Byways of Bergen: a trip to school with Edvard Grieg

Meeting up in the byways of Bergen, two of our committee members spurr memories of a famous kirk, a forgotten school and a fleeting musical reminiscence of the young Edvard Grieg’s schooldays.

Two of our committee members, both natives of Bergen, Johanne Grieg Kippenbroeck and Eva Tyson, took a trip down memory lane this autumn when they met up by Bergen’s Domkirke – the city’s old cathedral kirk and much-loved landmark dedicated to Norway’s eleventh century Saint Olaf.

Images of Bergen Domkirke
Bergen Domkirke in the autumn sun. The kirk, rebuilt many times over the centuries, is dedicated to Olaf, Norway’s patron saint. ‘Holy Olaf’, in his life Olaf II Haraldsson, was king of Norway from 1015 to 1028. (Images: Eva Tyson)

Kirk, school and cannon ball

Domkirken – the kirk of the deanery – stands just a few minutes walk from Bergen’s harbour and famous Fisketorget or fish market. Set at an angle to King Oscar’s ‘gate’ (pronounced ‘gaht-ih’) and down from a street called Lille Øvregaten – a familiar-sounding placename to shoppers of Dundee’s ‘Overgate’ – the kirk overlooks a building the young Edvard Grieg once knew very well and would still recognise were he alive today.

That building, with its grand neoclassical façade, a contrast to the simple, ‘medieval’ belltower and cannon ball marked walls of its gentle neighbour Domkirken, was Grieg’s place of education – the school which shaped his boyhood years and memories.

Whether or no Grieg loved the school – named after wealthy Bergen merchant Hans Tank and his wife, and constructed in 1855 – is another question! A less than keen pupil, Grieg was wont to wander on his way to its large-windowed classrooms. Shivering beneath a gushing roan pipe in the rain, so he might arrive soaked through and be sent home, was a favourite ploy!

Image of Bergen c1870
Bergen Domkirke c1870 with Tanks School, a solid 3-story building, in the background. (Image: Bergen byarkiv)
Image of Tank school register
An extract from the school register: Grieg entered Tanks Skole at the age of 9 and completed his schooling in 1858. His schoolmates were all boys. Girls were not admitted until the 1880s! (Image: Bergen byarkiv)

Norway’s patron saint in song

But that was a long time ago – indeed, more than a century and a half since the young scholar Grieg, clutching a schoolbag stuffed with his first musical creations, announced to his teachers and classmates at ‘Tanks skole’ that he was going to be ‘a Composer!’.

Naturally, no-one believed him. But, later in life, when he had indeed become a professional composer and was busy writing incidental music to Henrik Iben’s play Peer Gynt, Grieg was also editing and arranging for piano, a large collection of Norway’s Melodies [Norges Melodier EG108] in amongst which was a tiny but precious reminder of those formative years – an old ballad about Domkirken’s ‘Holy Olaf’.

Few outwith Norway will know the words to this ballad about the Nordic nation’s patron saint, its words written by poet Welhaven to an old Norwegian folktune, but all can admire the simple and affecting melody, and Grieg’s sympathetic arrangement of it for piano.

Grieg’s piano arrangement of ‘A Ballad about Holy Olaf’ – performed and translated for the Grieg Society of Scotland. (Video: Mons Graupius)

A plaque for Grieg?

Den Tankske Skole
The former Tank’s School awaiting refurbishment – with street art where once was pinned a plaque to Grieg. (Images: Johanne Grieg Kippenbroeck)

Tank’s school, brand new in Grieg’s boyhood, seems a slightly tired looking veteran of the city, today, and stands empty. But, full of potential, it is expected to be put to new purpose soon. The plaque commemorating Grieg’s time at the school, and for long affixed to its graceful stone doorway, has gone, but should it return to tell the building’s story – and we hope it will – then visitors to Bergen’s stunning Domkirke and the streets around will be able, just like our city natives Johanne and Eva, to walk once more down a very special and musical memory lane.

Author: Dr Sally LK Garden (Dec 2021)

In Words and Music – the Grieg Society of Scotland talks with pianist and composer David Rubinstein

David Rubinstein’s concert and recital career has brought the California-based pianist many times to Europe. He has recorded Bach, Beethoven, Sibelius, Satie and more, and in recent years has also found a digital platform for his work as both pianist and composer. With a growing series of YouTube video recordings – to which he has added, this autumn, a few of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – Dr Sally Garden, the Society’s Honorary Director, talks to the pianist and composer about his work and artistic experiences.

Image of pianist and composer David Rubinstein
Pianist and composer David Rubinstein

SG: One of the great influences in Edvard Grieg’s life was piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt, who gave great encouragement to the nervous young Norwegian when they met in Rome in 1870. One who gave you encouragement – in his way – was the great Chilean pianist, Claudio Arrau, with whom you studied for a time. Arrau, famously, was taught by a pupil of Liszt and was a master of Romantic piano repertoire. What was it like to study with Arrau and learn, in a way, from the spirit of Liszt?

A young Edvard Grieg meets Liszt in 1870. (Grieg Society of Scotland)
Image of pianist Claudio Arrau
The great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau who studied with Saxon piano teacher and pupil of Liszt, Martin Krause. (Image: NYPL Colls)

DR: In 1980 I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Claudio Arrau via his agent Frieda Roth [Friede Rothe], who heard me at a private concert. I studied with him briefly in New York and Vermont. The lessons dealt mostly with freeing up my arms and upper body. Prior to this I tended to focus more on finger dexterity rather than the entire playing apparatus. I don’t remember what I played for him, possibly Beethoven and Chopin, but his approach gave me some of the tools needed to produce a bigger sound for those pieces that require it.

The Arrau ‘sound’, however, is not achievable by physical means alone, nor have I heard any other pianist who sounds remotely like Arrau. He was able to probe the depths of his chosen repertoire, especially in Brahms, Chopin and Liszt, where other pianists merely skate on the surface.

SG: Throughout your career you have taken a particular interest in rarer corners of the piano repertory – ‘modernist’ works such as Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Sonata No.4 and Busoni’s shimmering Elegy No.4 Turandots Frauengemach from the early twentieth century feature in your recordings. Grieg, though we don’t often think of him as a pioneer, stepped into the twentieth century too, with late works such as his monumental Slåtter [Norwegian Peasant Dances] Op72 and philosophical Stemninger [Moods] Op73 which, for Grieg, broke new ground. Thinking back, were you ever introduced to this ‘progressive’ side of Grieg during your piano studies?

DR: I was always familiar with Grieg’s music but it was not until my adult years that I took an active interest in his piano music. This was after hearing [Walter] Gieseking play some of the Lyric Pieces. The progressive aspect becomes evident as one studies and plays them. The turn of the 20th century turned out to be a turning point in harmony. Many composers including Grieg were moving away from traditional harmonies, each in his own way. But Grieg was not a wild experimenter. One can hear, for example, in Bell-Ringing [Klokkeklang] Op54n6 a bending of traditional harmony, but Grieg does it within his familiar territory. You can hear this in many of the Lyric Pieces but at the same time you feel a sense of satisfaction, not of experimentation.

I would also add that most of these Lyric Pieces are relatively easy to play, at least technically. How often do fine composers jeopardize the possibilities of performance by neglecting this consideration.

SG: As a composer, Edvard Grieg was inspired by landscape – Norwegian nature gave him many musical ideas. The Lyric Pieces you’ve recorded – Homeward [Hjemad], The Little Bird [Småfugl], The Brook [Bekken] and others – are all drawn from his experience of the environment. Might it be fair to say that your own compositions begin too, from external ideas? Not landscape, so much, as sounds, abstract ideas from the human world? Your Ping Pong Prelude, Piano Music for Two Fingers and several Circus-inspired works are witty and playful, but have serious purpose too. When did you first begin composing and what prompted you to start?

DR: Interesting questions, and I am glad to have time to think about them. Every composer works in his own way, and my way has changed over the years.

Aside from juvenile attempts at composing, I was involved with classical piano. I didn’t compose anything that I would consider worthwhile until my mid-30s, in conjunction with film. To explain: My classical piano playing career was put on pause when I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, without a grand piano, where I was mostly playing keyboards in film and television studios. I got the idea to submit my composing to production companies, so I created dozens of short pieces (‘demos’) – using a synthesizer – to emulate different moods. Later I realized that some of them were actually suitable as piano pieces (Filmic Preludes, Obsession). Gradually I composed more and more. But then I had the good fortune to inherit a Steinway. This changed things radically, and I re-focused on classical piano, and continued to compose.

Edvard and Nina Grieg at the Steinway piano gifted to them by friends on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary. A wonderful surprise for any composer! (Image: Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek)

You asked where my musical ideas come from. I can say that earlier they came from external sources. For example one composition was inspired by our fox terrier running around, so I called the piece Dog Tales. This little one seemed more like a clown than a dog. Later I changed the title and incorporated it into my collection entitled Circus Music.

More recently, I work with ideas – musical motifs – that pop into my head. This mostly happens in the middle of the night. I try to jot them down and later, during the day, I have a more careful look. In other words I never sit down at the piano and think ‘I am going to write some music’. Where these motifs ultimately come from is impossible to say, because after all, aren’t our subconscious thoughts stimulated by external objects and experiences? In any case these subconscious musical ideas are valuable to me because they come from a quiet time, or at least a time that is uncluttered by the many distractions of the day.

SG: The current pandemic has caused musicians to rethink how they reach and interact with audiences, as well as each other. It’s been a difficult time, but not impossible to be creative, as your portfolio of YouTube piano videos amply testify. Looking forward, what recording plans do you have for the future, and can we expect more Grieg?

Like Edvard Grieg, who sought silence, David Rubinstein seeks peace and ‘quiet time’ to compose.

DR: I hope to continue to record online videos and certainly more Grieg. Also, I’ll be looking out for some lesser-known Grieg works as well as having a fresh look at works which I have already played. My next live-audience concert (after the New Year) will feature Mozart, Schumann and some of my own compositions. Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you.

Author: Dr Sally LK Garden (Nov 2021)

The last Grieg to live at Troldhaugen – and the ‘lady who screamed’!

When Joachim Hvide Grieg and friends flew from Bergen to begin a short holiday in North East Scotland in spring 2019, little did they anticipate their few days’ trip would turn into a touching ancestral tour for Joachim. We asked our Honorary President, journalist and editor Johanne Grieg Kippenbroeck, to catch up with Joachim on his return to Norway. Here are a few excerpts from her fascinating article (first published in Norwegian, in Troldposten n2 2019 Bergen) which you can also read in full (på norsk) here.

Troldhaugen – the beautiful villa built as the summer home of Edvard and Nina Grieg
Joachim Hvide Grieg, centre, visits Rathen kirkyard in some ‘beautiful’ Scottish weather!

When it comes to Troldhaugen, Joachim Hvide Grieg isn’t just any ordinary Grieg. Had Nina and Edvard Grieg in their time made Troldhaugen suitable for winter residence, then it’s quite possible to imagine he might have grown up there. Though, that’s not how things turned out.

In December 1918 ‘our’ Joachim’s great-grandfather, Consul Joachim Grieg, bought Troldhaugen from Nina Grieg, who at that time no longer had the means to keep the house – Bergen town council had said ‘no thanks’ to an offer to take over the home as a museum.

The Consul thought Troldhaugen might make a suitable home for his son Einar and family, and this pleased Nina, who was delighted to sell to a Grieg, ensuring as it did that Griegs would continue to live at Troldhaugen.

When the sale became a reality, Nina wrote to the Consul, Edvard’s second cousin, thanking him for taking it over, and hoping that his son would be ‘as fond of the place as we were’ and not sell it again, which, she added ‘I have no desire to experience’.

Nina Grieg
Nina Grieg kept the Villa at Troldhaugen going a good decade after Edvard’s death (Photo: courtesy of Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek)

Demolition plans

Two winters at Troldhaugen were, however, two winters too many for the family with their small children. The house proved unsuitable as an all-year-round home. Something Nina, of course, could have told them from the outset.

To make a long story short: plans were made to tear down the old wooden house and build a luxury villa designed by the well-known Bergen architect, Ole Landmark. Something, Nina probably never imagined.

But now the folk of Bergen woke up. There was a stooshie when it was learnt that the wooden villa was to be demolished, so that in the end, the Consul, who had given Nina a considerable sum for the residence, decided instead to donate Troldhaugen to Fana district council [Fana, a district of Bergen]. The Consul’s only condition for the gift was that Troldhaugen should be dedicated to the memory of Edvard and Nina Grieg.

Thus in 1928 the home was opened as a museum.

The VIP in the drawing-room

And this is how it came to be that the now 70-year old Joachim Hvide Grieg never lived at Troldhaugen. That he can’t be counted amongst its frequent visitors, either, is perhaps due to an early memory. As a youngster, he was privileged to attend, with his grandmother, a concert in the Villa, where, as the VIPs in the room they sat in the middle of the sofa in the drawing-room.

‘I remember, as a wee lad, sitting there listening to a lady who screamed in front of us’, he says with laughter. ‘I thought it was awful! Later on we went down to the grave site, and then grannie told me that grandfather had built the jetty down there. He was interested in boats and wanted to have a place to moor them. She told me all about how things were when they lived at Troldhaugen’.

Today he laughs at the memories from the concert experience, and has to confess that Grieg’s music still isn’t top of the list for him.

Last Grieg at Troldhaugen

Einar Grieg who lived a short time with his young family at Troldhaugen (Photo: courtesy of Joachim Hvide Grieg)

Joachim paints a picture of his grandfather, Einar, and his father, Joachim, as two unusual, somewhat eccentric characters. ‘Grandfather was rich and knew how to spend money. Father was very unusual. In his later years he wanted to take a friend to the [Bergen] Festival, and sought tickets to the opening- and closing concerts’.

‘You can just forget about that’, came the message. ‘Everything is sold out’!

It was then Joachim’s father played his ace card: ‘I am the last Grieg to have lived at Troldhaugen’, he announced with weighty tone. And suddenly, out of thin air, came the tickets!

So there we have it – Joachim Hvide Grieg’s father, Joachim, was actually the last Grieg ever to live in the old house.

Baby Joachim – the last Grieg to live at Troldhaugen – pictured with his mother Rachel (Photo: courtesy of Joachim Hvide Grieg)

His son, so far, has not had any overwhelming interest for that bit of the family history. But, even so, he is the proud owner of his father’s kilt, tweed jacket, and sgian dhu. Rathen, though, has probably not been top of his wish list for places to visit until this spring, when he and his wife Gerd planned their travel with friends to Scotland. Then, of course, it was natural to include a trip to Fraserburgh and the nearby heritage-listed kirkyard at Rathen, where Edvard Grieg’s great-great-grandparents Anne Milne and John Greig lie buried.

Emotional meeting with the past

It was on a day of pouring rain, in May, when Gerd and Joachim Grieg were welcomed to Rathen by Dr Sally Garden of the Grieg Society of Scotland. They had brought tulips with them to lay at the grave of Joachim’s distant Grieg ancestors.

‘I thought it might be interesting to visit, but had never before been especially curious’, he admits. ‘It was really quite touching standing by this grave. The rain was pelting down, but it didn’t matter. Sally made it all very moving, she was so clued up about our family’.

And perhaps, there, in that moment, too, Joachim felt more keenly his distant blood ties. Even if music in the Villa still isn’t his first choice!

Rathen kirkyard in the rain! Joachim & Gerd Grieg and friends from Bergen meet Dr Sally Garden and lay flowers at the grave. Sally and Joachim hold the new Grieg Society of Scotland sign which will interpret the site for visitors.

Author : Translated and adapted from an article by Johanne Grieg Kippenbroeck first published in Troldposten (n2 2019 Bergen)