North Star

How does it feel to step into the shoes of a national treasure? Conductor Andrew Litton, who is bringing Edvard Grieg's orchestra to the Proms, explains.

by Erica Jeal, Guardian Unlimited

In the centre of Bergen there are monuments to no fewer than three musicians: the violinist Ole Bull, the composer Harald Saeverud, and the man regarded as the father of Norwegian classical music, Edvard Grieg. Surveying the bustling Festplassen, Grieg's statue stands proud on a tall plinth. But that is a copy; the life-size original is in the grounds of Grieg's home, Troldhaugen, just up the coast, where he composed in a shack at the bottom of his garden, overlooking the sea. This statue is at ground level, so as soon as you have registered that familiar imposing face, big moustache and bushy hair, you are struck by the fact that the man was tiny: this giant of his country's music was barely 5ft tall.

Since becoming chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic four years ago, I have learnt a lot about Grieg, especially in the run-up to this year's centenary of his death. It would be impossible not to have done. He is indelibly linked with the orchestra – one of the oldest in the world, having been founded in 1765 – despite the fact that he conducted it for only two years. The association, though, is something far stronger, bound up with the unique position Grieg has in the Norwegian musical imagination. There are few other composers who are quite as much a part of the cultural fabric of their country: Elgar, Verdi and Gershwin, perhaps.

What is so hard for us outsiders to understand is that for Norway, that identity is a relatively recent phenomenon and something of a well-kept secret, with only 4.7 million Norwegians to share it. The country itself gained independence only two years before Grieg died. I collect composer autographs, and one of my most prized is a letter Grieg wrote responding to a note he had received congratulating him on Norway's independence. To look at the fjords is to know they have been there forever, but, though the concept of Norway has been around for hundreds of years, the land had always been ruled by someone else: Germany, Denmark, Sweden.

Grieg himself worked a lot in Copenhagen, studied in Leipzig, and harmonically you can hear his allegiance to the German school. Yet what gives his music its individual voice is its espousal of his country's folk music, full of the intonations of the traditional Hardanger fiddle tunes he had heard courtesy of Ole Bull. This, really, is Grieg's great contribution to Norwegian music: he was the first composer to set that folk music in a classical guise, and so make it acceptable in the concert hall.

It could all have been very different. Our Proms programme will begin with the Funeral March Grieg wrote for a friend and fellow composer just a couple of years older, Rikard Nordraak. It was Nordraak, not Grieg, who had been the great white hope for those keen to hear a truly Norwegian style of music, Nordraak who wrote the national anthem Norwegians still sing. And it was Nordraak who made Grieg feel comfortable with the concept of being Norwegian and of using his country's traditional music. "Suddenly it seemed as if a mist fell from my eyes and I knew what I wanted," Grieg later wrote of their first meeting.

Yet Nordraak died in 1866, aged only 23. The Funeral March Grieg wrote in his memory was clearly an important piece to him; he asked for it to be played by the orchestra at his own funeral. And yet he didn't write it for orchestra; it was originally conceived for piano. So the march is a good illustration of a paradox for the Bergen Phil: apart from the Piano Concerto and perhaps a couple of other pieces, as an orchestra we play very few works written and orchestrated by Grieg himself, because so few of these actually exist. We play the march in an arrangement by someone else (Johan Halvorsen), and the same goes for half of the other orchestral pieces by Grieg in our repertoire.

The real Grieg was a master miniaturist, the composer of the Lyric Pieces for piano, the Haugtussa song cycle. Later in his life he was friendly with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, who didn't particularly like each other, but both liked Grieg. Perhaps neither of them considered him a threat. And yet, because he respected the fact that they painted on huge orchestral canvases while he crafted miniatures, I don't believe he felt inferior to them in any way.

The Piano Concerto is all Grieg's own, though, and very much a masterpiece. When I was growing up in New York in the 1970s, nobody played it; it was regarded as a cheap, sentimental coupling that filled up the minutes on your Schumann LP. Our feelings towards works like this and Rachmaninov's concertos have changed a lot during the last two decades – we can now appreciate that while these pieces may be heart-on-sleeve, that does not have to be a negative thing.

It's no surprise that the orchestra is always asked to play the Piano Concerto when we tour, and we also play it every year to round off the Bergen festival. Other Nordic music forms a substantial part of our repertoire, but much of this is contemporary: Bergen has the funding for it, and the audience too.

I think that eventually when we look back at 20th-century music, we will say that Norway was not only Grieg but Arne Nordheim as well. He is probably the first Norwegian composer to have a truly modern, original voice. Check out his 1968 choral work Eco, or his Cello Concerto written for Rostropovich, Tenebrae, from 1982 (I was at the premiere because I was Rostropovich's assistant at the time, but that is another story).

Bergen today is still the isolated place that Grieg loved to retreat to, surrounded by mountains and sea and warmed by the Gulf Stream. It takes around eight hours to drive through the mountains to Oslo, but only 50 minutes to fly there. The orchestra itself is a mini-UN,with players of 21 different nationalities at the last count. But they still play Grieg with a certain special assurance; it is in no way arrogance, rather a kind of freedom. And that is one reason why I programmed Britain's own William Walton in our Prom: I feel that both Norway and Britain suffer from a lack of other countries playing their music. I wanted to prove that a Norwegian orchestra could come to Britain, play its native music, and then play your native music too, with no foreign accent. For all that Grieg wanted to capture the sound of his country, I think he would have appreciated that.

Originally printed in the Guardian Unlimited, London, England on August 10, 2007.
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