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GRIEG: Music, Landscape and Norwegian identity
Daniel M Grimley

240 pp
ISBN 1 84383 210 0 (hardcover)

This is a remarkable book. I’ve read it several times, yet there’s so much in it that I keep going back and still it provides more insights. It really is that good. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in "how" music comes about, regardless of whether or not they are interested in Grieg. It may seem obvious that music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and is part of society, but it bears repeating because it is fundamental to the nature of composition, and to the way music is received

Grimley deftly summarises current theoretical thinking on national identity. Far from being inherent, it’s very much a construct developed when communities redefine themselves in relation to others, such as in the nineteenth century. "Imagined communities", to use Benedict Anderson’s terminology, and "Invented tradition", to use Svetlana Boym’s, may idealise the past, but serve modernising purposes. Grimley shows how nationalism in Norway was "a form of national self improvement, emancipatory and creative" for it fuelled independence from Denmark, and ignited interest in regional folklore. Song was very much part of the nationalist movement, as it linked to dialect. Waldemar Thrane’s comic opera Fjeldeventyret, (The Mountain’s Tale) from 1825, mixes "European" and Norwegian elements such as the kulokk (cow-herding song). Ole Bull was trained as a classical violinist, but as early as 1833 was playing the hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle) and folk melodies in formal concerts in Paris. Nonetheless, traditional music was not mummified. Grimley examines pieces by Kjerulf and Bull to show that they adapted folk form creatively. Using Grieg’s op 17, he analyses how Grieg in his turn, assimilated and developed his own "compositional state of mind"; his own creative voice.

Landscape played a fundamental role in European Romanticism because it was used as a metaphor for human values. Grieg wrote to a young urban composer "You need an inoculation of mountain stuff into your work". For Grieg, the pure air and physicality of mountain living inspired a deep emotional response. He wrote about the "youthful combativeness" of Norway, "like the music of harsh triads compared with all the sugary seventh chords " in Denmark. In Norway, he said "the conflict concerns spiritual existence" while in the urban south it was "just a matter of trivialities". Analysing Gangar op 54/2. Grimley demonstrates how Grieg develops a powerful structure by contrasting dynamic and static elements. "It is, arguably", he concludes, "the denial of personal subjectivity and the longing for transcendence that this systematic organisation and division of musical space creates that is the most powerful expression of Grieg’s landscape vision". Grieg may develop ideas from the visual, but he’s not merely pictorial. His music is representation of "the sense of being within a particular time and space". The sense of isolation fostered by the mountains intensified Grieg’s sense of remoteness from the Austro-Germanic mainstream and gave his music individuality. Since he certainly didn’t belong in the true Norwegian tradition, it sparked a sense of creative tension in his work. Furthermore, the mysteries of nature-magic in Norwegian folklore evoked an alternative sense of time and reality.

"The sense of suspended temporality in the middle sections of the ‘Gangar’, or the radical spatial geometry of ‘Klokkegeklang’ can be heard as forms of musical enchantment", says Grimley. He then analyses in detail Den Bergtekne op 32 from Norske Folkeviser, showing how its hovering between keys and narratives creates a sense of unresolvable yearning for things unexpressed. In a particularly well argued section, he analyses different aspects of nostalgia and how Grieg expressed them specifically in two pieces, Gjetergutt, op 54/1 and Aften på höyfjellet op 68/4. He then studies the 19 norske Folksviser op 66, showing how innovative Grieg’s ideas had become. His critique of the way bells saturate I Ola-Dalom, I Ola-Kjønn, op 66/14, giving a multi-layered sense of time, is exquisite. Siri Dale-Visen op 66/4, can be heard in terms of a "shift from an archaic folk music source, through classical functional diatonic practice, to the non-diatonic voice-leading linearity of early twentieth century modernism".

Grimley then examines Haugtussa. Arne Garborg’s verse novel, on which the cycle is based, was not Romantic kitsch, but confronts elemental forces in nature beyond human understanding. The novel can be understood as a kind of "pre-Freudian discourse on the nature and function of dream" and is "closer to the Nervenkunst of Strindberg or Knut Hamsun". Veslemøy’s hallucinations aren’t just caused by externals, but by her ability to perceive areas of human emotion normally suppressed. The bestial troll scenes thus reflect the "animalistic side of human nature". Words like drøyme (to dream) and gløyme (to forget) recur repeatedly.

One analysis of the cycle sees it as unresolved structurally, while another notes its masterfully crafted symmetric arc. Grimley suggests that both views reflect the inherent tension fundamental to the piece. In the first song, Det Syng, the song’s "schizophrenic character" defies easy harmonic resolution. "The dissonant complex of superimposed fifths and octaves", says Grimley, quoting Dalhaus, "unfolds registral space while avoiding a … metrical articulation, suggesting ‘that processual cognition has been suspended’" A detailed study of the final and most complex song, Ved Gjætle-bekken, shows how for Grieg, landscape points inwards, "towards a contemplative inner realm that is fully enclosed" within its own context. It articulates closure through the use of A major, rather than the more dominant F major, distancing itself from the other songs. The oscillating figures that evoke the rippling waters of the brook, and of distant bells, create a sense of multiple levels of musical motion. These ideas are reinforced by a study of other pieces Grieg was working on at the time, Bekken and Drömmesyn, op 62/4 and 5. The themes of the whole cycle come to a dramatic climax at the end of the fourth verse, where the song is "Structurally and narratively closed". The fifth verse thus has a retrospective quality of contemplation and of leave-taking, the ethereal last bars returning to the enchanted registers where the cycle started. More so than in the original novel, Grieg illustrates the Veslemøy’s end by integrating her into the environment around her. "Landscape thus functions as a framework …. for the structural, registral and harmonic parameters that musically define the cycle, and also as a locus of identity, as the embodiment of Veslemøy’s ultimate sense of being and place". Haugtussa can be heard as a kind of Heimatkunst, but its ending reflects a deep identification with issues of loss and isolation.

The Hardanger fiddle symbolises for many the essence of "Norwegian" music. Yet it is a highly individual genre, with improvisation and elements like contrapuntal foot-tapping. Thus the "perceived modernity" of Grieg’s transcriptions for piano in the Slåtter op 72 was controversial, and indeed remains so, bound as it is with issues of cultural identity. Grimley explains in 18 intricately argued pages that for Grieg, the Slåtter are not straightforward gentrification of folk dance, but are original, creative works, which "support and demand some level of analytical engagement in order to be understood fully".

Grimley then proceeds to analyse Grieg’s influence on David Monrad Johansen and Percy Grainger. Monrad Johansen heard "Norwegian temperament" in Grieg’s modal instability and in Lydian fourths, and in rhythmic liveliness "a reckless desire to freedom" but it’s more complex than that. One of the great insights of this book, is the way Grimley underpins his analyses with a sound understanding of the intellectual theory behind them. In this final chapter, "Distant Landscapes", there’s an excellent exposition of Harold Bloom’s ideas on the multi-levelled nature of artistic influence. Thus, Grimley traces the development of Brigg Fair from the singing of Joseph Taylor to a fully realised work of art shaped by the insights Grieg gave Grainger into the spirit of music. In an interesting aside, he also raises Wilfrid Meller’s concept of "music as ritual action" to express how Grieg evokes the spirit of Norwegian identity.

Obviously, the literal will cite the fact that scenes in Peer Gynt refer to the Moroccan desert, not to Norway, but that’s not the point at all. The meaning of the play is infinitely deeper. Landscape for Grieg, was much more sophisticated and symbolic of much more profound spiritual and intellectual concepts. This is a challenging book, with extremely detailed, well-argued musical analyses, which I’ve tried not to précis, because they need to be read in full. This is a wonderful book, highly recommended for its superlative summary of cultural theory as well as for its exceptional musical insight. It is a superb case study of how music can express abstract thought. It helps us understand how what we hear is shaped by and shapes what we understand about the world around us. We need books like this, particularly in an increasingly non-analytical society, to keep us focused on why music matters.

Anne Ozorio



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