The composer of some of the most popular works in the standard orchestral repertoire, Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) was born in Bergen, the son of a saltfish merchant. It was, considering the region’s historical dependence on the product, an appropriate background for a man whose romantic compositions have come to epitomize western Norway, or at least an idealized version of it: certainly, Grieg was quite happy to accept the connection, and as late as 1903 he commented that “I am sure my music has the taste of codfish in it.” In part this was sincere, but the composer had an overt political agenda too. Norway had not been independent since 1380, and, after centuries of Danish and Swedish rule, its population lacked political and cultural self-confidence – a situation which the Norwegian nationalists of the day, including Ibsen and Grieg, were determined to change. Such was their success that they played a key preparatory role in the build-up to the dissolution of the union with Sweden, and the creation of an independent Norway in 1905.
Musically, it was Grieg’s mother, a one-time professional pianist, who egged him on, and at the tender age of 15 he was packed off to the Leipzig Conservatory to study music, much to the delight of his mentor, Ole Bull. In 1863, Grieg was on the move again, transferring to Copenhagen for another three-year study stint and ultimately returning to Norway an accomplished performer and composer in 1866. The following year he married the Norwegian soprano Nina Hagerup (1845–1935), helped to found a musical academy in Oslo and produced the first of ten collections of folk-based Lyric Pieces for piano. In 1868, Grieg completed his best-known work, the Piano Concerto in A minor, and, in 1869, his 25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances. Thereafter, the composer’s output remained mainly songs and solo piano pieces with a strong folkloric influence, even incorporating snatches of traditional songs.
During the 1870s Grieg collaborated with a number of Norwegian writers, including Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Henrik Ibsen, one of the results being his much acclaimed Peer Gynt suites, and, in 1884, he composed the Holberg Suite, written to commemorate the Dano-Norwegian philosopher and playwright, Ludvig Holberg. It is these orchestral suites, along with the piano concerto, for which he is best remembered today. In 1885, now well-heeled and well known, Grieg and his family moved into Troldhaugen, the house they had built for them near Bergen. By that time, Grieg had established a pattern of composing during the spring and summer, and undertaking extended performance tours around Europe with his wife during the autumn and winter. This gruelling schedule continued until – and contributed to – his death in Bergen in 1907.