The Kennedy Center

Peer Gynt, Incidental Music to Ibsen’s Drama, Op. 23

About the Work

Image for Grieg Composer: Edvard Grieg
© Richard Freed

Last September, the month in which the current concert season began, marked significant anniversaries for two great composers who came to personify their respective countries in music: the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Finland's Jean Sibelius, and the centenary of the death of Norway's Edvard Grieg. Throughout this season, Vladimir Ashkenazy has celebrated both composers in his concerts in various parts of the world; his NSO concerts last week were devoted to the music of Sibelius, and this week's program provides a rare opportunity to hear substantially all the music Grieg composed for Peer Gynt in its original context, incorporating not only the vocal numbers of his score but also the pertinent lines of Henrik Ibsen's text.

It was not as a play, but in the form of a dramatic poem, that Ibsen originally published his Peer Gynt in 1867. Seven years later, when he adapted the work for the stage, he invited Grieg to compose music for the first production. Grieg, by then 30 years old, had not only become a celebrity with the success of his Piano Concerto in 1869, but had shown an aptitude for the theater in the incidental music he composed in 1872 for Bjornstjerne Bjornson's Sigurd Jorsalfar. He had been working on an opera with Bjornson (Olav Trygvason) when he received Ibsen's request in January 1874, but by then both composer and librettist had lost interest in the project, leaving Grieg free to take on the new one.

At first Grieg considered Ibsen's play "most unmusical," and showed little enthusiasm for what he regarded as its excessive satirizing of the foibles of the national character, but he did take it on, and what he and Ibsen produced together achieved the status of something like a national epic. Grieg, of course, chose the "nationalist" course early in his creative life, mining folk material for use in his chamber music and concert works. Ibsen (1828-1906) was not only Norway's most celebrated writer, but perhaps the greatest dramatist of his time. While his plays A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts have Norwegian settings, it was in Peer Gynt that he turned to folklore himself: the drama is based in large part on folk tales from Norway's Gudbrandsal region, and the title character was modeled in large part on the exploits of an actual person whose exploits some thirty years before Ibsen's birth were known to the playwright and his compatriots. In this work, the last he wrote in verse, Ibsen set out to focus on specifically Norwegian characteristics, some of them decidedly unattractive. He had little tolerance for smugness or arrogance, in any form or from any source.

Although the music Grieg composed for Peer Gynt represents one of the most successful ventures in the abundant category of "incidental music," having long since taken its place among the most beloved items in the concert repertory as well, he and Ibsen constituted a classic "odd couple" as collaborators. Ibsen had his own ideas about the sort of music his play ought to have, and he suggested that Grieg incorporate in his score a vast tone poem quoting national airs of the various countries visited by Peer Gynt in his wanderings. Grieg ignored that particular idea, and responded with brief numbers which enhanced the drama rather than interrupting it; he provided songs for some of the individual characters, some numbers with chorus, and "melodrama" (music accompanying spoken words) as well as the remarkably evocative orchestral vignettes. The assignment proved to be more effortful than he could have foreseen, as he reported to several friends and associates during his 18 months of work on it.

The premiere took place in Oslo (known then as Christiania) on February 24, 1876, and Grieg was not present; he remarked to a colleague that he had been compelled to set his ideals aside because of the "weak orchestra, and to emphasize crowd-pleasing stage effects," and therefore preferred not to attend. Nonetheless, the premiere, which took five full hours, was enormously successful, and Grieg's music was conspicuously credited in the newspaper reviews. The composer finally did attend a performance on November 12, nearly nine months after the premiere, and he reported that he "had the honor of being rapturously acclaimed both in the middle of the piece (after Solveig's Song) and at the end, when I had to leave my seat in the stalls and appear on the stage."

Ibsen was less enthusiastic than the critics; he felt that Grieg had "prettified" his play. Grieg, on the other hand, expressed embarrassment over certain facets of his success in meeting Ibsen on his own terms, describing the music he wrote for "the Hall of the Mountain King" as "something . . . I literally cannot bear to hear, it so reeks of cow-turds and super-Norwegianism and ?to-yourself-enoughness!'" Posterity, of course, has been both more generous and more accurate in its judgment of both playwright and composer, and Grieg himself was content not only to continue adding to his score, but to take parts of it?including the very section he described so negatively?into the concert hall. The two concert suites he extracted from the stage music?Suite No. 1, Op. 46, in 1888; No. 2, Op. 55, in 1891?were to become his most frequently performed works after the famous Piano Concerto. The play itself has never been out of repertory in Northern Europe. By 1913 it had become so popular that in Berlin two theaters presented it at the same time, and both productions ran more than three years. Just after World War II Peer Gynt became a mainstay of Britain's Old Vic company, which included the play in its American tour, with Ralph Richardson in the title role. Over the years other composers have written music for Peer Gynt--most notably Grieg's latter-day compatriot Harald Saeverud, for a 1948 production in modern Norwegian rather than Ibsen's original "Dano-Norwegian"--and as recently as 1987 Alfred Schnittke composed an entirely new score for John Neumeier's full-evening ballet "freely based on Ibsen's play, but the title stubbornly preserves its connection with Grieg, even more strongly, among great numbers of people, than with Ibsen himself.

Grieg assigned the opus number 23 to his music for the play, and some pieces were added to the original score for new productions over the years. For a production in Copenhagen, ten years after the Norwegian premiere, several of Grieg's piano pieces were added, in orchestrations by others Danish composers, and at about the time of Grieg's death one of these, the Norwegian Bridal Procession, was reorchestrated by his compatriot and friend Johan Halvorsen. It was Halvorsen who edited the first published score of the incidental music, in 1908, a year after Grieg's death. The first complete score, comprising 26 numbers and edited by Finn Benestad, was not published until 1988; it is this critical edition that forms the basis of Mr. Ashkenazy's concert version, first performed in Italy early last year and given in Cleveland last September. Only three brief numbers are omitted, and these essentially amount to repetitions of music that is included. The songs and choral numbers are sung in Norwegian; the spoken text, in English, has been adapted by John de Lancie.


While the Ibsen plays more familiar to American audiences deal with real-life situations in what was for the playwright familiar contemporary settings, Peer Gynt is set largely in a fantasy-world. The hero (or anti-hero) of this five-act drama visits exotic places, encounters weird beings, and most of all creates impossible situations for himself. He is a firebrand in his youth: boastful, smug, unapologetically deceitful and lecherous, with no pretensions to the polish of a Don Juan and no scruples about much of anything, his love for his mother his only apparent virtue. Grieg himself, in the preface to the score of his Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, provided this summary of the play:
"Peer Gynt, the only son of impoverished Norwegian peasants, is described by the poet as a personality suffering from an excess of fantastic imagination as well as from delusions of grandeur. In his youth he commits many a mad prank; he comes to a peasant wedding, abducts the bride and carries her up to the mountain heights, where he leaves her, to roam with wild shepherd girls. Soon he loses his way into the realm of the Mountain King, whose daughter falls in love with him and dances for him, but he makes fun of the dance and the . . . music, whereupon the mountain folk set out to kill him. He escapes, journeys to foreign continents. In Morocco he assumes the airs of a prophet and is greeted by Arabian maidens. After many a strange turn of fate he finally returns home as an old man, once more penniless, having suffered shipwreck on the way. Here the love of his youth, Solveig, who has remained true to him through the years, greets him; his weary head at last finds rest in her lap."
Here is a fuller synopsis of the story as told in Ibsen's words and Grieg's music in the present concerts:

Act I
AT THE WEDDING is the title of the Prelude. The play opens at a village wedding. Peer Gynt, aged 20, has been warned by his mother to mend his ways, as his idleness has cost him his own chance to marry Ingrid, the rich man's daughter who now is marrying someone else. At the wedding Peer meets the unpretentious Solveig, whose modesty provides a sharp contrast with his bluster and yarn-spinning. (Her famous song, to appear in Act IV, is more than hinted at in the Prelude.) They are attracted to each other, but Peer gets drunk, seizes the bride, and runs off with her. Grieg, who collected and arranged dozens of actual Norwegian dance tunes, wrote two original ones for this scene: one takes the form of a HALLING, the other a SPRINGAR. Originally these two dances were for the Hardanger fiddle, a folk instrument with sympathetic strings (like a viola d'amore). In Norway in the middle of the last century, one of the great performers of the role of Peer Gynt, Alfred Maurstad, was himself a skilled enough fiddler to perform the solos in these dances.

Act II
The Prelude to Act II, familiar to us as the opening of the Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, is THE ABDUCTION OF THE BRIDE; INGRID'S LAMENT. The violent music of the opening and close of this piece frames the lamentation of the young woman Peer carried off from her wedding and has by now abandoned. In PEER GYNT AND THE HERD-GIRLS, Peer encounters three young women searching for their lost lovers?and assures them he is man enough for all three of them.

Now Peer finds himself in the domain of the Trolls. He is approached by the daughter of their Mountain King (PEER GYNT AND THE WOMAN IN GREEN), and rides off with her on the back of a pig to meet her father, remarking that "Great folk may be known by the mounts that they ride."

IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING, a shrine to "the darker side of human nature," the Trolls are outraged by his conquest of the royal daughter, and call for his punishment: "Kill him! Kill him!" Peer buys some time by voicing his acceptance of the Trolls' creed of pretense and deceit, but after making offensive comments on the DANCE OF THE MOUNTAIN KING'S DAUGHTER he must flee for his life. PEER GYNT HUNTED BY TROLLS is saved only by the sound of church bells in the distance: the Trolls execute a riotous retreat and the Hall of the Mountain King crumbles into dust.

Act II ends with an encounter between PEER GYNT AND THE BOYG, another malevolent figure. Boasting that he "conquers but does not fight," he is invisible and able to change his shape in order to keep Peer from getting away or effectively responding to his threats. Once again, the sound of church bells, now reinforced by an organ, free Peer from a menacing presence.

Peer is back on his home ground, with Solveig at his side, but now thoughts of the Woman in Green and the son she bore him, he actually experiences feelings of unworthiness, and leaves Solveig to visit his widowed mother, Ase. She is near death, and Peer describes her bed as a royal coach for a joyful journey to a resting place "east of the sun and west of the moon." The music of ASE'S DEATH, which Grieg included in his Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, is the serves both as Prelude to Act III and its concluding music.

Act IV
MORNING MOOD, the well known opening section of the Suite No. 1, is the Prelude to Act IV, which takes place nowhere near Peer's northern home, but in the African desert. (Grieg cautioned against overinterpretation of this piece, but stated, "I imagine the sun breaking through the clouds at the first forte.") Peer has become rich, but after his false friends make off with his yacht, which conveniently explodes with them aboard, he again becomes a wanderer. In THE THIEF AND THE RECEIVER we meet a criminal pair who have robbed an emperor of his horse and robes. Peer's approach frightens them into decamping without their treasures. Peer does not hesitate to garb himself in the imperial robes and ride the horse to a camp of Bedouins, who receive him as a prophet. Musicians and a chorus of women salute him with a colorful ARABIAN DANCE, and the daughter of the chieftain performs ANITRA'S DANCE, scored for strings and triangle and marked Tempo di mazurka. (Both of these dances figure in the concert suites; Grieg expressed the wish that in the Arabian dance "each of the dancing girls will have her own tambourine.") PEER GYNT'S SERENADE is an attempt to woo Anitra, but she is not impressed, and makes off with what was left of his money. Peer goes in a different direction, to a madhouse in Cairo, and Act IV ends with a preparation for the d?nouement: a scene back in Norway, in which the perdurably faithful Solveig, awaiting his return, sings her radiant song of devotion.

Act V
The Prelude to Act V is called PEER GYNT'S HOMECOMING: STORMY EVENING ON THE SEA; it is not so much a graphic representation of the storm as a reflection of the aged but still tempestuous Peer's feelings on reaching the coast of his homeland after his numerous adventures. He is still capable of monstrous behavior, as he demonstrates during the SHIPWRECK by pushing the ship's cook off the overturned hull to keep it afloat for himself. Once ashore, he pauses outside as SOLVEIG SINGS IN THE HUT, but, having just sent a man to his death, he does not make his presence known to her. In a NIGHT SCENE he is overcome with thoughts of his misspent life, and shamed by a voice from his mother's grave. The Button Moulder, a personification of Death, passes by, announcing that he will take Peer before sun-up unless he can offer an acceptable defense: he is, after all, no better than a poorly made button, which can only be melted down for recasting. No one from his past adventures can provide the testimony he needs, but on hearing people heading to church through the forest intoning their WHITSUN HYMN: OH BLESSED MORNING, Peer returns to Solveig's hut and enters. Solveig too is old now, and nearly blind, but her love is undiminished and she is his redemption. SOLVEIG'S CRADLE SONG is the Epilogue marking the end of Peer's incredible adventures. In a touch of Grieg's own, the Whitsun Hymn is heard again in the distance.