Sunday, May 11, 2014

Stuart & Friends: Edvard Grieg and the Road to his 3rd Violin Sonata

Stuart Malina
Tuesday night at 7:30 at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center of Harrisburg Area Community College, Stuart Malina puts the baton aside to play piano with members of the orchestra he conducts.

It's the annual tradition known as “Stuart and Friends.”

Peter Sirotin
He'll be joined by principal string players for an evening of chamber music. What is "chamber music," you may ask? It's music for smaller combinations of performers, sometimes a soloist, sometimes a quartet or more, and intended for more intimate settings than large concert halls. I like to think of it as music for friends played by friends. In this case, concertmaster Peter Sirotin and Stuart will play Edvard Grieg's not-often-heard Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor.

Then, joined by violist Julius Wirth, cellist Fiona Thompson and bassist Devin Howell, they'll play the almost-never-heard Piano Quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams. (You can read about the quintet, here.)

Here is Kyung-Wha Chung & Robert MacDonald playing Grieg's sonata, recorded at a music festival in Korea:
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Grieg in 1888
Edvard Grieg is probably best known as a composer of miniatures, especially the incidental music to Ibsen's play Peer Gynt and various folk-inspired dances and character pieces (like the “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”).

But perhaps his most famous piece if his Piano Concerto which he showed to none other than Franz Liszt in April, 1870, while he was visiting Rome. Liszt had already written a letter of recommendation for the young Norwegian and was much impressed with his 1st Violin Sonata. Meeting the composer's new concerto, Liszt sat down and sight read it (with the orchestral part where needed) which much impressed a bunch of musicians who were listening to this informal gathering (though Grieg, then 26, mentioned that Liszt, the greatest pianist of the day, did play the first movement too fast). It had been composed two years earlier and had already been performed twice in Copenhagen and what is now called Oslo. It would be published two years later.

I mention this because both works on this program are tied into early works and more mature works – in Vaughan Williams' case, we're hearing an early, most likely unknown work to most of the people in the audience who will probably be familiar with more mature works like his “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” (written only seven years later) or his “London Symphony” completed in 1914 and which the Harrisburg Symphony performed four years ago.

In Grieg's case, it is earlier works (if not exactly “early” works by a not yet mature composer) that are more familiar than the Violin Sonata on the program. The Piano Concerto is from 1868 (he was 24) and Peer Gynt was composed in the mid-1870s when he was still largely unknown, a composer in his early-30s. Today, you can hardly run across a cartoon sunrise that didn't have Grieg's “Morning Mood” as its soundtrack (though of course every on-line reference I googled is actually that other famous cartoon morning song, from Rossini's “William Tell” Overture – except for a scene from the movie, Soylent Green which is something else, again (sigh)...).

However, the 3rd Violin Sonata was composed when he was 44, begun two years after he'd written the Holberg Suite originally for piano, which he then arranged for string orchestra. Shortly after the sonata, he prepared a concert suite of four excerpts from Peer Gynt which now made its way into the concert halls as we're more familiar with it today (a second suite would be released four years later).

We don't usually associate Grieg's name with “abstract” music – that is, music that doesn't tell a story, isn't inspired by folk-songs or -dances. This would be the symphonies, string quartets and concertos that form the bread-and-butter of the repertoire for Beethoven or Mozart or Brahms. But yet, despite the popularity of his lone (and early) piano concerto, Grieg avoided the “academic” forms like the Sonata and Symphony. Yes, there's an early symphony, begun when he was 20, which he thought was dreadful and destroyed it (though a copy survived).

Grieg, the Student
Of course, he was given “good German training” for a boy from such a remote world as Norway (which had been a province of Denmark until 1814, and then part of Sweden – it would not become an independent country until 1905, the year after Grieg's death). He was assigned to write string quartets and overtures without really understanding the whole Germanic “abstract” formal thing that was at the root of classical music in the German-speaking world.

Remember, Grieg began his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1858 when he was 15 and studied piano with a friend of Robert Schumann's – this was only two years after Schumann's death – and he heard Clara Schumann play her husband's piano concerto. Brahms had not yet materialized as anything beyond Schumann's prophecy of being the Heir of Beethoven.

The composer he studied with in Copenhagen, Niels Gade, was regarded as the Danish Mendelssohn and, in general, what cultural life there was in Norway was very conservative. Christiana (later renamed Oslo) was a backwater and most artists looked to nearby Copenhagen as the closest cultural center (despite the political union with Sweden: it was easier to get to than Stockholm which, by itself, wasn't much better, then).

When Grieg returned to his hometown of Bergen which at least had an orchestra, he performed a few of his earliest published works as well as Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet and later Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto. He also played Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata in a recital.

So he went to Copenhagen seeking advice from Gade who treated him kindly if with some disdain as a Norwegian provincial. Gade assigned him to write a symphony but without giving much guidance: it was what one was expected to do, write symphonies and sonatas and quartets. Grieg just didn't have a grasp of the form or how to develop anything beyond the simpler miniatures that came so easily to him.

Two years later, during a summer holiday, he wrote two sonatas – a piano sonata in E Minor (here's a link to a recording by Alicia deLarrocha) and his first violin sonata, a youthful, almost exclusively sunny work. Gade thought less of his more dramatic second violin sonata, written in 1867, saying it was “too Norwegian,” meaning, basically, it wouldn't fly in the wider Germanic world of true art. Grieg declared his next sonata would be even more Norwegian, then.

This was a challenging time for Norway's cultural identity: poets and artists were trying to break away from the Germanic, even the centralized idea of a Scandinavian identity to create something specifically Norwegian. By 1865, Ibsen wrote his play Brand (“Fire” in the Scandinavian languages), a philosophical tragedy about an idealistic young priest who wishes to save the world. Two years later, he wrote Peer Gynt, an often satirical comedy, in which the good-for-nothing Peer, for all his adventures, is probably the quintessential Norwegian boy longing for a place in the world.

Grieg's 2nd Violin Sonata and some ninety minutes of music for Peer Gynt were composed in the same year. The following year, he wrote his Piano Concerto which many have compared to Robert Schumann's – both are in the same key and have similar openings, but beyond that, Grieg is quickly finding his own voice: this is clearly a Norwegian concerto, not a German one.

It was twenty more years till Grieg composed his next violin sonata, the one Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina are playing on this concert. In between he wrote songs, piano pieces, some incidental music, but nothing “abstract” (Germanic) until he started writing a piano trio in 1877 – which he never finished. But he did complete a string quartet the next year which he said “is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written." (Here's a link to the first movement.) Curiously, the last movement, while still inspired by a dance, is based on the Italian saltarello (similar to a tarantella).  Grieg, clearly, in a more international mood: the work was written for a German quartet and was premiered by them in Köln.

It's a surprisingly cohesive and fairly bold work, considering Grieg wrote few larger-form works. Yet he never seemed to follow up on it and the work has never maintained much popularity.

What might have brought on this interest in trying “sonata-form pieces” again, got him thinking about this Germanic, abstract long-forms? In 1876, he was in Bayreuth, attending (and reviewing) the world premiere of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung – hardly an abstract, academic work, but something he found activated his creative interests.

Shortly after he completed the quartet, though, he experienced one of those fallow periods brought on by increasing ill-health (having suffered from tuberculosis as a young man, he was often in and out of treatment and recuperation for respiratory ailments throughout his life). A year later, he played his Piano Concerto in Copenhagen (the Danish royal family were patrons of the concert) and by 1880, he was back to composing again and became conductor of the Bergen orchestra.

Then in 1883, after putting aside sketches for a second piano concerto – imagine! – Grieg composed a cello sonata which had been commissioned by a Leipzig publisher and which found inspiration in the composer's brother, Johan, an amateur cellist and was premiered in Dresden.

Rather than dealing with academic forms and the standard developmental procedures, he went more for emotional contrast with themes that could be robust and dramatic or lyrical and often folk-like: the second theme of the first movement and the whole second movement could never have been written by a German composer! And while many composers wrote ethnic-inspired dance movements for their finales (Brahms used Hungarian dances in his Violin Concerto, the 1st Piano Quartet and the Double Concerto; Ludwig Spohr wrote a polonaise for the ending of a Clarinet concerto), not many would have bothered with Norwegian dances the way Grieg did.

Still, even though the piece proved to quite successful, he gave “abstract formalism” a wide berth – until 1886 when he had started sketching a piano quintet – imagine! – and after putting it aside, began work on his third violin sonata.

Unlike the earlier violin sonatas which were written in a few weeks – and now perhaps because he felt he'd found a way of handling larger forms, this one took several months to complete. Again, it contrasts dramatic and lyrical themes and they're often built out of folk-song-like motifs.

These lyrical themes appear, on their own, like perfectly shaped miniatures within a wider formal context.

While the last movement is clearly based on folk-music, the dance that is the main theme is given the full “Germanic” treatment yet without putting it through the typical development process.The drama is in the contrast between the themes.

Though written at Troldhaugen, his home outside Bergen (he and his wife had moved there the year before), it was given its premiere in Germany, like his other “abstract” works – Leipzig, to be exact, with the great Russian-born violinist Adolph Brodsky and the composer at the piano.

In preparation for the premiere, Karel Hoffmann, a Czech musician, wrote, "despite his neuralgia, rheumatism and many health problems, Grieg was an excellent pianist who played with incredible temperament. He played the fast parts wildly, then wanting extremely slow expressive sections."

Despite its reliance on folk-motifs and -rhythms, Grieg described the 2nd Sonata as “the Norwegian one.” The 3rd he considered "the one with the broader horizon."

Like many composers who came of age in the 1850s and '60s on the outskirts of the cultural centers of Europe, Edvard Grieg found himself caught up in the idea of creating a “national voice” for his music. This period of 19th Century “Nationalism” is more familiar with the works of Bedrich Smetana in Bohemia (particularly his suite depicting his homeland, Ma Vlast with its familiar “The Moldau”) and the Russian handful known as “The Five.”

Tchaikovsky, three years older than Grieg, also had to contend with the heritage of German art versus the finding this national voice and while he was considered a “cosmopolitan” beside his colleagues like Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, many of his “abstract” symphonies – like the 5th Symphony which the orchestra will perform later this week on the last Masterworks Concert of the Season – were still considered “too Russian for German audiences.”

Grieg & his wife, Nina
Grieg, it seems, managed to compartmentalize himself and, first of all, understand his own strengths: he knew how to write a good tune and melodies inspired by his Norwegian heritage flowed easily for him. But when he needed to be (or perhaps wanted to be) “cosmopolitan,” he could pull it off. It just wasn't as important to him. His music – like most folk-music – is based on short phrases and repetition, something that is difficult to develop in the way Beethoven might take a small fragment of a motive (like the opening of his 5th Symphony) and turn it not only into a longer theme but a whole movement (much less a whole symphony). This was something Grieg was never comfortable with.

Still, after the 3rd Violin Sonata, he completed no more long-form pieces: there are sketches for two movements of another string quartet from 1891. Other unfinished works include a violin concerto and another symphony, but I haven't found any reliable references to when they were sketched.

But Grieg was recognized internationally as a composer, including honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. He had met Brahms (who was 10 years his senior) and when it looked like a dinner with Brahms and Tchaikovsky (two bitterly opposed personalities as well as artists) would turn chilly, Grieg volunteered to sit between them.

When a friend came backstage during a performance of his that Brahms was attending and told him Brahms really admired his piano-playing, Grieg laughed and said “Ah, that's just one of his jokes.” It got him out of having to comment on what he thought of him as a composer.

Tchaikovsky, on his part, wrote that he thought highly of Grieg, praising his music's originality, beauty and warmth.

Still, in a world so familiar with music from Peer Gynt and despite the Piano Concerto's popularity, we are often surprised to discover not only did Grieg write “abstract chamber music” but wrote it rather well. True, it's not the way Brahms or Beethoven might have handled it, but that's not his fault: it wasn't a question of just finding a national, Norwegian voice for his music, but finding his own.

The second half of the program features an early work of Ralph Vaughan Williams – a quintet for piano and strings for a “Trout”-like combination – that might be the reverse of this journey: Vaughan Williams, an Englishman growing up in a largely Germanic tradition, had not yet broken out of his heritage to discover the folk-songs of his own nation's musical identity.

I'll get into that in the next post which you can read, here.

Dick Strawser

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