Selection of Programme Notes/
related musical writings
Full text of Japanese review of Jill's Goldberg Variations
2) On Eighteenth century music played on the piano
3) Essay on Ibsen and Grieg's Peer Gynts
4) Narrative script of the Grieg Peer Gynt (brief adaptation of play)
I would like to thank Mr Yomo,
who told me about this CD. I thought Apex only produced cheap reissues from
companies such as Erato or Warner, but this CD is a new recording. So I felt
there was something unusual about it from the beginning. The performer, Jill
Crossland is a British woman pianist.
Mr Yomo introduced this to me as an unusual CD. On the first hearing, this is undoubtedly an unusual rendition. Firstly, tempi are very unusual. Sometimes, the music starts fast but suddenly becomes slow. On the other hand, slow sections such as the first aria and variation 26 are very slow. But when I listened to the CD for the second time, not expecting much, I suddenly realized that her pianism is clear. Generally, for the listeners who value the beauty of the equilibrium of the music of JS Bach, this is certainly an unusual rendition. But I began to think she has reached this recording after much consideration. It is full of interesting invention, especially if one pays attention to the contrast between slow and fast tempi and to the balance of the sound. Particularly in the second half of the CD, there is a subtle sense of balance intertwined with an exceptional articulacy. Thus I got to like Jill more and more.
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The Eighteenth century is at once remote from and familiar to us. Distant as we are from a culture of caste-like estates, wigs and powder, we recognise as kindred a whole set of ideas surrounding terms like the Enlightenment, sensibility and rationality. It was not until the French revolution that these new ideas truly had the chance to reshape society. But the way we now look at the world as individuals was already well-established in the course of the eighteenth century. Music of that century reflects this. However forbidding we may find the complexities of Handel’s counterpoint, however foreign the formal structures of Mozart’s style may seem to us, used as we are to Romantic abandonment and fleeting pop songs, we nevertheless respond immediately simply and directly to their representation of emotions. The Messiah or Magic Flute move our hearts without the need for any specialist knowledge.
In a piano recital of works from this period, the performer must strive for clarity of communication, to interpret to the modern listener that very transparency of emotion that seems to leap the centuries so effortlessly. Whereas Romantic piano music exalts the heroism and showmanship of the performer, in the Baroque and Classical periods all must seem effortless, it is the music, not the interpreter, whose voice we must hear. In the same way, the pianist who plays a modern instrument very different from what Handel or Mozart saw around them must make the most of its scale and colouristic possibilities, to balance these advantages against the dangers of over-projection or thoughtless virtuosity. To understand the conventions and formality of a different age, and still to speak to us today.
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‘This above all, to thine own self be true, and thou cannot then be false to any man’ – Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
"Man, be thyself!" At home here with us, 'mid the
tribe of the trolls, the saying goes: "Troll, to thyself be-enough!"
– The Mountain (Troll) King in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
Norway is a country of extremes of night and day. It overlaps the other Scandinavian countries at the top; more than any other, therefore, it extends beyond the Arctic Circle; in the summer the sun never sets and in winter, it never rises.
Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg, the only Norwegian writer and Norwegian composer who truly achieved world fame, well represent these two extremes. Grieg is all light, Ibsen all dark.
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was the emblematic writer of Norway; his work embodies what we think of as typically Norwegian themes- an interest in Old Norse mythology and tradition, a harsh Protestantism steeped in self-doubt and self-punishment. Ibsen single-handedly changed the writing of tragedy, Plays like Ghosts and The Master Builder rested it firmly within the tortured mind of modern man.
Ibsen began work on Peer Gynt in 1867, when he was 39. He
had already moved abroad, to Rome, but it is clear he was too embedded in
what he saw as the colder, unforgiving, truer Norwegian mentality to let the
relaxed influence of his new homeland show.
Peer Gynt did not begin life as a play, let alone as a piece of music. We need make no apology for an improvised adaptation; the story itself went through many transformations.
Peer Gynt is originally based on the story of a real Norwegian person, and even has resemblances (his father was absent and Ibsen himself fathered an illegitimate child whom he in turn abandoned) with Ibsen’s own life. Peer is tortured by ambition, bitter from failure, yet capable of tenderness and driven by a daemonic energy. He is a character who runs from commitment, and who is completely selfish, having little concern for the sacrifices that others are forced to make in accommodating him. Ibsen's use of satire and a self-centred protagonist were intended as a clear critique of the society of his time. Was there, any more, a ‘self’ we could be true to?
Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt as a dramatic poem; there were few theatres in Scandinavia and their clientele found his writing too dark anyway, so this was a way of reaching a wider audience. The work was published late in 1867, just in time for many Scandinavians to buy copies as Christmas presents. Once it had actually been read, however, its ‘contempt for humanity and self-hatred’ were widely condemned. Nowadays, we think of Ibsen as one of the great dramatists of all time; at that moment he had only just come to public attention; he was dismayed and crushed by the response. Despite its critical reception, Ibsen decided to adapt the poem for the stage in 1874, and asked Grieg to write the music. The two had met in a café in Rome; it was the most obvious of collaborations.
Grieg's work looked to tradition in every sense. He was influenced by the folk music around him and he looked back to Baroque and Mozartian models (such as, for example in his Holberg Suite or his adaptation of Mozart sonatas to include a part for a second pianist). In his own work, he continued a Romantic idiom that let allowed him to interpret the nature around him, that he so loved, gently and with tenderness. Indeed, Grieg’s music always treads a fine line between genuine sweetness and saccharine sentimentality. Depending on your point of view, therefore, Grieg wrote meretricious trivia, or exquisite miniatures.
These two tendencies – Ibsen’s intense mistrust of culture, and Grieg’s gentle celebration of nature, conflicted directly in Peer Gynt. If you know only the play or the music, you cannot believe the other is so light-hearted, or so blackly depressing, respectively.
Ibsen is said not to translate well; certainly, the poetic qualities of his writing are not apparent in an English version. The themes are, however, now universal in the modern condition- the need, invariably frustrated, for self-fulfilment, a sense of alienation from society, the search for some meaning, whether religious or otherwise supernatural, beyond the hateful everyday.
In contrast, Grieg saw his task as conveying the beauties
of the people and landscapes that form the backdrop for Peer Gynt's emotional
drama. Grieg tinkered with the twenty-three movements of the incidental music
over the course of thirty years. He was never happy with either Ibsen's themes,
or his responses to it, but he did extract two suites (Op 46 and Op 55), of
four pieces each, which he thought suitable for concert performance. These
suites have a musical coherence which bears no relation to the chronology
of Ibsen's play.
The results- the two Peer Gynt Suites- are better known today than the play, let alone the poem (a full staged performance of the play takes about four hours) and give a far sunnier, more cosmopolitan picture of the work than Ibsen’s original. The innocence and simple melodic beauty we can hear in Morning or Solveig’s Song, the comic trolls in the Hall of the Mountain King, the haunting romanticism of Aase’s Death- all these give an essentially benign, sentimentalised portrait of our hero, that represents only his life-affirming, questing side.
Grieg’s Peer Gynt is indeed a Viking adventurer (today, he would be in a road movie), but what the composer has done is to distil the redeemed, celebratory quality that in Ibsen’s originals emerges only out of suffering and betrayal. Within the genre of descriptive music, Grieg is far more Midsummer Night’s Dream than Night on the Bare Mountain.
Needless to say, neither writer nor composer was happy with the other. Ibsen is on record urging another Norwegian playwright to choose a different composer for incidental music; Grieg described Ibsen’s work as ‘unmusical’ and unmanageable.’ And yet, at the time, it was because of Grieg’s music that Ibsen’s play became popular with audiences, and nowadays, Grieg’s name is inextricably linked with Peer Gynt too.
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1 It is dawn on the sea-coast. Peer Gynt is on his travels, he has run away to seek his fortune. He has left a girl behind him at home, Solveig, who has told him she loves him and will wait for him, but he has thoughts only for now.
Scandinavia is full of magical beings and spirits. I’m sure you’ve read about them- from the Little Mermaid who sits outside Copenhagen harbour, to the battle-maidens who welcome Viking heroes into Valhalla. Peer Gynt meets a lot of spirits in this story, but he was a real, mischevious boy. He grew up full of badness, and had many adventures.
When we first meet him he is on a ship, waiting to land, waiting to start the next chapter of the adventures, full of hope and energy. It is that moment of stillness and tranquillity before the sun bursts into the sky. It is MORNING.
2. Peer's mother was called Aase. She worried and despaired about him. She told him off endlessly, but all he did was run away, womanise, and disrupt people’s lives. Eventually, he decides to go and live in the woodlands, where he can be free.
But when he comes back to the village on a visit, he finds that his mother has fallen ill. She is dying. Filled with love and remorse, he cradles her in his arms, tells her that everything will be all right. Sadly, she weakens, and he has to suffer…….AASE’s DEATH.
3 When you heard "Morning," did you imagine the fjords? Well, you were wrong. Peer Gynt was about to land on the coast of Morocco. After his mother’s death, Peer knew he had to go away, far away. Solveig begged him to stay, but he knew he had no hope of finding himself unless he saw the world. What did he find in Africa? Well, he fell in with a group of travelling Arabs, and they give him hospitality with their caravan.
Peer falls for one of the Arabs, a beautiful girl called Anitra, and she for him. They go off together. Lucky Peer. Or maybe not. She gets tired of how much he snores, worn out as he is by his nightly exertions, and one morning, he wakes up to find she and his horse and his money are just leaving him.
These days, we would call Anitra an exotic dancer. Grieg writes her a seductive, sultry piece of music, called of course…ANITRA’S DANCE.
4 Norway is where trolls come from. When Peer first met them in the forest, he was delighted to find other beings as anarchic, boisterous and badly behaved as he was himself. They liked him too and their Mountain King offers Peer his daughter in marriage, but there’s a catch, Peer must become a troll too, which involves living underground in the dark and having a tail.
Peer agrees, but when the Mountain King says he must cut out his eyes and turn them into slits, Peer becomes frightened. The trolls clamour to lynch him, and he cries out for help. Just in time, the church bells sound, and the whole troll world vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Let’s go back, then to when Peer first meets all the trolls… IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING.
5 Peer Gynt may have been dangerous and feckless, but no-one doubted his charm. When he ran away from his mother at the start of our story, his first stop was the wedding of a girl called Ingrid. That’s where Solveig first met him, she’s a young girl, although the horrified adults usher her away soon enough.
Although the guests had already assembled for the wedding, Peer managed to persuade Ingrid he would be a better prospect than her fiancé, and they run off together. Of course, as soon as he has her, he abandons her, and she, in her anguish, sings… INGRID’S LAMENT.
6 Now I will let you into a secret. Ibsen, who wrote the story of Peer Gynt, first as a poem, and then as a play, and Grieg, who wrote the music, each hated what the other had done with the story.
They represented opposite sides of the Norwegian temperament; Grieg stood for the beauty of the fjords, of nature and of the midnight sun, Ibsen for the depressed, brooding thoughts that Scandinavians have in the long, cold winters. So Ibsen's writing was too dark for Grieg, and Grieg’s music was too light for Ibsen.
Ibsen first wrote Peer Gynt as a dramatic poem; it came out just before Christmas and Scandinavians everywhere bought it for one another as presents. Once they read it, they were disgusted. But Ibsen believed in his creation; he turned it into a play and he asked Grieg to write the incidental music- the country’s most famous writer and best-known composer- it was a natural partnership.
Except it wasn’t. Grieg thought the themes of the play unmusical and unmanageable. Ibsen thought what Grieg came up with – it ended up being 23 pieces which the composer refined over 32 years – was pretty shallow too.
You already know that Peer met Anitra and her Arab tribe when he landed on the coast of Morocco. When he does, they greet him with….THE ARABIAN DANCE.
7 The eight pieces you are hearing are those Grieg thought might stand on their own in concerts. And as you must already see, he chopped and changed the order of the plot to make two suites that stand by themselves as music. But now, play and music are coming together.
Worn out by his travels, Peer returns to his native Norway. When he arrives, he meets the Button Moulder, another magical character whose job it is to melt down those souls neither so good they go straight to Heaven nor so bad they are go straight to Hell. The Button Moulder dogs Peer’s footsteps. Peer is forced to reflect on his misspent life.
In every way this is…PEER GYNT'S STORMY HOMECOMING
8 After all his misadventures, it is extraordinary that the story of Peer Gynt has a happy ending. But when Peer, sobered and abashed by his meetings with the Button Moulder, returns to his home village, he finds that Solveig still remembers him. She promised to wait for him, and she has.
And the story of Ibsen and Grieg has a happy ending too. The irony is, Grieg’s music made people flock to see Ibsen’s play. Ibsen’s themes made Grieg’s ‘Morning’ and ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ his best-known and best-loved pieces, the ones we remember the composer by today.
And so, at last, Peer sobs out his regret for a misspent life over Solveig,
and she replies by singing away his sadness with reconciliation and love.
This is SOLVEIG'S SONG.
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