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Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46

About the Work

Edvard Grieg
Quick Look Composer: Edvard Grieg
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Krzysztof Urbanski, conductor / Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays MacMillan & Saint-Saëns Jun. 20 - 22, 2013
© Peter Laki

Peer Gynt Suite No.1
EDVARD GRIEG
Born June 15, 1843 in Bergen, Norway
Died September 4, 1907 in Bergen, Norway

The great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) accomplished the near impossible in his verse drama Peer Gynt (1867): he chose for his protagonist a man who was completely devoid of any positive qualities and made us care for that man deeply by the end of the play. Peer, a Norwegian peasant lad, is conceited beyond imagination, a notorious liar, swindler, and womanizer, who betrays the love of his life and all his friends, and doesn’t hesitate to send others to their deaths so that he may live. But Ibsen showed how earnestly this unsavory character had struggled all his life to make sense of human destiny, and made this quest the focus of his play. Like Goethe’s Faust, Peer goes from one plane of experience to the next: his path leads him, in turn, to the kingdom of the Trolls, to America, and the North African desert, before he finds his way back to the saintly Solveig, who has spent her entire life waiting for him patiently in the Norwegian mountains.

One of the things that make Peer Gynt unique is its mixture of Norwegian local color and universal philosophy. When Edvard Grieg was asked to write the incidental music for the play’s first production, he complained that it was “the most unmusical of subjects.” Evidently, he had some difficulty capturing the philosophical side of the drama. The folkloristic element, on the other hand, positively cried out for musical treatment, and here Grieg was in his element. The incidental music to Peer Gynt strengthened his reputation as the greatest composer in the country, and at the same time, it helped establish Ibsen’s masterpiece on the international stage.

Grieg extracted two suites from Peer Gynt. Each suite is in four movements. The first suite opens with the Prelude to Act IV, “Morning.” The sun rises over a landscape of North African desert—although the music would just as easily fit one of the drama’s Norwegian scenes. A pastoral melody, mostly over long-held, unmoving bass notes, unfolds quietly, waxing and waning in intensity.

The second movement is “Åse’s Death.” Peer had a rather ambivalent relationship with his mother Åse, to put it mildly. In the first scene of the drama, we see the two of them arguing vehemently and Åse calls her son a liar and a ne’er-do-well. As a response, Peer lifts her up and puts her on the mill-house roof, from where she is unable to come down without help. Later, as she lies dying, Peer sits next to her, and spins out a lively fantasy about taking her on a wild horseback ride to Soria-Moria Castle, where she will be greeted by St. Peter with due reverence. The music, in total contrast with these tumultuous goings-on, is a lament for strings alone (all but the basses playing with mutes). Its simple yet poignant melody is repeated three times, increasingly louder and louder; then a related, chromatically inflected theme fades out the movement in pianissimo.

The third movement, “Anitra’s Dance,” is in a “Tempo di Mazurka.” This may be inappropriate geographically, given the fact that the mazurka is a Polish dance and this scene of the play is set in a desert oasis in North Africa. Yet the seductive melody and playful chromaticism of the movement are perfectly in character for the episode, in which Peer, posing as a prophet and smoking his long pipe in the tent of an Arab chieftain, enjoys the song and dance of a group of Arabian girls, and singles out one of them, Anitra, for special attention. The strings (once again muted, except for the basses) are joined only by a triangle.

The suite ends with one of Grieg’s most popular melodies, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Peer has met a woman clad in green who has taken him to the palace of her father, the King of the Trolls. Peer almost becomes a Troll himself, and almost accepts the kingdom and the hand of the Troll princess. He backs out at the last minute, however, frightened at the prospect of having to give up his human identity (but not without impregnating the princess first). The grotesque music of the mountain people becomes more and more menacing as it grows in volume. At the end of the movement, Peer is nearly killed by the angry Trolls.