Grieg – Peer Gynt Suite No. 1

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was approached by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) in 1867 to write the music for the premiere of his new play, Peer Gynt. Grieg felt constrained by the demands of the play and was not happy with the score that accompanied the premiere in Oslo in 1876. However, the play was revived in Copenhagen in 1885 and 1902 and Grieg was able to revise his score to a 90 minute long production with which he was finally happy. However, this full version is rarely performed and instead Grieg put together some of the music into two suites and it is the most popular Suite 1, put together in 1888, which will be performed today.

The play tells the story of the Norwegian peasant Peer Gynt, whose father loses all his riches through alcoholism and leaves Peer and his mother, Åse penniless. Peer decides to leave his village to restore their fortunes and is gone for many years. He has countless adventures throughout far away lands and it is these adventures that are depicted by the music in this suite, although the order of the music in the suite is not related to the order of events in the plot.

‘Morning’ actually depicts the sun rising over a Moroccan desert landscape although the music would equally fit a new day dawning over a fresh Norwegian wood. The pastoral melody waxes and wanes over long bass notes and gradually develops in intensity as the sun rises and the colours of the day become stronger whilst the flute melodies over the top are resonant of a dawn chorus. It sounds fresh and clean and it is easy to imagine Peer waking up and stretching, filled with optimism about the day ahead.

The second movement, ‘The Death of Åse’ is performed by the string section and refers to the death of Peer’s mother who waited for so many years for him to return. As Peer sits comforting his mother as she dies, the haunting melody is repeated three times, becoming increasingly louder before finally fading away to nothing. Peer spent many years away from Åse so the scene is made more poignant by this realization of those lost years, which can never be recaptured.

‘Anitra’s Dance’ depicts the tent of an Arab chieftain in an oasis in Northern Africa. Peer is lying on sumptuous carpets smoking a long pipe whilst being entertained by beautiful dancing girls. The seductive melody portrays this exotic and far away setting as Peer gradually falls under the spell of one of the dancers, the sultry Anitra. Thoughts of home must be very far away at this point for Peer as he allows himself to be distracted from his task by the tempting diversions offered by the chieftain.

The fourth and final movement is ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’. By this time Peer has returned to Norway and meets a woman who takes him to meet her father, the King of Trolls. Peer is tempted to accept the hand of this princess in marriage and with it the kingdom of the trolls but changes his mind at the last minute, because he is frightened of giving up his human identity to become a troll. The trolls are angry at his change of heart and the music becomes increasingly menacing and moves faster and faster until it seems inevitable that Peer’s journey will end at the hand of these angry creatures. However the mountain crumbles down onto the trolls, saving Peer at the last minute.

Vicky Moran, Violin 2