Hjertets Melodier: The Heart's Melodies of Nina Grieg

By Hackel, Erin Devik | Journal of Singing, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Hjertets Melodier: The Heart's Melodies of Nina Grieg


Hackel, Erin Devik, Journal of Singing


NORWEGIAN SOPRANO NINA HAGERUP GRIEG was an internationally acclaimed singer during the late nineteenth century, known especially for her interpretations of Norwegian song. As the wife of composer Edvard Grieg, her own talents as an artist, once well known, have become side notes in the myriad works written about her husband. Many remain unaware that she was such an accomplished singer, perhaps-at least in part-because the glowing reviews of her song interpretations are usually short paragraphs hidden within lengthy tributes to her husband.

Nina's voice, small in size and slender in tone, certainly did not fit the late nineteenth century aesthetic of grand, voluptuous singing, and early in her career she endured some harsh words from critics. It was not until later that she developed the interpretive powers for which she became renowned: her nuanced and detailed interpretations of her husband's songs. These songs were written largely, in melody, harmony, and text, to express a uniquely Norwegian sentiment, and as Edvard Grieg himself wrote, "all of them were written for her."1

Daughter of a Danish actress, Nina was born into a performing family, and she showed every sign of becoming a successful singer at a young age. After marrying, she and her husband began a lifelong career of touring and performing his compositions, in Norway and abroad. Early concert programs show that Nina sang a broad variety of repertoire, while later concerts are limited entirely to her husband's compositions. As she grew older, she curtailed her singing and devoted herself to managing her husband's continually growing career, seemingly content in her role as wife, protector, and muse. A closer look at Nina Grieg reveals a true artist, with a compromised voice, perhaps resulting from poor technique or injury; a brilliant musician, tortured by her perceived vocal inadequacies; and an extroverted, talented woman fulfilling nineteenth century expectations of wifedom, by living in her husband's shadow.

The Emigrating Bird

Nina Hagerup was born in Bergen, Norway, on November 24, 1845. She began her musical education early, with serious piano study both in Bergen and in Copenhagen, where her family moved when she was eight. She began private voice study with Carl Helsted at age ten, and, as a result, subsequently became close friends with fellow voice student, Hannchen Alma. Her correspondence with Hannchen is one of the only early written sources of Nina's young personality that still exist.2 In one of her first letters to her friend, she wrote:

How is my little Hannchen? Does she ever think about her roommate? We did get along with each other very well, even if I at times, was a little demanding, and wanted you to follow my direction in all things . . . Do you still eat eggedosis3 every day? Does it taste just as good even when I am not there to keep you company? I can't imagine that it does! That is impossible, for I am so sweet, am I not?4

This small exchange, typical of her letters to Hannchen during that time, show some of her spirit and humor, as well as a clear eye to her own "demanding" personality.

Nina continued her voice studies, and by the time she was eighteen, she was secretly engaged to her cousin, Edvard. When they married in 1867, their parents did not attend; both parental couples strongly disapproved of the match. Edvard's family seemed to think Nina was too headstrong, not subservient enough; his sister called her "the commanding sergeant," and a friend of his wrote, "she is not the type of woman who deserves to support you and encourage you in the development of your talent." Nina's family, in turn, were not generous about her choice in husband. Her mother wrote, "He is nothing, he can do nothing, and he composes music no one cares to listen to."5

Indeed, their marriage was perhaps less idyllic than many would believe. Nina was an extrovert, a self-described "emigrating bird" with "a gypsy nature.

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