There are many dynamic lines connecting this evening’s composers. Edvard Grieg first encountered Richard Wagner in 1858 when he went to see Tannhäuser as a young student in Leipzig. He was in awe of Wagner’s groundbreaking style of composition and claimed that he saw the opera fourteen times running – students had free passes to the Gewandhaus concert hall. In 1876 Wagner’s own Festpielshaus was completed, tailored to his operas, with acoustics designed specifically for the composer’s orchestration. Grieg received an all expenses paid invitation from his publisher Max Abraham, and went to Bayreuth for the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Several of his travelogues from the journey were published in the Bergen press. He expresses his admiration, but explains that Wagner’s music assaults him with a nervous irritability and total lack of respite. ‘Despite this music being on the borderline of beauty, it is a gigantic musical work the like of which art history has not witnessed since Michelangelo.’
Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, which premiered at the 1882 Bayreuth Festival, departed from many of the established operatic norms. Wagner entitled the instrumental introduction Prelude instead of the standard Overture. It nevertheless slowly and meditatively presents the themes of the opera, preparing the audience for what to expect. The story is based on the legends of the Knights of the Holy Grail and their struggle against the evil secular world. We follow the long quest of Parsifal for the realm of the Fisher King where the Holy Grail is guarded. ‘Where do we find the grail?’ Parsifal the knight asks. The answer is that you find the grail inside yourself.
Wagner’s mighty music is followed by Rolf Wallin’s Fisher King, based on the same legend. The concerto, composed for the trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, describes the experience of being in a dark, bleak landscape – a place easily recognisable by all. Nonetheless both of these works depict the hope and the urge to overcome limitations and to leave the darkness behind.
Les préludes, by the Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso Frantz Liszt is said to be inspired by a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine, and his alleged query: ‘What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?’. In 1848 Liszt tore himself away from his nerve-racking and demoralising life as a concert pianist to settle in Weimar, where he becaime influential in his roles as an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher, as a producer of public concerts and as kapellmeister at the opera. Wagner’s Lohengrin was first performed here with Liszt conducting. Liszt and Wagner became close friends. In 1865 Liszt took Holy Orders in the Roman Catholic Church, receiving the title Abbot. When not living in Rome or Budapest, he resided in Weimar, where he taught, ran music festivals and performed his own works.
In autumn 1868 Grieg was longing to get away from Christiania (as Oslo was called at the time) and applied for a grant to travel abroad. This was the year he lost his little daughter Alexandra, and he felt that a trip abroad would give him new momentum. He had already sent Liszt his first Violin Sonata opus 8, and asked him for a recommendation. Liszt sent a glowing reference along with an invitation to visit him in Weimar. On 10 January 1869 Grieg submitted his application for 500 speciedaler (worth about 100 000 kroner today) for a stay abroad to ‘gain time and peace for creative activity and the opportunity to spend time with art and artists, in order to rejuvenate my mind and broaden my view of the ideal situation, which in the conditions under which I live can only be constricted.’ After a six month wait the application was accepted and Grieg and Nina set out on a four month journey in Europe. Frantz Liszt was waiting for them in Rome, and some immortal descriptions from Grieg’s hand resulted from their encounter. While Liszt and Grieg sat together at the piano playing through his concerto, Liszt suddenly broke off and stood in admiration of the finale: ‘He paced with gigantic theatrical steps and his arm raised through the great monastery hall bellowing out the theme exclaiming, “G, G, not G sharp! Splendid! This sounds typically Swedish!” He returned to the piano, repeated the entire phrase and finished playing the concerto.’
Liszt died during the Bayreuth Festival in 1886, ten years after Grieg had heard Wagner there. Edvard Grieg received affirmation – and also inspiration – from two of the most important European composers of his time. His internationally best known and probably most widely played work, his A minor Piano Concerto, is deservedly both the main course and the cohesive feature of this evening’s programme.
Text: Annabel Guaita
English version: Roger Martin