‘Here lyes the remains’… visiting the ‘pits of hell’ in Grieg country

Out and about in ‘Grieg country’, on a visit to the Parish of Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, our Honorary Director made an exciting musical discovery – the existence of a musical instrument which may well have been heard by the composer Edvard Grieg’s ancestors, but whose function and manner of performance present us, today, with an intriguing mystery.

On a clear day, in the bright sea-lit air of Buchan in Aberdeenshire, you can just make out the first words of the Edvard Grieg ancestral gravestone at Rathen Old Kirkyard: ‘Here lyes the remains…’ it reads, announcing, in beautifully carved letters, the identity of the occupants of the burial beneath. What you can’t see, is that the gravestone resting on the ground was once a ‘table monument’ raised on stone legs, now sadly, lost.

Monumentally Grieg! - in 3D

‘Here lyes the remains’ – see the Edvard Grieg ancestral gravestone at Rathen in 3D closeup with music by Grieg here.

Travel a puckle miles to the north west of Rathen, to the parish of Pitsligo with its two kirks, old and ‘new’ at Peathill, its ruined castle and once fine Renaissance gardens by the sea, and you’ll see plenty table monuments standing, today, just as they stood when erected in the eighteenth century. And what a remarkable story they tell, not just of the folks they commemorate, but of the forms and rituals and even the music of their lives. For in amongst the vividly carved ‘memento mori’ mottos that cover these Pitsligo stones – how can you not ‘remember death’ amidst such a tumble of monuments! – the unmistakable contours of a musical instrument begin to intrigue the eye.

Over and over it appears, the familiar, yet strangely unfamiliar shape of a bell. For it is no grand kirk-spire instrument you see depicted in these stones, but a small portable bell of ‘announcement’, a ‘mort bell’ with distinctive handle and visible clapper. A survivor from pre-Reformation times, the ‘mort bell’ or ‘deid bell’ was designed to be carried and to sound out its sweet but solemn tone whenever there was a death in the community. The property of the ‘kirk session’, out it would go through the tracks between croft, cott and castle, and onwards to the kirk and kirkyard where the beadle – the minister’s man – ‘jowing’ or ringing it ‘for and before’ the dead, would draw the community together, first by announcing the death, and then by leading the unfortunate’s funeral procession.

Stones may be silent, yet here, huddled between the two kirks, on this ‘peat hill’ once surrounded by its huddle of crofts sloping to the sea, they seem to resound with music!

Pitsligo mort bell (stone & real)
The ‘musical’ gravestones of Pitsligo with their fine ‘mort’ or ‘deid’ bell carvings. Amongst the stones is this example, discovered by the author to represent a strikingly realistic depiction of the actual, now disused instrument cast for ‘Pitsligo Kirk Session’ in 1742. The burial commemorated here, of a local farmer, dates from the same year the bell was cast – a remarkable find which suggests both a sense of community pride in its possession and great solemnity in its use. But is this ‘portrait-in-stone’ of a mort bell an isolated example? What might we discover by a little musical inspection of other old kirkyards in Scotland?
The long forgotten sound of the Pitsligo mort bell, or deid bell, rung specially for the Grieg Society of Scotland in August 2019 by Douglas Tait of Friends of Pitsligo Castle. Edvard Grieg’s great-great-grandparents at nearby Rathen understood the meaning of the mort bell’s ring, and perhaps even heard this very instrument, for it is the sound of an eighteenth century Scottish funeral. But how exactly should the bell be rung? Did the beadle sound it continuously, or at intervals, as he announced a death or led solemn funeral procession? Did he make meaning of its music by making his own rhythmic patterns, alternating single and double tones perhaps, or counting strikes of the clapper? It’s as tantalising a thought as it is a lost art.
Edvard Grieg, too, thought long and hard about the sound of ‘bell ringing’, and with radical result! Here is the middle section of his ‘Klokkeklang’ Op54n6 for piano. Full of open 5ths and almost empty of melody, Grieg feared it would be too much for his audiences, joking with a friend that they would think it ‘rett og slett forrykt’ – completely mad! Today, however, we can hear how it foreshadows the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. (Artist: Einar Steen Nokleberg).

Another bell, or rather, not the bell itself, which was ‘rent’ in 1797, but the intricately carved belfry which once housed it, strikes the musical imagination at Pitsligo. Erected in 1635 by Alexander Forbes, 1st Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, ostensibly to Dutch design, and with a delicate Italianate touch, it makes an elegant statement on the gable of the old kirk, which Forbes himself, as ‘laird’ or landowner, caused be built. Alexander, like many Scots noblemen of his time, was a man of learning, with merchanting and military links to continental Europe and Scandinavia. If he survived to hear the tolling of the bell in the splendidly cosmopolitan bellcot of his commissioning, then it was not by long, for he died but a year after its construction. His funeral was a musical affair too, marked, we learn from family papers, by pageantry and the calling of trumpets.

But if Pitsligo kirkyard and its old roofless kirk seem to echo with the music of the past, so too does the interior of the ‘new’, but now disused nineteenth century parish kirk which replaced it – as I was soon to see.

Guided by Douglas Tait of Friends of Pitsligo Castle, I was lucky enough to follow my little musical trail within. Through the door and into the gloom we went, past the fine nineteenth century organ with its silvery array of pipes, past the pulpit with its carved panels brought from the old kirk, until before us, and above us, set with unashamed magnificence into the wall of the kirk, loomed the wooden ‘laird’s loft’ – a deep upper gallery once the private pew area of the Forbes family during worship. Dating from the 1630s, and like the gravestones and old belfry out in the kirkyard, it too is carved, richly carved, and a source of music to the mind. For it was here, four generations of Forbes lairds and their household sat each Sabbath, joining the congregation in the singing of a psalm – a psalm almost certainly from one of the Aberdeen-published psalters of the seventeenth century, psalters with notation, which gave Scotland sacred tunes such as ‘Bon Accord’, still sung today.

In turn, on more secular note, perhaps we should be singing the praises of Pitsligo, for, as Douglas explained, the parish is not just famed for the physical heritage left us by the 1st Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, Alexander, but by the life and character of his great-grandson, the last and 4th Lord, also called Alexander. This Alexander Forbes was a Jacobite – a supporter of the Stuart dynasty – and a philosopher. He was active in both the 1715 and 1745 uprisings and fought at Culloden, after which he was attainted and his estate plundered and sold. His fate was the beginning of the end for Pitsligo Castle, as a residence, but as a place of reflection, perhaps only the opening of a new chapter?

Douglas has worked tirelessly, not just to try to keep grounds and buildings from further decay, but, with others, to re-envisage the site, centring on the ‘new’ kirk, as a place of education and enlightenment, a working museum of heraldry. Just looking round the castle and the two kirks, you can see why. There are some fine coats of arms to be seen, and passing glance at their armorial detail seems to make fitting conclusion to my musical trail, for it occurs to me: is it any wonder Edvard Grieg, whose ancestors toiled just 5 miles inland as the crow flies, was proud of his Scottish ‘family crest’, carrying it everywhere on his watch chain? But that’s a story for another day! And talking of stories, Douglas is reminded of an amusing anecdote attached to the parish placename.

Back in the seventeenth century, a local minister, frustrated at the frugality of the lairds of Pitsligo, Pitullie and Pittendrum – when it came to kirk repairs – is said to have dubbed their lands the three ‘pits of hell’! A biblical reference, and pun on the ancient placename ‘pit’, meaning a place of abode of the Picts who peopled the area a millennium and more ago, it is perhaps a ‘lang tale’, owing more to local humour than reality. But it’s a grand tale, and a grand measure of just how much tradition and heritage bring personality to a place.

I take one last look from the castle gate and its lost, grassed-over garden, back up the hill to the two kirks. If the ‘mort bell’ sounded for the castle after Culloden, and the old kirk after it was unroofed in the twentieth century, surely it mustn’t be allowed to sound for the ‘new’ dressed-granite kirk built only 1890 and kept in continual use for a century? But, as Douglas reflects, that’s perhaps a task ‘for another generation’. It’s certainly a major undertaking, but imagine if the bell now hanging in the ‘new’ kirk could ring out a note of celebration, announcing a new future for the building and the community around it. That would be something! Admittedly, the auld abandoned craws’ nest now damping its ‘ring’ would first need ‘dingin doon’ – not down to the ‘pits of hell’, but down to the ground amongst the ‘musical’ gravestones of Pitsligo!

Pitsligo (Blaeu atlas of 1654)
‘Grieg country’ as mapped 1654 – families of Greigs, including the composer’s paternal ancestors farmed here. Grieg’s great-grandparents are buried at ‘Rathin’, today’s Rathen, bottom right. (Image: Joan Blaeu ‘Atlas’ of 1654, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

Author: Dr Sally LK Garden (Sep 2019)
With thanks to Douglas Tait, Friends of Pitsligo Castle, for recording in sound and image, the Pitsligo mort bell of 1742.

Reflecting on Grieg and ‘the North’ in company with Scottish pianist Christina Lawrie

Celebrating the release of her Sutherland Duo recording of Grieg’s third Violin Sonata, Scottish pianist Christina Lawrie met with our Honorary Director to chat about her musical inspirations. Conversation turned to ‘the North’, its light, and the importance of another northern ‘light’ the two share, as ‘Red Lichties’ educated in the music-festival town of Arbroath.

Meeting by the ‘silvery Tay’, it seemed like a meeting of minds when I caught up with pianist Christina Lawrie in Dundee to chat about her new Grieg release. The city, once a port of thriving Scandinavian trade, was enjoying a day of sun – the sea air was clear and the shadows crisp. It seemed natural, in this northern light, to be discussing the great Norwegian composer whose music had brought us together.

Dr Sally Garden and Christina Lawrie
Musical Arbroath – two ‘Red Lichties’ reminisce: Honorary Director Dr Sally Garden with a 1940s-stamped Grieg score formerly of Arbroath Public Library, and pianist Christina Lawrie with her new Sutherland Duo Grieg release

The decision to record Grieg’s third Violin Sonata Op45, together with her Sutherland Duo partner, violinist Harriet Mackenzie – the two have roots in Sutherland, or Suðrland to give it its Old Norse name – came easily, Christina explained. The duo wanted to explore the idea of ‘the North’ and its light, and having enjoyed performing the sonata in concert, and Grieg seeming to them, as Christina put it, the very ‘embodiment’ of the North, it felt an obvious repertoire choice. Like most Scots, Christina has a love of her native traditional music, a feeling for its sounds and languages, and so was attracted not just to the luminosity and clarity of the sonata, but to its Norwegian folkmusic touches too. Touches Grieg employed over what he called ‘broader horizons’ than those of his previous violin sonata, but which still shine out, and still ring strong to the Scots fiddle-fond ear.

Sutherland Duo
Newly released this month Grieg, Tchaikovsky & Prokofiev: Works for Violin & Piano performed by the Sutherland Duo is available on the Nimbus label

Manuscript of Grieg's Norwegian Dances Op35
Manuscript of Grieg’s Norwegian Dance op35n1 (courtesy of Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek)

Talking of roots and tradition, the story of how Christina first encountered the music of Grieg, brought to mind another ‘northern light’ we had in common – a ‘Red Lichtie’ musical upbringing in the remarkable music-festival town of Arbroath (folk of the Angus town are affectionately known as ‘Red Lichties’ after its red harbour light of olden times). It was there, in her schooldays, Christina began piano lessons, and it was then her mum had decided to take lessons again too. For family fun, mother and daughter had often played together the first of Grieg’s four Norwegian Dances for piano duet Op35. Grieg, evidently, had been a guiding light from early on!

Arbroath harbour
Arbroath – the small North East of Scotland town famed both for its fish and its competitive music festival

Arbroath & District Competitive Music Festival
Arbroath & District Competitive Music Festival, supported by dedicated local volunteers, was founded in 1926 and today runs almost 170 individually adjudicated classes over 5 days in the town’s Webster Memorial Theatre & Arts Centre

This led us to reminisce about the incredible range of musical activity the tight-knit community of Arbroath had sustained through our respective youthful years (mine a little more distant than Christina’s!). It occurred to me that the small, historic harbour town, with its choirs and bands, its abundance of music-making both folk and classical, its theatre, and its now 92-year old competitive music festival, had perhaps made musicians of us both? In a flash, Christina, who made her solo debut playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra almost a decade ago, replied with a smile: ‘absolutely, it was the ‘Arbroath Festival’ that gave me my first experience of performing!’

With that lovely burst of sun, and a reel of seagulls wheeling freely above us in the sky, we went our separate ways. It was clear, as musicians, we felt an affinity with the music of Grieg which had much to do with our own rootedness in Scotland. But was it the keenness of our light? The place of music in our landscape? The seeming nearness of our neighbour Norway? Whatever it was, whichever way you looked at it, glimpsing the sun’s reflections on the glistening Tay, was to fancy you could almost reach out and touch that most indefinable and musically inspirational of ideas – ‘the North’!

Author : Dr Sally LK Garden (Aug 2018)

Remembering Edvard Grieg in Leipzig

Edvard Grieg gained his formal musical education in the Saxon city of Leipzig, but only in recent years has it been possible to visit the peaceful little room, for many years in fallen into disrepair, where Grieg, as the guest of his publishers CF Peters, often came to work. Grieg Society of Scotland committee member, Eva Tyson, tells us how the Grieg-Gedenkstätte – the museum to Grieg’s memory created around the room, was opened by one of our Norwegian members, Henning Warloe.

Grieg Memorial Centre, Leipzig, is opened
Grieg-Gedenk- und Begegnunsstätte (Grieg Memorial Centre, Leipzig) was formally opened in the former premises of CF Peters, Grieg’s chief publishers, in 2005 (image courtesy of Eva Tyson)

We always think of Grieg steeped in the Norwegian landscape with deep roots in Norwegian culture and folklore. We forget the influence that contemporary European music had on his musical development, in particular his stay in Leipzig.

Leipzig conjures up Auerbach’s cellar and Goethe’s Faust, but Grieg’s destination was the Conservatory of Music, founded by Felix Mendelssohn. Today Grieg’s name can be found on the list of notable alumni such as Delius and Janáček, which makes me question Debussy’s description of Grieg’s music as ‘a pink bonbon filled with snow’. In fact some authorities detect Grieg’s influence on some of Debussy’s work.

Edvard Grieg age 19
Edvard Grieg, at the age of 19, graduating from the Leipzig Conservatory (image courtesy of Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek)

Grieg arrived in Leipzig in September 1858 as a young fifteen-year old and did not enjoy the Conservatory. His fellow students joked about his short stature, however they soon realized that short or not, he towered over them in his music studies. His teacher in theory and composition Moritz Hauptman said in his report that Grieg should be ‘counted among the best students in composition’. But although Grieg received a thorough grounding in the traditional elements of composition, his interest in unconventional harmonies was frowned upon by his tutors. All in all he found the tuition tedious, dry and uninteresting.

Hauptmanns anbefaling
Leipzig Conservatory teacher Moritz Hauptmann’s prophetic summary of the young student Grieg’s achievements : ‘he has… earned a very respectable degree and training that promises the best results’ (image courtesy of Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek)

It was the vibrant and exciting musical life in Leipzig that inspired the young Grieg. The Gewandhaus orchestra was a magnet for Europe’s best virtuosi to get a chance to play new works. Opera was another source of inspiration and the first year in Leipzig, Grieg attended every performance of Wagner’s Tannhȁuser. He heard Clara Schumann play her husband’s piano concerto and he also met Tchaikovsky and Brahms. While he was stimulated and energized by romantic composers such as Schumann and Mendelssohn, his teachers lambasted this ‘modern music’.

Grieg completed his studies in Leipzig in 1862, returned to Bergen and then later moved to Copenhagen where he was to meet his future wife Nina. However he kept in touch with his publishers in Talstrasse 10 and visited Leipzig several times and the publishers made a flat available to him ‘above the shop’. It was here that he composed Peer Gynt Suite n1 in 1888.

Grieg-Gedenstätte plaque
Talstrasse 10 : ‘Grieg often stayed here from 1876 until the year of his death, accompanied by his wife, the singer Nina Grieg, as a guest of his publishers. Here, in 1888, was composed his famous Peer Gynt Suite n1’

CF Peters publish Grieg
A typical CF Peters title page from ‘Talstrasse 10’ where Grieg was a guest of company partner Dr Max Abraham and later also Abraham’s nephew Dr Henri Hinrichsen (image: Mons Graupius)

Grieg-Gedenkstätte opening 2005
Henning Warloe (a member of the Grieg Society of Scotland) speaking at the opening ceremony of the Grieg Memorial Centre, Leipzig 2005 (image courtesy of Eva Tyson)

During the Communist regime of Eastern Germany, the house fell into disrepair, but the good news is that the flat is now a Grieg museum. It was opened officially by among others a member of our Society Henning Warloe, a Bergen Local Authority Commissioner. The museum features concerts, where Grieg used to play excerpts from his new compositions to his publishers.

Grieg’s stay in Leipzig was pivotal, it shaped and moulded him into the first Norwegian composer of international standing.

Author : Eva Tyson (Committee Member, The Grieg Society of Scotland)

Grieg’s music brought back to his ancestors

With our thoughts turning to spring, we invited Scottish composer and conductor Tommy Fowler to reflect on the day, decades ago, he took the Girls’ Choir of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation – the Norsk Rikskringkastings Jentekor, or today’s Norwegian Girls Choir of Oslo – on a visit to Rathen Kirkyard. The visit, complete with musical surprise was, as Tommy recalls, one never to forget.

It was one of those events seared into the memory. One of those stories with such vivid emotional recollection that countless retelling never diminishes. One of those ‘moments’.

Tommy Fowler
Composer & conductor Tommy Fowler on a later visit to Rathen Kirkyard, in 2007.

I was born in Aberdeen but brought up in Fraserburgh. In the 1970s I was a journalist and also, that cliché, a keen amateur musician. Having read about Grieg’s family connection with the Fraserburgh area and undertaken some research I discovered, in the tiny cemetery attached to Rathen West Church just a few miles south of Fraserburgh, the grave of John Greig and Anne Milne, Edvard Grieg’s great-great-grandparents. It was completely overgrown and indeed not the first grave I literally uncovered until I found the one I was looking for. As a journalist I had strong connections with the district council and persuaded them to erect a plaque on a nearby wall. Despite the plaque-makers’ confusion with the spelling of Greig/Grieg; no doubt assuming that it was my typing error, the plaque remains to this day. However, the flat, ground-level gravestone is again overgrown and the carved lettering even more difficult to read than it was then – almost 50 years ago.  Continue reading “Grieg’s music brought back to his ancestors”