Greig wrote a lot of great music – shorter pieces inspired by the rhythm and harmony of Norwegian folk dances – longer pieces in classical forms like the Piano Concerto in A minor (Op.16) – but his continuing popularity is mainly down to the eight songs found in the Peer Gynt Suites. The history of these songs is convoluted, so let’s start at the start.
Henrik Ibsen, another Norwegian national treasures, wrote the play, Peer Gynt, in 1867. The play is in verse, and was striking at the time for its original mix of surrealism and realist social satire.
Peer Gynt is a hunter, poet, braggart and egotist who is banished from his village after kidnapping the daughter of a rich farmer on her wedding day. He starts on a wandering odyssey, taking him all the way from the lair of a troll king in the mountains to a madhouse in Cairo, while his true love, Solveig, waits for him back in Norway in a cabin Peer built in the hills.
The Original Score
It took nearly ten years for the play to actually reach the stage. Grieg began writing the incidental music in 1875, and was plagued by doubts about it throughout.
He needn’t have worried. The play finally debuted in Oslo in 1876, to considerable success. The original score (Op.23) featured twenty-six movements, as well as some choral pieces.
In 1888, Grieg selected the four movements he thought were the best from twenty-six movements of the original score and created Suite No. 1 (Op. 46) which contained:
1. Morning Mood
2. The Death of Åse
3. Anitra’s Dance
4. In the Hall of the Mountain King
After the success of Suite No. 1, Grieg selected another four movements in 1891 to create Suite No. 2 (Op. 55) which contained:
1. The Abduction of the Bride. Ingrid’s Lament
2. Arabian Dance
3. Peer Gynt’s Homecoming
4. Solveig’s Song
These two suites were the most popular pieces of Grieg’s music during his life-time, with the full score of his original incidental music not being published until 1908, a year after his death. Even today those eight songs are taken to be the Peer Gynt songs, with rarely a mention of the other eighteen movements.
Suite No. 1 contains two of Grieg’s most famous songs. The fourth movement, In the Hall of the Mountain King, has been used in hundreds of movies, adverts and video games over the years. It’s most famous in the UK as the unofficial Alton Towers theme song, though fans of early German cinema will remember it as the melody Peter Lorre’s child-murderer whistles whenever he feels the urge to kill in Fritz Lang’s brilliant M (1931).
Morning Mood has also been used in a hundred adverts and TV shows, its melody being the sort of musical shorthand so favoured by lazy producers. It’s most recent use was in an episode of Top Gear.
My personal favourite has always been Solveig’s Song, the fourth movement in Suite No. 2. It’s a hauntingly lovely song, and I wasn’t surprised to read that it moved the original audiences to tears.
From the L.P my Mum used to play when I was a kid, up to my CD copy, all the versions of this song I’ve heard in the Peer Gynt Suites have been instrumentals. It was only when I downloaded a recording of the original score that I realised at one point the song was meant to be sung.
Below is performance of it complete with vocals from the Norwegian soprano, Marita Solberg.
Suite No. 2 was originally supposed to have a fifth song, The Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter. Grieg, however, withdrew it after conducting the five pieces together at a concert in Leipzig, coming to believe that the song was only suitable for the theatre.
“…with all respect and love to all the trolls,” he said “in the final analysis we must show no mercy and cut it out.”
Far be it from me to disagree with the maestro, but in my opinion The Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter is every bit as good as the two dances that did make the cut, if not better. I love the way it builds, coming in with full force on the third repetition of the melody.
So there you have it. I’d recommend The Peer Gynt Suites to anyone looking for a quick fix of Grieg. The eight movements range from light and happy (Anitra’s Dance) to tear-jerkingly sad (Ase’s Death, one of the most moving pieces of music you’ll ever hear). For those of you who want to explore it more, get the full original score and let yourself be whisked away to distant lands.