Learning to Listen: Edvard Grieg's 'Peer Gynt'

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
February 24, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — Peer Gynt is a bit of a troublemaker, with a reputation around town for being quite a useless human being.

Peer gets into trouble no matter where he goes, but he has such high ambitions — he wants to be emperor of the world and he'll travel all over while he tries to achieve that goal.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote a play based on Peer Gynt, and he asked Edvard Grieg to contribute music.

Grieg wrote approximately 90 minutes of music, and later extracted sections for orchestral suites.

Peer's around-the-world travels allowed Grieg to use special instruments, like cymbals and piccolos, to refer to distant lands.

One of the most famous pieces from Peer Gynt is "Morning Mood". As much as we associate this music with Grieg and Norway, the composer was writing about Peer's high jinks in Morocco.

Grieg wrote other music that more instantly recalls the Middle East. From the 14th into the 19th century, there existed an elite group of soldiers in Turkey called "Janissaries". The Janissaries had their own bands, with cymbals, high flutes, triangles, bass drums and snare drums. Listen for these instruments in "Arabian Dance":

My personal favorite is probably "Ase's Death". This is heartbreaking music, and Grieg scores the orchestra to make it unsettling even if it's beautiful.

In "Ase's Death", Grieg scores the low strings to move in the same direction as the high strings. They both ascend. If Grieg had written the groups in contrary motion, with the bass descending instead of ascending, the resulting sound would be open and full. Instead, with a rising bass, it sounds mournful.

There isn't a single dull note in Grieg's Peer Gynt. It's fantastic music.

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