PLAYLIST #1 ~ TRACK 18
Emil Gilels, piano
Rikard Nordraak — the young Grieg’s friend and lifelong inspiration: dead at 23
The Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) was born a full 30 years after Chopin and Liszt, and was thus in a position to build on a development that may be understood to have had its earliest stirrings in their work: the introduction into ‘art music’ of folk idioms, whether as an end in itself or in the service of nationalistic sentiment. In Chopin the tendency scarcely went beyond the embryonic. He evinced a certain Polish patriotism in his mazurkas and polonaises – to say nothing of the Revolutionary Étude – but did so by sublimating folk impulses rather than giving them voice. Liszt was more prophetic insofar as he consciously yearned to create a specifically Hungarian style, though in keeping with the fashion of the day he tended to identify this with what he had experienced of ‘gypsy music’. With hindsight his efforts may seem somewhat ersatz – the fact that he spoke not Hungarian, but French, says much – though this doesn’t invalidate them, let alone the impulse motivating them, which may be called political in a wide sense.
Inspired by encounters with pioneering figures such as the composer Rikard Nordraak (1842–66), who became a close friend on whose premature death he wrote a stirring funeral march, Grieg in some of his lesser-known music strove for a merging of demotic sources with his own style on something closer to equal terms, a further step toward the culturally sensitive attitude Bartók – for whom authenticity was everything – would bring to his borrowings. These attempts are usually regarded as having reached their apogee in the late Slåtter, aka 17 Norwegian peasant dance-tunes (published in 1902 as opus 72), creative piano transcriptions (or re-transcriptions – it’s an interesting tale) of Hardanger fiddle tunes in the repertoire of one Knut Dale.
Interesting here is that this desire on the part of Grieg for an earthier style of utterance could shape even a relatively salon-friendly character sketch such as the present Halling, one of three items so titled among the 66 making up the various volumes of his well-known Lyric Pieces. The piece could even be seen as a better illustration of his powers of assimilation than the Slåtter in that it is an original work making use of a traditional folk dance genre, rather than a setting of an existing tune. Whatever, it has a convincingly rustic feel, with its bagpipe-effect accompaniment, simple dancing melody and total lack of development: after stumbling rather oddly into silence it simply repeats itself (0’43”), which according to Constant Lambert’s famous observation is all a folk tune can ever do.