September 2009

Selections from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46

by Edvard Grieg

Edvard Hagerup Grieg (pronounced GREEG) was born in 1843 in Bergen, Norway. He was a composer best known for his pieces for piano, but most of us today know him for his incidental music that he wrote for Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt (pronounced PEER GINT).

In 1875, Edvard Grieg wrote Incidental Music to Peer Gynt, Op. 23 to accompany Henrik Ibsen's play. It debuted in February of 1876 in Christiania (now known as Oslo), Norway. In the late 1880s, Grieg decided to create two four-movement orchestral suites from the original music. For a long time, the orchestral suites were the only surviving remnant of this music. The original score for the full Incidental Music was said to have been lost. About 15 years ago (1990s), an original score was discovered in a desk drawer in Bergen, Norway. The original Incidental Music had 33 pieces and covered all five acts of the play.

The story of Peer Gynt is very complicated. It would seem that, in the end, it's a cautionary tale of those who neither live a constructive life nor an evil life. Peer Gynt is the main character. He was born into poverty, living with his mother Åse. He goes through several experiences in an attempt to bring his family out of poverty, and also to discover himself. I'm not really doing the story justice, but, as I'd mentioned, it's quite complicated.

The first suite contains these four movements:

Suite No. 1, Op. 46
1. Morning Mood
2. Åse's Death
3. Anitra's Dance
4. In the Hall of the Mountain King

All four of these pieces are very well known (some more than others). Here's how I was introduced to them:

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

Morning Mood

I honestly do not know when I would have first been introduced to this piece. This is used so often in cartoons and films that I can't remember ever not knowing it. I discovered the Peer Gynt suites in my teen years, and got to know them well while I was on my mission.

Åse's Death

This is probably the least well known of the movements from the first suite. I didn't really get to know this one until my mission.

Anitra's Dance

I owe my introduction to this piece to our TI-99/4A computer and a fun little game called Alpiner. The object of Alpiner is to climb a mountain while avoiding various obstacles. The soundtrack to the game was Anitra's Dance. I later discovered a piano version of it in a piano book that Mom had. I never fully learned to play it, but I enjoyed playing what I could.

In the Hall of the Mountain King

This (and Morning Mood) is probably the most well-known of all the movements. I'm not absolutely certain as to when I was introduced to this one, but I know of some early exposures. Here again, this theme is very commonly found in movies, TV, cartoons, etc. I do remember another TI-99/4A influence for this one. It was a game called Hunt the Wumpus. When the game starts, it plays In the Hall of the Mountain King. I'm pretty sure that wasn't my first exposure, though.

I'd say the influence that got me to know the piece the best was a record that we found at the Watertown Public Library (which means I would have been in my very early teens). The title of the album was "Laserium Presents A Crystal Odyssey". From what I can tell, this was a laser light show (put on by a company called Laserium) that used, as its soundtrack, several classical recordings. One of them was In the Hall of the Mountain King. For those curious, I did actually find a copy of this record in really good condition, and I plan to archive it.


Now it's time for you to listen to three of the four movements. Let's start with Morning Mood. This is a good one to close your eyes to. In the play, this is the beginning of Act IV, but I'm not certain what it's supposed to represent in the story (other than, obviously, the rising of the sun).

Morning Mood from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg

Next is Anitra's Dance. This is also from Act IV of the play. At this point in the story, Peer has travelled to Morocco as a travelling salesman. Among the bedouins (desert wanderers), he becomes acquainted with Anitra, the daughter of the chieftan, and attempts (but fails) to seduce her.

Anitra's Dance from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg

Finally, it is time for the ever-classic In the Hall of the Mountain King. We hear this in Act II of the play. Peer has escaped into the mountains and has a dream in which he visits the Troll King high in the mountains. Make sure you turn the volume up, as it starts very quietly. But be warned, it gets very loud.

In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg

For those interested, this recording is Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Jon's Interpretation:

This whole suite is an example of how music, simply by sound, can help the listener to picture something that isn't seen. Most people have watched a sunrise. What does it sound like? Thanks to Morning Mood, now we know. Morning Mood is particularly glorious, and brings to mind an extremely positive outlook on a new day. A while back, I started using my iPhone as an alarm clock. This is the piece that awakens me on the weekends.

Anitra's Dance is just fun. It's an Arabian style dance, but there's a tease or chase to it. In a simplistic way, you can see Peer chasing after Anitra throughout. Also, from a music composition geek perspective, the falling notes at the end of the theme are a remarkably inspired way to use chromatics. This was a little ahead of its time.

I absolutely love In the Hall of the Mountain King. Nothing demonstrates suspense and excitement like this one. While I don't remember know this piece as a very young child, this is the type of piece I could have easily ran around the house to. The creeping bassoons at the beginning give one the feeling of cautious approach, of sneaking around. This finally rises to a loud, exciting blast of the theme. This also has one of my favorite endings. The timpani roll right before the last note is marvelous.

Extra Credit:

It's probably not fair to leave out Åse's Death, but it's just not as well known as the other three. However, it is a very pretty (though sad) piece. For those who want to finish the set from Suite No. 1, here it is:

Åse's Death from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg

Morning Mood

I thought I'd show you how, even now, this piece continually gets used in the media. Here's a clip from the Simpsons episode "Bart Carny" (9th Season). There's a brief clip showing how dawn breaks on the traveling carnival. I'm sure you'll recognize the music.

Clip from "Bart Carny" (Season 9) of The Simpsons

Anitra's Dance

For the hey of it, I thought I'd include the actual video from the opening of the TI-99/4A game Alpiner. Enjoy!

Alpiner on the TI-99/4A

In the Hall of the Mountain King

In a similar vein, here's the actual video from the opening of the TI-99/4A game Hunt the Wumpus. This also includes a little bit of Chopin's "Funeral March", which we'll have to cover another month. Enjoy!

Hunt the Wumpus on the TI-99/4A