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”