The Story Behind Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote his five-act allegorical drama Peer Gynt in 1867 while living in Italy. It tells the story of the downfall and subsequent redemption of a Norwegian peasant anti-hero. Unlike Ibsen’s previous dramas, it was written in verse and wasn’t originally intended for stage performance.

However, in 1874, Ibsen changed his mind and wrote to his friend and compatriot Edvard Grieg to ask if he would compose the music for a production of the play. Flattered to have received the invitation, Grieg agreed at once, but doubt soon set in. 

Much as he admired the drama as a literary work, Grieg found composing for it a difficult task.

“Peer Gynt progresses slowly,” he wrote to a friend in August 1874, “and there is no possibility of having it finished by autumn. It is a terribly unmanageable subject.” 

As work continued, Grieg began to be drawn into the drama and, as his wife noted, “the more he saturated his mind with the powerful poem, the more clearly he saw that he was the right man for a work of such witchery and so permeated with the Norwegian spirit”.

The music was completed in the autumn of 1875, and the play’s lavishly staged premiere took place on February 24, 1876 in the Mollergaden Theatre, Christiania (now Oslo), with the orchestra conducted by Grieg himself.

Though a triumphant success, the performance prompted the composer to complain bitterly that the Swedish management of the theatre had given him specifications as to the duration of each number and its order: “I was thus compelled to do patchwork… In no case had I opportunity to write as I wanted… Hence the brevity of the pieces,” he said.

When Peer Gynt was revived in Copenhagen in 1885, Grieg took the opportunity to re-orchestrate much of the music. For both this and a subsequent revival in 1902, he added new pieces.

The score was published in 1908, a year after Grieg died, with 23 individual numbers lasting a total of nearly 90 minutes. Not surprisingly, given the length of both drama and incidental music, full-scale productions are rarely mounted and the original score with soloists, chorus and melodrama is far less well known than the two suites that Grieg assembled in 1888 and 1893.

Second to Grieg’s Piano Concerto, the Peer Gynt Suite No.1 is the composer’s most popular work, and of its four movements Morning and In The Hall Of The Mountain King are among the most loved of all short orchestral compositions.

Hear it on:

Grieg Peer Gynt
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Beecham made a classic recording of the two suites in 1956 (EMI 566 9662). If you want to hear the complete music for Peer Gynt, listen to Neeme Järvi’s account (DG 471 3002).

Did you know?

The movements Grieg chose for his suites bear no relation to the chronology of the play: Morning, the first piece in Suite No.1, is the prelude to Act 4; The Death Of Åse, second in Suite No.1, comes from the end of Act 3; Anitra’s Dance, third in Suite No.1, is from Act 4; and In The Hall Of The Mountain King’, fourth in Suite No.1, comes from Act 2.