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Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36, for cello and piano

October 19, 2008 – Carter Brey, cello; Warren Jones, piano

Arguably the most popular composer ever to emerge from the Scandinavian peninsula, Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, in 1843. He received his formal musical education at the Leipzig Conservatory, but he did not find his unique musical voice until returning to Scandinavia after his graduation. There, Grieg was strongly influenced by Rikard Nordraak, the composer of the Norwegian national anthem. Nordraak’s obsession with the sagas, fjords and music of their homeland inspired Grieg to believe that a form of national music was also possible. He studied and drew inspiration from Norwegian folk music and is today considered a leading musical voice of Norwegian nationalism. Nevertheless, Grieg wrote that “music which matters, however national it may be, is lifted high above the purely national level.” Indeed, his music was admired by many of the most respected composers of his day, including Franz Liszt and Peter Tchaikovsky, both of whom offered their encouragement and approval.

History has branded Grieg as a composer of delightful miniatures, owing largely to the popularity of such well-known works as his Holberg Suite and incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. This impression, however, is belied by the massive scale of his cello sonata, one of the most passionate and expansively Romantic sonatas ever composed for the instrument. Grieg dedicated the piece to his brother John, an amateur cellist with whom he had not been on a good terms for some time. Unfortunately, there was no reconciliation, and it was another cellist, Ludwig Gritzmacher, who premiered the work with Grieg at the piano on October 22, 1883.

Perhaps reflecting the pain of the brotherly separation, the first movement begins with a brooding, agitated theme, which quickly dissolves into a tender second theme more characteristic of Grieg – warmly lyrical, very Norwegian. The movement has a wide emotional range, heightened by the unusual inclusion of a mini cadenza for the cellist.

The lyrical Andante draws its opening theme from an Homage March composed by Grieg as incidental music to a play about King Sigurd Jorsalfar of Norway. (The march was originally scored for four cellos.) There is a stormy middle section before the processional theme returns at the end of the movement.

The final movement begins with a brief recitative-cadenza for solo cello, which ushers in a vigorously rustic folk dance. As in the first movement, the finale traces a huge expressive trajectory. Although the sonata has no known extra-musical program, it creates a strongly narrative impression and represents Grieg at his most intense and passionate.

By Michael Parloff

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