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. 

I was glad that the grave had been marked in that way and I was proud to mention its location and personally show it off on several occasions. However, when I heard that a Norwegian choir was due to visit the area I hatched a little surprise for them.

The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation Girls’ Choir from Oslo was due to take part in the Aberdeen International Festival of Youth Orchestras. I was involved with Fraserburgh Arts Group which hosted ensembles from the festival at performances in the town. I got myself assigned to look after the choir and suggested they might like a short tour around the area in their bus during the day before their evening performance in the town. I duly showed them the sights but I kept secret from them the destination of their final stop.

St Ethernan's or Rathen Old Parish Kirk
View of St Ethernan’s or Rathen Old Parish Kirk, 2007 (courtesy of Tommy Fowler).

A brief word to the bus driver and the choir were puzzled when the bus began to reverse off the main road into a narrow lane next to a church. They were ushered off the bus and chattering wildly, led through the gravestones. My announcement: ‘Girls, this is the grave of Edvard Grieg’s great-great grandparents’ was met with gasps and a reverent silence as they encircled the stone. What happened next was, for me, completely overwhelming. I could barely hold back my emotions as the choir, softly and tenderly, began to sing an arrangement of Våren. I hear it now as I write and as I feel, yet again, the same emotions. Every time I hear that piece, whether in the original song (I heard it performed at Troldhaugen) or in his string or piano arrangements, I am reminded of that summer’s day in 1974 in Rathen Kirkyard when Grieg’s music was brought back to his ancestors.

Edvard Grieg's 'Våren' (Spring) Op33n2
Edvard Grieg’s evocative song Våren (Spring), which welcomes the season’s return with a flood of vivid memories. [Image & audio courtesy of Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek]

Guest author: Tommy Fowler