Edvard Grieg: absolute quiet and a taste of codfish

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
March 5, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Images assault us. Our minds are ringed with strands of light.

Information from a thousand other worlds, intimate to us as the bedroom closet, plays the tyrant over our imaginations.

Death on the West Bank. One strand.

Reaction in Washington, another.

Now add more. Jamie Foxx accepting an Oscar. And more. Charlie Chaplin waddling away with Paulette Goddard. The strands become a web. Hostage takers, the Super Bowl, televangelists, nuts. Now they're a cap, a globe, electronic mummy wrappings and there is no air for us.

Edvard Grieg, who needed absolute quiet when he composed (no other worlds, no filtered experience, his feet firmly planted on the floor of his Composer's Hut at Troll's Hill outside Bergen, Norway), lived and died before anyone could see two oceans at once.

So here's a question (perhaps idle, perhaps not): How do we listen to music composed by a man who breathed an air not available to us anymore?

The same could be asked of any composer living before electronics extended the grasp if not the reach of our minds. But Grieg was so nicely contradictory in his nature, so human, so embraceable; separation from him by time and times is like meditating on images a century old while city traffic beats outside. Sad, curiously sad.

He was a sweet man, a gentle man. And he had a prickly personality, expressed with a rapier tongue.

He had a poetical nature. He was a practical man.

He was a pessimist. He was full of hope.

His music beat with the meter of the Norwegian language and the Norwegian heart. He was hurt by the criticism that he was nothing but a copyist for Norwegian folklore.

He never weighed more than 110 pounds. His Piano Concerto shook the Kjoelen Mountains.

And he needed absolute quiet when he composed.

Look at the face in the century-old picture. Grieg in his forties. The fair hair and moustache, not yet gone Mark Twain white. The blue eyes, "not very large, but irresistibly fascinating," according to Tchaikovsky. The face of a meticulous man who used lead pencil and rubber eraser to write and rewrite his scores on a single finished sheet. A man who said, "I am sure my music has a taste of codfish in it."

Curious, sad — the face, and the fact that though we can listen to the Holberg Suite on the radio, the Norwegian Dances through the CD player, and Peer Gynt in the concert hall; though we can hear all the remarkable sounds, we can never again know the absolute quiet from which those sounds emerged.

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