Edvard Grieg's String Quartets
Erling Dahl jr.:
Edvard Grieg's String quartet in G minor, Opus 27.
After busy years in Oslo, teaching and conducting to make a living, Edvard Grieg and his wife Nina left for Hardanger in 1877. During a couple of years there, he made several masterpieces,- and among them the String Quartet in g-minor, op. 27. On hearing Grieg`s String Quartet for the first time, Franz Liszt declared :”It is long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg”.
Grieg himself characterised the quartet as a slice out of his own life :”… concealed within it, are samples of that heart’s blood of which it is be hoped posterity will see more than a few drops.”
The musical language is rather radical, and in many ways Grieg`s quartet is a bridge between the late Beethoven quartets and Debussy’s quartet 15 years later and Bartok`s wonderful quartets of this century.
Working hard to find theme and form, Grieg at last decided to build the whole quartet on the theme from The Ibsen Song “Fiddlers”.(Op.25 nr.1). During all 4 movements this theme is the underlying material. The opening motive (octave- falling to major 7th and 5th ) is also the main motive in a.o. a-minor concerto. The motivic core pervades the entire quartet, binding it together to form a composite whole, all the way from the dramatic g-minor introduction of the first movement to the entrancing finish in G-major of the last.
This conceptual unity in the shape of a cyclic through-going melodic idea, did nor originate with Grieg. It is a common technique used by Liszt, for example. But Grieg made more consistent use of it than what was common in chamber music so far.
An other aspect is the thickness of sound in Grieg`s quartet. It is an unorthodox, magnificence of sound that verges on the orchestral. He uses simultaneous double stopping in fortissimo in several instruments. Grieg has been criticised for this, but he himself said that the quartet wasn’t designed to “.. peddle occasional flashes of brilliance. It aims at breadth, to soar, and, above all, at vigorous sound for the instruments for which it is written.”
Finally the quartet is untraditional in its markedly homophonic style. But there are polyphonic passages too which prove that Grieg was a master also of this technique.
Edvard Grieg's String Quartet nr. 2 in F major. Unfinished.
During the winter of 1891 Edvard Grieg lived in Copenhagen, and his main intention was to compose. But he felt miserable,- both for his own lack of artistic ability, but also for the absence of artistic inspiration in Copenhagen. ”..It is a period of decadence and decline. There is nothing inspiring or stimulating. No, Give me peaceful nature instead!. I speaks more and better than this prattling, petty people……The music I settle on one day I tear out of my heart the next, for it is not genuine. My ideas are bloodless just as I am, and I am loosing confidence in myself.”(Letter to Franz Beyer, Januar 1891).
But in March 1891 he writes again to Beyer: ”I have written two movements of a string quartet. Of course, it was supposed to have been completely finished down here. But.. And I’m going to Oslo in April..”
But after leaving Copenhagen, Grieg never again had time of restful peace to finish this work. During the rest of his life we can see that his conscience was troubled by this unfinished work.
”… that accursed string quartet which constantly lies there like an old Norwegian cheese.”(Letter to Brodsky,1895)
”Perhaps you remember my mentioning unfinished string quartet? I had also intended to get it done. But these last years have brought so much misery, both physically and spiritually, that I wasn’t in the mood to proceed with this cheerful work – quite opposite of Opus 27. But I hope to find the long-sought tranquillity and inclination this summer.” (Letter to Peters firm, Leipzig 1903).
” If only I could at least finish the string quartet for you!” (Letter to Brodsky, 1906).
In 1907 there still was only two movements and some sketches to the rest. Grieg’s Dutch friend, Julius Röntgen, got the manuscripts from Grieg’s wife, Nina, and he edited the first two movements for Ed. Peters in 1908.
Röntgen also had a special ”premiere” of the F-major quartet in his home.
”You should have been with us last evening! We played the quartet. It was strange to sit there and realise that now it was being heard for the first time, and that Edvard himself never got to hear it……. But now you must hear who made up the quartet. It was unusual: Harold Bauer, the great pianist, played first violin and really did a fine job. Pablo Casals played second violin and held the violin between his legs just like a cello. I played the viola, and Mrs. Casals played cello in a remarkable way. All four of us were filled with the greatest excitement – with my wife as the only audience!”(Letter to Nina Grieg, November 1907.)
The unfinished quartet has not been played too often in public during the time since. In 1996 the Chilingirian Quartet toured in Norway, and the played a.o. Grieg’s F-major. Visiting Bergen, Levon Chilingirian had the opportunity to visit the Grieg Collection and see the manuscripts and sketches to the quartet, and he became aware of several changes made by Röntgen in his edition comparing to what Grieg had written in his manuscript.
Since then, Levon Chilingirian has worked on reediting the two first movements, and to make ready for playing what was available from 3rd and 4th movement. What is recorded is what we for sure knows was Grieg’s original version.
Levon Chiligirian writes:
In 1891, Edvard Grieg composed his F major quartet, but sadly the last two movements remained unfinished.
MOVEMENTS I & II.
I have studied the original manuscripts of the first two movements which have many clarifying instructions added by Julius Röntgen, in preparation for their printing by C. F. Peters in 1908.
With invaluable advice from Rune J. Andersen and Finn Benestad I have tried to cast a new light on some details of execution. Often, Edvard Grieg would write chords with too many notes and each editor would have to arrive at a practical solution to facilitate a succesful performance. Sometimes I have reverted to the voicing intended by Edvard Grieg by switching lines between instruments (e.g. bars 39 & 45, viola & cello, 1st movement).
Markings in brackets are probably added by Röntgen. The two ossias in the first movement offer valid alternatives where I cannot determine what Edvard Grieg's final wishes were. Some complicated part writing has been restored to what I consider to be Edvard Grieg's original intentions (e.g. bar 42, 1st movement).
MOVEMENTS III & IV (unfinished).
Deciphering the sketches provided a challenge! Thanks to the invaluable help of my colleagues in the Chilingirian Quartet. (Charles Sewart, Asdis Valdimarsdottir and Philip De Groote), and of Andrew Keener and Erling Dahl jr., I have tried to produce a reasonable playing version with my suggested slurs and dynamics clearly indicated.
I want also to thank Theo and Kitty Wyatt for their patience in setting the score on computer and making innumerable corrections and adjustments over many months.
I very much hope that this edition will present itself as an appealing extension of the repertoire to both professional and amateur quartets.
The sunny key of the F major quartet provides an unexpected vehicle for exploring extremes in expression. The first movement is relaxed in mood until a turbulent and cromatically challenging development section literally whips us off our feet!
The mysterious and oriental-sounding scherzo is seemingly complemented by a faster dance in the trio until a frenzied passage of brutal energy interrupts.
The adagio is a beautiful song followed by a quiet, prayer-like passage leading to recitatives accompanied by dramatic tremolos.
The finale sets a happy mood, contrasted by a hushed passage of nordic beauty. We can only wonder what an effective climax this movement would have made had Edvard Grieg found the inspiration and time to complete it.
Erling Dahl jr. has been Director at Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen from 1991 to 2005. He has been Head of artistic planning at the Bergen International Festival, and is from 2008 in charge of preparing and leading the planned Centre for Grieg Research, in co-operation with the University of Bergen.
The text above is printed in the booklet for the CD Edvard Grieg - String Quartets by Chiligirian String Quartet.
The CD is produced by Edvard Grieg Museum and listed as Trold 11.