Grieg: Concerto in A minor for Piano & Orchestra, op.16

The idea of nationalism as a driving force for art can and should elicit a mixed reaction from modern audiences. An ideology that enforces a cultural, linguistic, ethnic or religious “nation” as the central organizing principle of the state leads naturally to discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide; it is therefore not without complications to state that nationalism was a major driving force in much of the most beloved music of the Romantic period. However, many of the composers that are associated with nationalistic movements in their home countries– Smetana and Dvorak in Czechoslovakia, Liszt and Bartók in Hungary, Chopin in Poland, Sibelius in Finland, and Grieg in Norway– also stand ideologically as examples of the resistance of historically subservient cultures to rapacious imperial interests.

Grieg, like nearly every European nationalist composer, received his musical education from the dominant musical culture– in Grieg’s case, at the Leipzig Conservatory– and was then left wondering how to press the compositional tools he had learned into service of his national identity. Upon leaving the school, he felt the lack of that identity keenly: “I left Leipzig Conservatory just as stupid as I entered it,” he later wrote. “Naturally, I did learn something there, but my individuality was still a closed book to me.”

In order to “breathe a more individual and independent air” than was available in Leipzig, Grieg moved to Copenhagen upon his graduation. He found there exactly what he was looking for: the friendship of other young Norwegian and Danish nationalistic composers. “We instituted a revolution against the established coteries, we enjoyed ourselves in royal fashion. Those were splendid times,” Grieg said of Copenhagen. He also benefited from the demanding mentorship of one of his musical idols, Niels Gade, who refused to even carry on a conversation with the young man until Grieg brought him a symphony. Grieg, who had learned almost nothing of instrumentation in Leipzig, threw himself into filling the gaps in his knowledge to be worthy of Gade’s attention.

The largest, most significant, and best-known work to come out of that period of “splendid times” in Denmark is the Piano concerto in A minor. Although he wrote the concerto at 24 years old, he would continue revising it (mostly to make changes to his perpetual nemesis, the instrumentation) for the rest of his life. This concerto is, to many, the very definiton of the “Romantic” style: its iconic introduction begins with a roll on the timpani that leads into a crashing introduction in the solo piano, giving way to a dramatic melody in the orchestra expanded on extravagantly by the piano. The second movement carves out a moment of peace in the overall drama, before the final movement brings in a dance from Grieg’s homeland to close the work: the driving rhythms of the Norwegian halling dance, an extraordinary athletic style traditionally involving headsprings, spins and the dramatic kicking-down of a hat held up on a high stick.

The concerto was an immediate hit, and has remained so– it has the distinction of being the first piano concerto ever recorded, in a highly abridged version in 1909. Grieg, however, had recently married; so his strongest memory of the premiere was the verdict, not of any of the musical luminaries in attendance, but of his new father-in-law: “I liked the Tuttis best.”