Edvard Grieg

Portrait of Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg was a Norwegian composer and pianist widely considered one of the leading northern Romantic era composers and his music is a mainstay of the classical repertoire. He was born in Bergen, Norway on 15th June 1843 and died there on 4th September 1907 aged 64.  

Major Works

Piano Concerto (1869)
“Peer Gynt Suite” (1875)
“Holberg Suite” (1884)

Biography Timeline

Edvard Hagerup Grieg was born on 15th June 1843, in Bergen, Norway (then part of of the Swedish-Norwegian Union). His father was Alexander Grieg a merchant and British Vice-Consul in Bergen and his mother was Gesine Judith Hagerup, a music teacher and daughter of the politician Edvard Hagerup. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Grieg’s great-grandfather, Alexander left Scotland and eventually settled in Norway around 1770. His mother taught Grieg the piano from the age of six and he studied in several schools, including Tanks Upper Secondary School. 

1858: He enters the Leipzig Conservatory on the recommendation of Ole Bull, the violin virtuoso who was a family friend. He studied piano under Ignaz Moscheles but was not keen on the strictures placed on students. 

1860: In the spring, Grieg contracts two life-threatening lung diseases, pleurisy, and tuberculosis and he was left with only one functioning lung which left him weakened throughout his life. On top of this he suffered from a deformity of his thoracic spine and would spend much time seeking medical attention in later years.

1861: He makes his debut as a concert pianist at the premiere of his first work, the String Quartet in D minor, in Karlshamn, Sweden.

1862: He graduates from the Leipzig Conservatory.

1863: He moves to Copenhagen, Denmark where he studies with Niels Gade. He makes his debut in Bergen by playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata.

1864: He meets the young Norwegian nationalist composer Rikard Nordraak (composer of the Norwegian National Anthem) and begins to learn traditional folk tunes. In the winter he founds the Copenhagen Concert Society, Euterpe to produce works by young Scandinavian composers.

1866: He moves to (now called Oslo).

1867: He marries his cousin Nina Hagerup on 11th June, despite his family’s objections. She is a talented pianist herself as well as an accomplished singer. Both Grieg and Nina were Unitarians. After the wedding the couple move to Christiania in Norway (now called Oslo) and he works as a conductor and a piano teacher. He starts to write the first of his ten collections of Lyric Pieces (Lyriske Stykker) for piano.

1868: The couples only child, Alexandra, is born. Franz Liszt writes a testimonial to the Norwegian Ministry of Education which leads to him obtaining a travel grant. During the summer whilst on holiday in Denmark Grieg begins composing his Piano Concerto A minor.

1869: Alexandra dies from meningitis. The Piano Concerto is given its premiere on 3rd April by Edmund Neupert in the Casino Theatre in Copenhagen. Grieg is not able to attend due to conducting commitments in Oslo. During the winter he meets the playwright Henrik Ibsen.

1870: He meets Franz Liszt in Rome. They discuss the Violin Sonata No. 1. On his second visit in April, Grieg shows him the Piano Concerto, and Liszt is greatly impressed, playing it through by sight. 

1874: He had become friends with the poet Bjornstjerne Blornson and shared his interests in Norwegian self-government. Grieg set several of his poems to music, including “Landkjenning” and Sigurd Jorsalfar” and so they decided to work on an opera together based on King Olav Trygvason. The two couldn’t decide on how to proceed and so Grieg starts writing incidental music for Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” instead (at the request of Ibsen). They both fell out only to resume their friendship later. Ironically the section “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, which has now become world famous, was loathed by Grieg himself for its pastiche of exaggerated Norwegian nationalism which he meant to be ironic. He is granted an annual stipend of 1,600 crowns by the Norwegian government so that he can dedicate himself to composition.

1880: He becomes Music Director of Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (Harmonien) which he continues until 1882. 

1885: He builds his home, “Troldhaugen,” near Bergen. 

1888: He meets Pyotr Tchaikovsky in Leipzig and is very impressed. Tchaikovsky praises Greig’s music. “Peer Gynt” is premiered to an enthusiastic reception and he scores it into Suites 1 and later 2. In spite of poor health Grieg makes several tours in Scandinavia and Europe and plays his Piano Concerto himself in London.

1893: “Peer Gynt Suite 2” is fully scored. 

1894: He is awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge.

1897: On 6th December he and his wife perform some of his music at a Windsor Castle, England for Queen Victoria. 

1899: He cancels his concerts in France in protest at the Dreyfus Affair, an anti-semitic scandal in French politics. He becomes the target of hate mail from many French people.

1903: During the spring Grieg makes nine 78-rpm gramophone recordings of his piano music in Paris and also records music rolls for the Hupfeld Phonola and Welte-Mignon systems, which survive to this day.

1906: He receives a pension from the Norwegian government. He meets musician Percy Grainger at a concert in London who adopts Grieg’s music and plays the Piano Concerto several times throughout the world. Grieg is awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford.

1907: Grieg, when interviewed, said “I have written Norwegian Peasant Dances that no one in my country can play, and here comes this Australian (Grainger) who plays them as they ought to be played! He is a genius that we Scandinavians cannot do other than love.”

Edvard Grieg died on 4 September 1907 at the Municipal Hospital in Bergen, Norway from heart failure after a long period of illness. Over thirty thousand people lined the streets of his home town for the funeral. He was cremated and his ashes were placed in a mountain crypt near his home Troldhaugen. His wife’s ashes would also be placed there later.