A Striking Precursor of Grieg’s «Solveig’s Song»
- Side: 57-64
- Publisert på Idunn: 2004-05-14
- Publisert: 2003-05-14
In 1999 I was invited by Augsburg College in Minneapolis to examine the extensive collection of Nordic music in its Lindell Music Library. The collection, which was stored in a large number of cardboard boxes, had hitherto only been perfunctorily catalogued. I was asked to assist in preparing a computerized catalogue of the material - a laborious task completed by American specialists during the following year.
The collection comprised sheet music and scores, often with parts, as well as phonograph records. The composers were from the three Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and from Finland and Iceland. In the period 1950 to 1965, Robert Karlén, professor of music at Augsburg College, had been instrumental in acquiring this vast material, the bulk of which consisted of music written between 1910 and 1965. Some of the material in the collection was of considerably older origin, acquired by or donated to the college over the years.
Among the earlier material I discovered a rarity, a slim volume of six songs by Norwegian composer Otto Winter-Hjelm (1837-1930) entitled "Sex visor i folktonstil", published in 1866 by Abraham Hirsch, Stockholm. This set, which had been unknown to me, proved of great interest, because it contained two songs, "Vesle Gut" [Little Lad] and, in particular, "Gutten og huldren" [The Boy and the Troll Maiden], which obviously had an impression on Edvard Grieg, and was possibly a prototype for his famous "Solveig's Song".
Winter-Hjelm, a music teacher and music critic in Oslo, was a prolific composer, but was overshadowed by a number of considerably more talented Norwegian composers of
the Romantic era. Even during his lifetime his works were seldom performed, and in the twentieth century he quickly faded into oblivion.
Born in Oslo, Winter-Hjelm first studied theology before turning to music. In 1857-58 he studied at the Leipzig conservatory, and in 1861-63 in Berlin. During his first year there he composed a symphony (in B flat major), one of the first symphonies written by a Norwegian composer in the nineteenth century. In the following year he wrote a second symphony (in B minor), more original in style, influenced by folk music and with a folk melody as a main theme in the last movement. Edvard Grieg conducted the first performance of the work on April 3, 1867, in Christiania [Oslo].
Half a year earlier the friendship formed by the two men proved to be short-lived. In October 1866 the 23-year-old Grieg moved from Bergen to the Norwegian capital to settle there as a music teacher and conductor of the [partly] amateur orchestra "Det Philharmoniske Selskab" [The Philharmonic Society].
On September 14 and 16, 1866, Winter-Hjelm published a welcoming article for his younger colleague in the Oslo newspaper Morgenbladet. Entitled "On Norwegian Music and Some Compositions by Edvard Grieg", the article consisted of no fewer than 6500 words lauding the talent of the newcomer.1
On December 12, 1866, Winter-Hjelm and Grieg jointly published (in Morgenbladet) an article of some 1500 words, "Et norsk Musik-Akademie", outlining detailed plans for founding a conservatory in the Norwegian capital.2 The institution opened on January 1, 1867, but attracted few students, and in the autumn of 1869, when Grieg left for Italy, the conservatory closed its doors. Grieg's departure led to the two colleagues falling-out, because their relationship began to cool off.
Grieg's low opinion of the compositional talent of Winter-Hjelm, particularly in writing larger works, appears in an excerpt from an article entitled "The Music Festival in Bergen. A Reply to Mr. Otto Winter-Hjelm", which Grieg published in the Oslo newspaper Verdens Gang on August 2, 1898: "For Mr. Winter-Hjelm's significance as a Norwegian composer is not, in my opinion, such that I thought I should use the limited time available for an extensive composition from his hand. For this opinion - which I am hardly alone in holding - I am of course willing to carry the full responsibility."3
However, Grieg did allow a short song by Winter-Hjelm to be performed at the festival in Bergen, which he organized.
Winter-Hjelm composed some 60 songs, a number of them published in Stockholm. They were predominantly in a very simple style typical of conservative Romanticism. However, the set "Sex visor i folktonstil", mentioned earlier, reflects the strong influence of Norwegian folk music. Several Norwegian composers of his generation, taking pride in the rich folk-music traditions of their country, attempted to give their songs a national imprint. They sought out poetry with a strong relationship to folk life and culture and to rural language, characteristics highly evident in this set of songs.
The first three songs are settings of texts by Kristofer Janson (1841-1917). Janson was
one of the first Norwegian poets to use landsmaal, which in the 1840s had been synthesized from various rural dialects, primarily by the poet and linguist Ivar Aasen.4
The texts of the last three songs were by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910). The first two had folksong-like texts in the traditional "Dano-Norwegian" language, while the text in the final song, "Gutten og huldren", is in landsmaal.
The text of Janson's very brief song "Vesle Gut" is simple in the extreme, approximating the style of a folk song. It depicts in an intentionally naive way the unhappiness of a small peasant boy who is bullied by his elders.
Winter-Hjelm's setting is equally simple, consisting of two four-bar phrases in G minor, the second beginning in B flat major. This is followed by a piano postlude in which the second phrase is slightly varied. In the second stanza the material is repeated with a couple of slight alterations. The harmony, which consists of a few sparse chords, contains a couple of expressive dissonances that appear to be an attempt to illustrate the agonies of the child.
There is no firm evidence that Grieg was familiar with this Winter-Hjelm set, but it seems likely that he was. In late 1866, Winter-Hjelm may have let Grieg see the songs in manuscript or in their newly published form, possibly in order to show his younger colleague the results of his attempt to put a national stamp on songs with folksong-like texts. Be that as it may, Janson's poem "Vesle Gut" attracted Grieg's attention at this time and he, too, composed a song to the text, the manuscript bearing the date December 12, 1866. For unknown reasons, however, Grieg's song remained unpublished for 125 years, and in 1991 was printed in volume 15 of Edvard Grieg. Complete Works with the EG number 129.
The song is of interest for several reasons. It is the first of Grieg's songs with a text in landsmaal/nynorsk, a language which later inspired him to write a number of his most distinctive songs in opp. 33 and 67. "Vesle Gut" is also only the third of his songs in which he introduced idiom from the folk music of his home-land as he had previously done in the instrumental works of opp. 6-8.5
"Vesle Gut" is one of the simplest songs Grieg ever wrote, but it is not at all insipid, and when it comes to melody and harmony it is far superior to Winter-Hjelm's setting of the same text.
Winter-Hjelm's song "Gutten og Huldren" [The Boy and the Troll Maiden] is reproduced below. Here he shows compositional talent and original imagination to a greater extent than in the other five songs of the "Sex visor" set.
The poem is one of the earliest that Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote and one of the very few of his writings in which he employed landsmaal. He later suppressed the poem and did not include it in the edition of his complete works.
According to Norwegian legend, the "hulder" is a preternatural being, a beautiful troll girl who roams around seeking men to seduce.6 In this poem she finds a boy who, fascinated by her, engages her in dialogue.7 Winter-Hjelm here succeeds rather felicitously
in his attempts at imitating Norwegian folk music by alternating between minor and major keys and by employing open fifths in the bass and sharp dissonances, all of which are characteristics reminiscent of folk instruments.
The most original section of the song is the second part. The key has been changed from A minor to A major and the rhythms of a "springdans"(a Norwegian folk dance in 3/4 time) are employed. Here the girl sings a vocalise on the vowel "AH", which is not prescribed in the poem itself. The composer evidently wanted to reflect the style of a Norwegian "lokk", a "cattle call" used by peasants to gather their herds.
It is astonishing to find the striking similarities that exist between this song and Grieg's "Solveig's Song" from the incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1875). These similarities, which have not been discovered before, are evident from the music excerpt given. A comparison is highly revealing with respect to similarities in melody and rhythm, as well as in harmony. The profiling of the melodies is frequently similar, as are many notes, intervals and rhythms. Several similar chords and progressions can be found.
Both songs have a first slow section in the key of A minor and a second, livelier one in A major, in which both composers use a vocalise. Both also change the metre into that of a stylized "springdans" with dotted rhythms, approximating a "lokk". In his printed stage directions for Peer Gynt, Ibsen indicates that at this point Solveig "calls to the goats, spins and hums again", while Grieg has written in his score: "softly humming, while she is busying herself with the spinning-wheel".
In a letter to his American biographer H. T. Finck, on July 17, 1900, Grieg made an interesting comment on "Solveig's Song": "Regarding my songs, I do not think that on the whole they have been greatly influenced by the folk song. In cases in which local color had to play an essential role, the influence is evident-for example in "Solveig's Song" from Peer Gynt. But this is perhaps the only one of my songs where an imitation of a folk song can be traced."8
In the accompaniement of this vocalise section both composers use the same chords and rhythms.
There are two folk songs that may have been on Grieg's mind: the Norwegian "Jeg lagde mig så silde" [I lay down so late] and the Swedish "Ack Värmeland, du sköna" [Oh beautiful Värmeland].
A possible prototype for the song may also have been one of the best-known songs by Norwegian composer Halfdan Kjerulf (1815-1868), "Synnøve's Song", which Grieg in a review called "one of the composer's most beautiful songs". "Synnøve's Song", in mood as nostalgic as "Solveig's Song", also employs a "humming" vocalise, an eight-bar phrase in f-Aeolian which opens the song. This phrase has some affinity to the orchestral prelude to "Solveig's Song", which has chord progressions in a-Aeolian.9
In conclusion, one can only speculate on the relationship between "Gutten og Huldren" and "Solveig's Song". Did Grieg know the Winter-Hjelm song? The answer must surely be in the affirmative, as the similarities between the two songs are much too great to be mere coincidences. Grieg must have seen the earlier song, either in manuscript or in its published form. It must then have remained in his memory later to be used unconsciously in 1875 when it became a prototype for "Solveig's Song".
With Grieg's strong integrity as a composer, plagiarism on his part is out of the question. That Winter-Hjelm did not detect-or at least did not publically comment on-the similarities between his song and Grieg's eventually world-famous version is one of the mysteries of Norwegian music history.
Excerpts from this article are found in Dag Schjelderup-Ebbe, Edvard Grieg 1858-1867. Oslo & London, 1964, p. 311-12. Excerpts from an unsigned, very positive review in Morgenbladet, Oslo, on October 17, 1866, of Grieg's introductory concert in Oslo on Oct. 15, presumably written by Winter-Hjelm, are given in ibid, p. 313.
This article appears in English translation in Finn Benestad and William H. Halverson (eds.), Edvard Grieg: Diaries, Articles, Speeches. Columbus, Ohio, 2001, pp. 321-27.
Edvard Grieg. Diaries, Articles, Speeches. p. 341.
Later in the century landsmaal ("the rural language") was renamed nynorsk ("new Norwegian").
Stylistic analyses of the song are found in Dag Schjelderup-Ebbe, op.cit., pp. 320-21.
The "Green-clad one" in Ibsen's Peer Gynt is a typical "hulder".
The boy: What is your name, you girl among the sheep,who are blowing on a horn and knitting a sock? The girl: My name swims like a duck in a pond. Row over, you boy with the sheep-skin hat. The boy: What's your father's name and what's your farm called? I have not seen you on the way to church. The girl: My father has drowned and the farm has burnt down. I have never found the way to church.
Edvard Grieg. Letters to Colleagues and Friends. (Edited by Finn Benestad, translated by William H. Halverson), Columbus, Ohio, 2000, p. 226.
See Dag Schjelderup-Ebbe, "Noen tanker om Edvard Griegs gjeld til Halfdan Kjerulf" [Some Reflections on Edvard Grieg's Indebtment to Halfdan Kjerulf], in Studia Musicologica Norvegica 24, Oslo, 1998, p. 39-46.
I 1999 oppdaget Dag Schjelderup-Ebbe forbausene store likheter i melodikk, tyrmikk og harmonikk mellom Otto Winter-Hjelms sang «Gutten og huldren» (trykt i Stockholm i 1866), en tonesetting av et tidlig dikt på landsmål av Bj. Bjørnson, og Griegs «Solveigs sang» (1875).
Winter-Hjelm (1837-1930), som har vært en lite påaktet komponist, var i Christiania 1866-69 Griegs samarbeidspartner som dirigent og pedagogo. Da likhetene mellom de to sangene er så påfallende, må Grieg utvilsomt ha sett sin kolllegas komposisjon og trolig ubevisst kommet til å låne stiltrekk fra den, idet det ikke kan være tale om noe direkte plagiat.
At Winter-Hjelp ikke oppdaget eller offentlig kommenterte likhetene mellom sin egen og Griegs kanskje mest berømte sang, er et av mysteriene i norsk musikkhistorie.
Prof. em. Dag Schjelderup-Ebbe (f. 1926), nestor i norsk musikkvitenskap, har vært sentral i Grieg-forskningen, der han i 1961 var en medstifter av Edvard Grieg-komiteen (formann 1971-81). Etter grunnleggende bøker om Griegs harmonikk (1953) og om Griegs tidligere periode (dr.avh. 1964) utgav han sammen med prof. Finn Benestad en fundamental Grieg-biografi (1980). Deres samarbeid fortsatte med en bok om Griegs kammermusikk (1993). Begge er belønnet med Edvard Grieg-prisen og St. Olavsordenen for sine fortjenester.