Dramatic Music

By Celenza, Anna Herwell | Notes, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Dramatic Music


Celenza, Anna Herwell, Notes


Edvard Grieg. Peer Gynt, op. 23: Vollstandige Buhnenmusik. Herausgegeben von Finn Benestad. Studienpartitur nach der Edvard Grieg-Gesamtausgabe (Band 18), herausgegeben vom Edvard-Grieg-Komitee, Oslo. Frankfurt am Main: C. F. Peters, [2000], c1988. [Score, 269 p.; notes in Ger., Eng., Nor., 6 p. ISMN M-014-10540-2; Edition Peters, Nr. 8518b. [member of]34.80.]

"If I am granted a few more years of life, I will perform all of this music [to Peer Gynt] as I have conceived it, and as I am capable of making it sound" (Edvard Grieg: Letters to Colleagues and Friends, ed. Finn Benestad; trans. William H. Halverson [Columbus, Ohio: Peer Gynt Press, 2000], 91). Edvard Grieg wrote these words on 1 March 1902, two days after the opening of a new production of Peer Gynt at the National Theater in Oslo (then called Christiania). What did Grieg mean by "all of this music"? How did he envision the work that would eventually become one of his most famous compositions? By all estimations, editor Finn Benestad has effectively answered all these questions and more with this laudable new edition of Grieg's Peer Gynt published by C. F. Peters.

For those whose only acquaintance with Peer Gynt is through Grieg's familiar concert suites (opp. 46 and 55), the original music for the play by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) may come as a bit of a surprise. The concert suites include only eight of the incidental music's twenty-six numbers, and as the order of the pieces within the suites does not follow the sequence of events in the play, there is no sense of the work's satirical nature nor the sustained dramatic impact of Grieg's music. Originally intended for an audience steeped in late-nineteenth-century Victorianism, Peer Gynt was designed to serve as a satire on contemporary society. Peer is one of modern drama's first antiheroes. Presented in the beginning of act 1 as an imaginative, capricious youth, Peer quickly degenerates into a kidnapper and philanderer in act 2, a self-seeking opportunist in act 3, a thief and impostor in act 4, and a murderer and remorseful old man in act 5. The underlying questions of the play are philosophic al in nature: What is man expected to do with his life? What sort of choices is he free to make? What are the consequences of his actions? Grieg was fully aware of the play's moral implications when he agreed to write the incidental music in 1874, and as he explained in a letter to Bjornstjerne Bjornson (1832-1910) that same year: "I can only marvel at how it [the play] is filled with witticism and invective from beginning to end.... I think it is the best thing Ibsen has written" (Letters, 117).

The story behind Grieg's creation of the incidental music to Peer Gynt is rather long and complicated. As Benestad clearly explains in the notes to the edition, Ibsen originally wrote Peer Gynt in 1867 as a play to be read, calling it Et dramatisk digt (A Dramatic Poem). When he decided to adapt the work for the stage seven years later, his first step was to write to Grieg--by then firmly established as Norway's leading composer--to ask if he would consider collaborating on the production. Ibsen's letter made it clear that Grieg's music would be an essential part of the stage work, and he included a number of detailed suggestions as to its use. Grieg willingly accepted the project (incorporating some of Ibsen's suggestions while rejecting others), but he soon discovered the job to be slow and arduous. Letters from the time reveal Grieg's frustration: "The job is proving to be much larger than I had thought, and in some places I am encountering difficulties that have me absolutely stymied" (Letters, 457).

No doubt it was Ibsen's manipulation of folk culture as a means of social commentary that made Grieg declare Peer Gynt to be "a terribly intractable subject with which to deal" (Letters, 29). Grieg recognized Ibsen's cynical caricatures of Norwegian nationalism, and he worked hard to retain that spirit in his music, even if it meant writing music that he personally did not like.

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