Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Peer Gynt

One hundred years ago yesterday, Edvard Grieg died.
He's probably best known for his Piano Concerto in A minor, and for his musical score for Ibsen's Peer Gynt. And, as many of you folks know, I have a special fondess for that wonderful creation that arose from the combined genius of Ibsen (words), Grieg (music) and Munch (yes, he of The Scream, who designed the posters!). Can you imagine the thrill of such a potent force!

I saw Simon Callow as the eponymous anti-hero in a production of Peer Gynt about nine years back. It was tremendous, and was the inspiration for my pen-name (the variably spelt Solvejg/Solveig [in the guide, the spelling was with the 'j']).

By all accounts, neither Ibsen nor Grieg were happy with the results of their collaboration.
In a letter to his friend Frants Beyer, Grieg wrote:
And then I have produced something for the "Hall of the mountain king", which I literally cannot stand to listen to, it rings so of cow dung, of Norwegian-Norwegian-ness, and to thyself be enough-ness! [Source here.]
Ibsen himself had much to say about Grieg's interpretation of Morning Mood. Indeed, for many, the piece has come to evoke images of rolling, green hills and corpulent trees, whereas it was intended to evoke the atmosphere of a palm grove on the coast of Morocco.

I'd like to share this transcript of the letter that started it all: it is the letter that Ibsen wrote to Grieg, inviting him to collaborate on Peer Gynt. You can read more on It gives me goosebumps each time I read it.

- - -

Dear Mr. Grieg,

My object in writing to you is to ask if you would care to co-operate with me in a certain undertaking.
I am thinking of adapting Peer Gynt - of which the third printing is soon to appear - for the stage. Will you compose the music that will be required? Let me indicate briefly how I think of arranging the play.
The first act is to be retained in full, with only a few cuts in the dialogue. Peer Gynt´s monologue [scene 2] I wish to have treated either as melodrama or in part as recitative. The wedding scene [scene 3] must be built up by means of a ballet into something more than is in the book. For this a special dance melody will have to be composed, which would be continued softly to the end of the act.
In the second act, the musical treatment of the scene with the three cowherd girls [scene 3] must be left to the discretion of the composer - but there must be lots of deviltry in it! The monologue [in scene 4] should, I think, be accompanied by chords, in melodramatic style, as also the scene between Peer and the Woman in Green [scene 5]. There must also be some kind of musical accompaniment to the scene in the Hall of the Mountain King; here, however, the speeches are to be considerably shortened. The scene with the Boyg, which is to be given in full, must also be accompanied by music. The Bird Cries are to be sung; the bell ringing and the psalm singing should be heard in the distance.
In the third act I need chords, but not many, for the scene between Peer, the Woman, and the Ugly Brat [scene 3], and I imagine that a soft accompaniment would be appropriate [for Aase´s death].
Almost the whole of the fourth act will be omitted in performance. In place of it I think there should be a large-scale musical tone picture, suggesting Peer Gynt´s wandering all over the world. American, English, and French airs might be used as alternating themes, swelling and fading. The chorus of Anitra and the Girls [scene 6] should be heard behind the curtain, jointly with the orchestra. During this music, the curtain will be raised, and the audience will see, like a distant dream picture, Solveig, now a middle-aged woman, sitting in the sunshine singing outside her house [scene 10]. After her song, the curtain will be slowly lowered again while the music continues, but changing into a suggestion of the storm at sea with which the fifth act opens.
The fifth act, which in performance will be called the fourth act or the epilogue, must be considerably shortened. A musical accompaniment is needed [for the scene with the Stranger]. The scenes on the capsized boat and in the churchyard will be omitted. [At the end of scene 5] Solveig will sing, with the music continuing afterward to accompany Peer Gynt´s speeches and changing into that required for the choruses [in scene 6]. The scenes with the Button-molder and the Old Man of the Dovre will be shortened. [At the end of scene 10] the people on their way to church will sing on the path through the forest. Then bell ringing and distant psalm singing should be suggested by the music that follows and continues until Solveig´s song ends the play. And while the curtain is falling, the psalm singing will be heard again, nearer and louder.
That is approximately the way I have imagined it. Will you let me know if you are willing to undertake the job? If I receive a favorable answer from you, I shall at once write to the management of the Christiania Theater, sending along the revised and abridged text, and making certain, before we go any further, that the play will be performed. I intend to ask 400 specie-dollars for it, to be divided equally between us. I am certain that we may also count upon the play being produced in Copenhagen and Stockholm. But I shall be obliged if you will keep the matter a secret for the present. May I please hear from you as soon as possible.

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