Grieg and the spirit of cherry blossom : interview with Fumie Masaki of The Grieg Society of Japan

Pianist and Chair of The Grieg Society of Japan, Fumie Masaki, and our Honorary Director, Dr Sally Garden, met up at the International Grieg Society conference in Bergen last year. Over the winter the two kept in touch. But with predictable rain and gales in Scotland, and, tragically, an unpredictable natural disaster in Japan (the Noto Peninsula earthquake), the theme of their conversation turned, understandably, to more hopeful thoughts of spring and renewal, and to the spirit of cherry blossom so loved by Norway’s Grieg and so beautifully expressed in his music.

Fumie Masaki
Fumie Masaki, pianist and Chair of The Grieg Society of Japan (image: Opsis)

(for interview in Japanese)

SG : Your Society was established over a quarter century ago, in 1996, and occupies a treasured place in the great ‘Grieg family’ of societies across the world dedicated to the memory of composer Edvard Grieg and his wife, Nina. Can you tell us more about your founder, Mr Ohtsuka, and how he came to have such a strong interest in Nordic music?

FM : The Grieg Society of Japan was established on June 15, 1996 (Norwegian composer Grieg’s birthday) under the presidency of the late Shozo Ohtsuka, who devoted many years to researching Scandinavian music.

Shozo Ohtsuka was born in Tokyo in 1926, and after graduating from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Tokyo in 1948, took a deep interest in music and studied vocal music before joining the Nordic Cultural Society of Japan. In 1962, Mr Ohtsuka founded the Nordic Choir [Nordic Choral Society of Japan], and as its conductor, toured Scandinavia in 1968 and 1974. In his book Far away in Scandinavia Mr Ohtsuka wrote about his encounter with Scandinavian music and his motivations, so I will answer based on what he says in the book, and what, also, I heard from Mr Ohtsuka about his love of Scandinavian music and the music of Grieg, during his lifetime.

Shozo Ohtsuka conducting
Shozo Ohtsuka, inspirational founder of The Grieg Society of Japan, directing a rehearsal of Grieg’s Four Psalms Op74, the composer’s last work. In 2014, Mr Ohtsuka put his ‘heart and soul’ into a ‘miraculous’ translation of the words of the Four Psalms into Japanese so that everyone could sing, enjoy and understand the meaning of this beautiful work. (image: The Grieg Society of Japan)

When Mr Ohtsuka went to university, the Second World War was coming to an end, and he saw his schoolmates go to war and sacrifice their precious young lives, which left an indelible and painful experience in his life. Mr Ohtsuka himself had the strange experience of receiving a draft summons, and the war ending just as he was due to go to the battlefield, enabling him to survive. In his book he explains that his desire, then, was to spend his days cherishing the musical activities which had interested him since childhood, and to sincerely respect the life he had survived to see.

The reason for Mr Ohtsuka’s interest in Scandinavian music came about after the war, when he went to teach a choir at a Swedish company in Tokyo. There, he came into contact with a book of songs called Sweden Sings. He was struck by the fact that these folksongs, full of melancholy and quiet, unrelated to modern industry and efficiency, appealed to the simple human senses, and that even though they came of a Germanic people, differed from Germanic music in many ways. In his book, Shozo Ohtsuka tells us that every time he came into contact with these Swedish songs, with their original language and spiritual worldview, which resonated with his Japanese sensibilities, his interest in Scandinavian music grew rapidly, and he wanted to explore it from the inside out.

In autumn 1961, Mr Ohtsuka was impressed by the performance of Norwegian pianist Einar Steen-Nøkleberg at the Norwegian Music Festival in London, and this gave him the idea of establishing The Grieg Society of Japan. The two kept close contact through the years and Einar Steen-Nøkleberg is, today, Honorary President of The Grieg Society of Japan.

Sally and Fumie at Troldhaugen in Bergen, home of Edvard and Nina Grieg, and spiritual home of the International Grieg Society. (image: Grieg Society of Scotland)

SG : As Chair of The Grieg Society of Japan, a thriving Tokyo-based organisation with branches in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Hokuriku and Kansai – in other words, the length and breadth of Japan! – you have many responsibilities and exciting musical challenges. Can you tell us more about your role and how the Society and its branches work together?

FM : The Grieg Society of Japan was established in 1996, and I joined in 1997. The Society was active in the beginning, but due to the ageing of its management team, fell into abeyance until 2011. It was then that I and three other volunteers decided to ‘restart’ its activities, collecting an annual membership fee from members. The admission fee and annual membership fee for each membership category (Performing, General, and Sustaining) are relatively reasonable, so anyone can easily join. At the time of its foundation, the number of regular members was limited to 74, the same as the number of Grieg’s works, counted by opus, but now there is no limit to the number of members, and anyone who loves Edvard Grieg’s music or is interested in Scandinavian music can join.

At present, with around 85 members, we are not a very large organisation, but as membership is still the key to maintaining the Society, we are always looking for new members. The board consists of a Chairman (Tokyo head office), a President, two Directors and four Working Committee members. Two years ago, we established branch managers in the Hokkaido branch (northern Japan), the Tohoku branch (northern Tokyo) and the Kansai Branch (western Japan), in order to operate on a nationwide scale and encourage people living in rural areas to take the initiative in their activities. In fact, on Sunday 25th February this year, a concert organised by the Kansai Branch will be held in Osaka Prefecture, and on Thursday 23rd May, a concert organised by the Tokyo Headquarters is scheduled to be held in Tokyo. With the active cooperation of our performers, we are promoting Grieg, Norwegian music and classical music.

The purpose of establishing the branches is to make it easier for members in the rural areas to participate, and to promote the revitalization of the regions. Through these activities, we hope to increase the presence of The Grieg Society of Japan among people in local communities and encourage membership recruitment. At the moment, inevitably, most of our members are in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and events are held mainly in Tokyo, which has been seen as a problem. If we can attract members through the activities of our branches, we can develop bigger projects and this will have a significant impact on the revitalisation of the Society.

In the future, we would like to promote concerts and events organised by the Hokkaido and Tohoku branches, develop Grieg-related musical activities throughout Japan, and promote the excellence of Grieg and Norwegian music. The Hokkaido branch, in particular, seems to have a similar climate to Norway and Scotland. The region is blessed with heavy snowfall in winter and cool summers and a rich natural environment.

In recent years, it has become possible to host and participate in various events online. Conferences, masterclasses and other events can be enjoyed without the need to attend in person. I think it would be fun to hold an online event not only with people all over Japan, but also with the Grieg Society of Scotland and other parts of the world (allowing for time differences), to expand our dreams and deepen our exchanges. We hope to make friends not only in Japan, but also in the rest of the world.

‘Expanding dreams and deepening exchanges’ – Towada Lake in Tohoku region is formed from a deep and expansive caldera in nothern Honshu (Japan’s main island). Tohoku is home to one of several branches of The Grieg Society of Japan, where, too, it is hoped to promote concerts of Grieg’s music. (image: Ken Cheung on Unsplash)

SG : I see that from Grieg’s famous words ‘One must first be a human being. All true art grows out of that which is distinctively human’ you have created a very beautiful and inspiring purpose for the Grieg Society of Japan, which is: ‘to encourage people to love and deepen their understanding of music while nurturing friendships in pursuit of true joy and happiness in life’. Can you tell us more about the kind of friendships and positive feelings you feel Grieg’s music brings your members in Japan?

FM: Those words of Grieg – ‘One must first be a human being. All true art grows out of that which is distinctively human’ – seem to encapsulate exactly the spiritual world that Grieg dedicated to music. In sum, Grieg’s philosophy was that people should respect and acknowledge each other’s individuality, realize that they are different from one another, and in this way discover their own individual human worth.

Grieg’s warm humanity, which he gave expression to in his music, is not just reflected in the excellence of his compositions, but also in the rich love of humanity and humankind that permeated his inner being, and it is this The Grieg Society of Japan hopes to share and nurture. Our Society members have adopted Grieg’s spiritual philosophy and aspire to the aims, chiefly, of promoting tolerance, recognising each other’s value, deepening understanding, fostering friendship, seeking true joy and happiness in life, encouraging the performance of Grieg’s works, and furthering their musical research. We believe that by enhancing our love for each other, the Society itself will be able to get closer to the essence of Grieg’s music.

Fumie Masaki plays Grieg

SG : In northern Europe we yearn for spring as an end to long dark winter nights. Is this the same for you in Japan, do you have a special way of celebrating the season? I’m thinking of Grieg’s several songs and piano works on the theme of ‘Våren’, or spring, and how he loved the re-appearance of the wild cherry blossom in Norway.

FM : I lived in Norway from 2000 to 2003 studying Grieg’s music as a government scholarship student at the University of Oslo. It was then I experienced the change of the seasons in northern Europe for the first time. After overcoming the long, dark and cold winter, seeing the small spring flowers at last begin to bud as the sun shone, hearing the sound of water flowing from the melting snow, I felt a sense of survival and a breath of fresh air throughout my body, and realized that the year ahead was just beginning. I felt deeply the beauty and importance of life, and wondered how I could love the sun’s rays so much!

I was born in western Japan and grew up in a relatively warm area, where snow rarely accumulates in winter and the hours of sunlight do not change drastically from summer. With daylight in winter from 7am to 5pm and summer from 6am to 7pm, and the climate changing only mildly throughout the year, I had never really experienced the limits of my physical strength in surviving winter before.

However, I think the area of Hokkaido in northern Japan is a little different. People living in the city of Sapporo, in Hokkaido, are said to have a similar climate to Bergen in Norway.

Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
A cherry blossom tram in snowy Sapporo city, Hokkaido (image: Ian Lai on Unsplash)

Speaking of spring, in Japan our spring begins with the blossoming of cherry trees, and there is a Japanese folksong Sakura Sakura which tells of their flowering. The cherry blossom season is considered a symbol of spring in Japan, and since ancient times, pictures of cherry blossoms have been drawn on picture scrolls, folding screens, and other objects as part of Japanese traditional culture. Spring in Japan usually begins late March or early April, when the cherry blossoms open. During this season, cherry blossom viewing, or ‘Hanami’ as it is called in Japanese, sees people come together to enjoy parties with food and drink under the cherry trees in full flower. There are famous cherry blossom spots all over the country, and hundreds of cherry blossom trees blooming all at once makes for a beautiful, atmospheric and truly Japanese scene. Many overseas tourists also visit at this time of year.

Are there cherry trees in Scotland? I’ve heard that there are cherry trees in Norway, but I think they probably bloom much later. Also, in Japan, solstice festivals are not held on a large scale because we are not affected by big changes in hours of sunlight, but there may be some solstice festivals at shrines and temples.

Hanami depiction by Utagawa Hiroshige
Asukayama Hanami or cherry blossom viewing at Asukayama, Tokyo, depicted by Utagawa Hiroshige c1831. This little print made it all the way to Scotland! (image: courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland)
Cherry blossom and Mount Fuji
Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji framed by cherry blossom. (image: Fumie Masaki)

SG : Can you tell us more about your society’s ‘performing members’ and what activities and repertoire they enjoy? I know that you encourage amateurs and professionals to work together, and as a singer, myself, I am particularly intrigued by your members’ dedication to Grieg’s vocal music. How does all this work?

FM : Our Society has a large number performing members, most of them professional pianists. However, not all our pianists have studied in Norway and are familiar with Grieg’s works – most have studied in Japan, other European countries, the United States and elsewhere. However, one thing they all have in common is that they absolutely love Grieg’s music!

In our Society, there are still only a few performing members who are singers, but we do also have several string and wind instrument players.

Regarding Grieg’s vocal music, it is a great pity that there are so few professional vocalists in Japan who can sing Grieg’s songs in Norwegian. The songs should be sung by a singer who understands the correct pronunciation of the original language, the sense of the text and the meaning of the words in the phrase. But there are few professional singers in Japan who can teach Grieg’s songs, so, few singers specializing in Grieg songs have developed. For this reason, The Grieg Society of Japan has been inviting Norwegian singers to hold vocal masterclasses, and in December last year, we invited a Norwegian bass to do just that. Those who study Grieg’s songs in Japan learn Norwegian pronunciation by self-study. But it is easy to sing Grieg’s songs with the wrong understanding, for even if the grammar is the same, the meanings of similar lyrical phrases can be different. There are several books on interpretation of Grieg’s piano works in Japan, but there are no Japanese translations of books on Grieg’s songs, and this lack of literature is another reason why singers are not able to develop.

In the past few years, more and more people have been performing and singing Grieg’s works. Norwegian folk instruments, too, have become well-known, and the Hardingfele [Hardanger fiddle] has become so popular that an association has been established for it in Japan, with some people learning Hardingfele instrument-making in Norway. Then, too, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and Piano Concerto are popular in Japan and are featured in music education materials in schools. Plus, Morning Mood and several of the Lyric Pieces have been featured as backing music in Japanese TV commercials, making Grieg’s music very familiar to the Japanese people. Even if you don’t know about Grieg, it is thought that most people probably know Grieg’s music.

The Grieg Society of Japan will continue to work steadily in the future, aiming to spread the wonders of Grieg music.

Members of The Grieg Society of Japan in concert at the magnificent Toyosu Cultural Centre Hall, Tokyo, in May 2023. (image: The Grieg Society of Japan)

SG : I notice that many of the Society’s concerts and events are described as being given with ‘heart’. Can you explain the meaning of ‘Kokoro’, which I think translates as ‘heart’ or ‘heart, mind and spirit’ and what it means, in Japan, to give a performance or lecture with ‘heart’?

FM : The root of the Japanese spirit of ‘kokoro’ (heart) is the spirit of love and harmony. It is believed that both Japanese mind and cultural traditions have been nurtured by the spirit of love and harmony of the Jomon people, our ancestors, for 20,000 years, here in the land where we live.

Also, the expression ‘Wabi-Sabi’(わびーさび) is used to describe the Japanese sense of beauty, and this sense of ‘Wabi-Sabi’, as a spiritual philosophy, is a part of their native culture Japanese people can be proud of, internationally. It is taken from the spirit of ‘Chanoyu’, the Japanese tea ceremony, which enjoys worldwide popularity. Wabi (わび) – Sabi (さび) is a concept that adds more depth and aesthetic meaning to the Japanese words for ‘quietude’ (Wabi), and ‘rust’ (Sabi). If ‘rust’ is superficial beauty or patina, ‘quietude’ is inner richness, and because the two are two sides of the same coin, Wabi and Sabi are often used together. Japanese people value quiet profundity and humility, and respect people who can possess both Wabi and Sabi.

As you can see when you look at a Japanese garden, it is not flashy in appearance, but is solemn and beautiful, and the richness of its sensibility is the essence of Japanese culture. However, in modern times, with the advancement of globalization, there is a tendency for the Japanese spirit of ‘kokoro’, and the spirit of harmony fostered by traditional Japanese culture, to be shaken. But fundamentally, I think the Japanese are a people who respect ‘Wabi-Sabi’.

I have never mentioned ‘kokoro’ in detail in my lectures, but I think, in performance, ‘kokoro’ means the performer’s subjective sensibility. When I teach piano, I teach not only the expressions of dynamics that are written in the score, but also the expressions that are not written in the score, which are the composer’s inner nature. I teach that by letting these expressions breath into you, the work comes to life. I believe that this is the musician’s ‘kokoro’, and that ‘kokoro’ dwells within the musical score. By clarifying how you want feel from the score, and how you want to convey and express that feeling, your originality is nurtured, and the ‘kokoro’ will develop a rich tone that will touch your heart.

Oikeniwa, Kyoto
The Japanese garden – a picture of serenity. Oikeniwa (Pond Garden), Kyoto Imperial Palace (image: Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash)

SG : Finally, if I may, Fumie, a personal question: What has attracted you, as a pianist, especially to Grieg’s music, and, looking ahead, have you any plans for the future you’d like to share with us?

FM : To return to my previous answer, my first encounter with Grieg was as a child, when I was impressed by the Grieg Piano Concerto and became especially captivated by the beautiful and emotional music of the second movement.

I really became aware of Grieg’s music from my time as a university assistant. The view from my office was rich in nature, with lush green mountain scenery, and the sea and a fishing port nearby. The environment made me think of Norway, where I had never been before. At that time, I was looking for a research topic, and it was in this environment Grieg’s music came to mind. Grieg’s Piano Concerto was well-known, but I was very interested in whether Grieg actually composed solo piano pieces, and what kind of pieces he wrote. So, whilst seeking out and researching Grieg’s piano literature, I learned about the relationship between Grieg’s musical style and Norwegian folkmusic, as well as about his unique compositional style. Most of all, I was drawn to Grieg’s sincere personality and warm humanity, a consistent feature of his attitude and philosophy throughout his life.

The Grieg Society of Scotland represents the country of birth of Grieg’s great-grandfather Alexander Grieg, and is an esteemed Society that is considered to be the origin of the Edvard Grieg paternal family tree. It is a source of pride for us at The Grieg Society of Japan that we can be close to such a prestigious Grieg Society, whilst so far from Europe. We believe that holding a collaborative event in association with The Grieg Society of Scotland would be a great opportunity to promote Grieg research in Japan, and I would like to make every effort to spread Grieg’s music in Japan. I would also like to respect Grieg’s ancestors buried in Scotland and let them know that even in faraway Japan, Edvard Grieg’s name is well-known and that he has a large following of fans. In the future, I would like to introduce the activities of The Grieg Society of Scotland to The Grieg Society of Japan, and if possible, considering costs, work towards the goal of being able to exchange events online and hold concert exchanges and lectures in Scotland and Japan.

Anyway if you or any of your members are coming to Japan, please contact us. We can think up an event to deepen our Scottish-Japanese exchange!

And thank you for your continued support!

Fumie Masaki
Fumie Masaki (image: Opsis)

SG : Thank you from Scotland, Fumie, it’s been a wonderful privilege to chat. And thinking of ‘Grieg and the spirit of cherry blossom’, here the beautiful Japanese folksong Sakura Sakura you mention, to play us out until we meet again!

Sakura Sakura – ‘cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, across the spring sky’ played by Kasumi Watanabe

Author: Dr Sally LK Garden (Feb 2024)

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)