on 28 May 1906 for talking loudly to the Norwegian Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Audiences were notoriously badly behaved it would appear, a common habit being to vacate the hall during the last work on the programme, having heard Grieg’s contributions. Mendelssohn and Mackenzie seemed to have been the unwitting victims on at least two occasions, the more embarrassing in the latter instance because Sir Alexander himself was on the podium. The encore incidentally was usually In the Hall of the Mountain King, which Wood invariably produced with his Queen’s Hall orchestra. As to rival Norwegian composers, only Sinding’s Rustle of Spring came anywhere near threatening Grieg’s popularity from 1895.

Grieg only kept a diary in the years 1865, 1865-1866, 1905-1906 and 1907 and they were published by Bergen Public Libraries in 1993. That this was so intermittent a habit is unfortunate because when he did keep one, he often provided detailed and fascinating accounts of his day-to-day life and observations. Otherwise most of his records are confined to expenditure and addresses in notebooks dated 1872-1873 and 1880-1902. Ironically the pull of England ensnared him into a dilemma when it came to looking after his health. London was a dreadfully unhealthy city, its smogs in the autumn virtual death traps, so the month of May was the best time to be in the capital or in any other English city. Bristol, like Leeds in 1907, had to forgo his presence in the autumn of 1902 when he cancelled with another bout of bronchitis. More fortunate, despite being November/December, was Scotland which he visited once in 1897, his audiences as enthusiastic as those south of the border. Despite his frailty, Grieg could be feisty. He was an ardent nationalist and involved himself in Norwegian politics, in particular the country’s eventual break with Sweden on 7 June 1905 and the establishment of its own monarchy with King Haakon, whose wife Queen Maud was another of Queen Victoria’s ubiquitous daughters. Grieg even wrote to King Edward VII and his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, ‘I implore your Majesty through arbitration to prevent the shame and disaster of a war between Norway and Sweden’. Fortunately diplomacy won the day through the Karlstad Agreement. Grieg, like Ibsen and Nansen, were national heroes in their native land, and indeed from 1874 Grieg had been awarded an annual stipend from the Norwegian government.

Finally there are Grieg’s three close friends, Adolph Brodsky, Delius and Grainger. Brodsky (who premiered Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto under Richter in Vienna in 1881), briefly led Hallé’s orchestra before succeeding him as Principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1895. He had first met Grieg in Leipzig in 1888 when they gave the composer’s new third violin sonata, and from that day he and his wife Anna became fast friends with Edvard and Nina. Whenever the Griegs came to England they always tried to spend days if not weeks at the Brodsky’s home at Bowdon in Cheshire (where Richter also lived). Of the two composers Delius and Grainger, the former was befriended in 1889, but he and Grieg saw little of one another when Delius moved to Grez-sur-Loing in France. Nothing of Delius’ music was played in London after 1899 until his reputation took off in 1907 with the piano concerto then Appalachia, but this was too late for Grieg. On the other hand, the 24 year-old Grainger met Grieg for the first time in May 1906 and for the remaining fifteen months of the composer’s life virtually became the older man’s surrogate son (the Griegs had lost their only child, Alexandra in 1869 when she died aged thirteen months). Grainger was a fabulous pianist, due to play under Grieg at Leeds in 1907, and he adored his mentor’s music, by all accounts his interpretation of the concerto closest to its composer’s own. Grainger was even proud to act as Grieg’s page-turner at his last public concert in England on 24 May 1906 at Queen’s Hall.

Dr Carley’s highly enjoyable book is a compelling read, not only providing a revealing insight into the private and public life of the composer, but also a detailed account of concerts of the day between 1888 and 1906 in England. There is no discussion of Grieg’s music apart from whatever is alluded to in reviews (for the music the reader should go to Boydell & Brewer’s simultaneously launched book by Daniel Grimley called Music, Landscape and Norwegian Cultural Identity). Dr Carley’s book is generously illustrated including the splendidly atmospheric dust-jacket with its photograph of Augener’s house on Clapham Common where Grieg stayed for four of his five visits, and it has useful, user-friendly tables, notes, bibliography and indices. Typographical errors or factual slips are mercifully few and trifling. On page 139, line 16 should be ‘to’ not ‘too’, a superfluous ‘only’ lies near the end of page 172, on page 369 ‘respect’ is meant rather than ‘repect’, while in this reviewer’s opinion a train journey to Manchester on page 147 is more likely to have been started from Euston rather than Kings Cross, and Streatham Hill is in south east rather than south west London, page 269.

As to the questions posed at the start of this review, the conclusion drawn from this excellent book is that highly indifferent health dogged poor Grieg throughout his life and, with the exception of the one piano concerto, it was probably his ailments (traceable back to a life-threatening lung disease in his youth) which diverted him from large works such as more concertos, symphonies, oratorios and operas. As if mirroring his physical frame, he became a miniaturist producing songs and piano pieces for private homes, salons and chamber concerts, but Grieg was too harsh upon himself when he wrote to a friend in May 1906, ‘There is nothing I can do about my music being played in third-rate hotels and by young girls’.

Christopher Fifield

 

 



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