Edvard Grieg (b. Bergen, 15 June 1843 – d. Bergen, 4 September 1907)
Preface to the full score
Grieg wrote the original version of his melodrama Bergliot in the early 1870s. It was a period when he seemed primarily occupied with national subjects: he had just completed the piano cycle Folkelivsbilleder (“Scenes from Folk Life,” op 19) and the dramatic scena Foran Sydens Kloster (“Before a Southern Convent,” op. 20), and the new work would soon be followed by the cantata Landkjenning (“Land-Sighting,” op. 31) and the incidental music to Sigurd Jorsalfar (op. 21). However, the term “national” should not mislead us into thinking that at this time Grieg was strongly committed to folk-based material; on the contrary, the years after 1870 seem to have formed a hiatus in his fascination with folk music. The Second Violin Sonata (op. 13) and the 25 Norske Folkeviser og Dandse (“25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances,” op. 17) had clearly strengthened his resolve to pursue a personal style, whether by manipulating folk-like themes within a multi-movement composition (as in the violin sonata) or by reworking original material for piano (as in op. 17).
Grieg’s opp. 20, 21, 31, 42, and the unfinished opera Olav Trygvason that he began shortly thereafter were all settings of texts by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. At that time Bjørnson, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Literature, was Henrik Ibsen’s rival for the crown of Norwegian poetry; today, however, he has receded into the background even in his own country. In Bergliot Bjørnson describes, in idealized form, a situation that seems at first glance an almost everyday affair. A dispute involving Bergliot’s husband is set to be resolved. An important role is given to the Thingfrieden, a negotiated truce which promises free passage to the quarreling parties, regardless of the seriousness of the impending crime. The opposing party breaks the truce, murdering Bergliot’s husband and son.
Bjørnson’s writings of this period raise problems with regard to theatrical credibility; Grieg, while composing Olav Trygvason, went so far as to accuse his colleague of thinking undramatically.1 The German translation of Grieg’s early dramatic texts lopsidedly reinforces the emotional side of the poem (perhaps in response to the idealizing tendencies of Wagner’s librettos) without always convincingly delineating the characters. It is thus all too easy to dismiss Bergliot as “melodramatic” in the colloquial sense of the term: emotionally overheated, sentimental, and not least of all, when we consider Ibsen’s female characters, outdated.
However, there is no overlooking, or “overhearing,” the fact that Grieg never once submits to the text. Even in the initial piano version, and certainly in the orchestrated version, with its clear splashes of instrumental color, it is obvious that Grieg, rather than viewing Bergliot as a generic specimen, treats her seriously as an individual. The wife standing at her husband’s side, the fearful and anxious mother, is not made a slave of her emotions: we can visualize her as a person and accept her role, trapped in the social strictures of her time. The concluding funeral march goes far beyond Bjørnson’s original: whereas the libretto emphasizes Bergliot’s resignation and sorrow, Grieg openly stresses her rebellion and rage at the betrayal of her family. We can be certain that his Bergliot will not submit to the same fate as the men in her family.
Bergliot was published in an initial orchestral version by the Leipzig firm of Peters in 1886 and may well have been revised once again in 1897.2 Max Abraham, the firm’s director, welcomed Grieg’s plan to publish the work but, after perusing the score, regretted that it was impossible to extract a purely orchestral piece from it.3 We may well raise our eyebrows at his commercial reasoning, but Abraham feared, quite rightly, that the melodramatic version would stand in the way of the music’s acceptance: foreign audiences would be unaware of the historical background of the libretto and might find its language inaccessible. He proposed that Grieg publish the ending of the work in a piano arrangement together with the Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak 4 – a proposal which, however, fell on deaf ears.
Translation: Bradford Robinson
1 Oelmann, Klaus Henning: Edvard Grieg – Versuch einer Orientierung (Egelsbach, 1993), pp. 114 f. 2 Grieg, Edvard: Briefwechsel 1 (Frankfurt am Main, 2005), pp. 200 f. 3 Ibid., p 97 4 See Oelmann, op. cit., pp. 66-79, for further information on this figure.
For performance material please contact the publisher Peters, Frankfurt. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, München.
Deutsches Vorwort zur Partitur lesen > HERE