Enjoy a full recording of this concerto after Linda and John discuss its origin, Norwegian influences, and what to listen for.
The abridged 6-minute version of Grieg's Piano concerto and the first-ever recording of any piano concerto
Andre Previn and a comedic attempt at Grieg's piano concerto
Another performance to enjoy after the episode
John Banther: I'm John Banther. And this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Linda Carducci, and we're talking about one of the most popular works featuring the piano: Edvard Grieg's piano concerto. We get into Grieg's Norwegian influences, his unique sound and what to listen for. Plus, stick around with us to the end as we'll enjoy a full performance of the concerto.
Edvard Grieg struck gold when he wrote this concerto at the age of 25 in 1868, and it's gone on to be his most recognized and most performed work. I think it's also been one of the most performed concertos for the piano of any kind. Hasn't it, Linda?
Linda Carducci: Yes. For good reason, I would say, too. It is considered one of the most heroic piano concertos of the Romantic Era, the Romantic Era being the 19th century when there was now a movement in the arts, not just music, but arts and literature, too, visual arts, an emphasis now on personal expression, on passion, on expression, on emotionalism, on grandiosity, freedom of structure that was contrasting from the preceding Classical Era of the 18th century where musicians wrote pretty much according to an established structure of music. So this is a heroic piano concerto, freedom of expression, fully romantic.
John Banther: I loved how you were describing it with the freedom and then the expression, the grandeur, also contrast. It feels like we have all of those things baked right into this concerto. So we're going to go over the work a bit, a few things to listen for, after which we will enjoy a full performance of the concerto. So stick around with us.
A little bit about this piece. It was premiered in Copenhagen in 1869, the composer absent, unfortunately because of a previous engagement, but it made its Norwegian debut shortly thereafter and the composer was in attendance. It was very well- received. I also see, Linda, that it's also the first piano concerto ever recorded in 1909.
Linda Carducci: That's correct. A shortened version of it because back in those days, they couldn't have the entire length on recording. So it was a bit of an abridged version, but yeah, this was also not only his only piano concerto but the first that was ever recorded.
John Banther: That's quite an achievement, and really not that much longer after he wrote the music. I'll put the video of this music on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org, but because you can actually listen to it. It's intelligible. There's so many recordings even 20 years after this that we have maybe of Rachmaninoff and you hear it and it's like, " Well, I guess I can sort of hear something." No, but this you can actually hear. It's quite interesting.
I think one reason it became so popular, Linda, is its overall sound. His concerto uses folk elements and influences, and in Grieg's own words, he said, " Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights. I want to build homes for the people in which they can be happy and contented." I love that.
Linda Carducci: It is. It's a little bit more modest of a goal. And I think that explains the character of Edvard Grieg. He was apparently a very modest man, although this is quite a grandiose piano concerto. But yes, he said that they erected temples. Fine. But he wanted to erect something maybe that was smaller, maybe a little bit more comfortable for the average person. The premiere of this concerto was in Copenhagen in the year 1869. But the following year, Grieg went to visit the great elder statesman of music, Franz Liszt, who was living in Rome at the time in an abbey. This visit engendered one of the great stories of classical music because Grieg went to visit Liszt and brought the score of the piano concerto with him. Liszt sat down at the piano and played it a prima vista, completely by sight.
John Banther: Well, we call it just sight reading.
Linda Carducci: Sight reading.
John Banther: You've never seen it before. It's put on the stand in front of you and you just play it.
Linda Carducci: Right. So Liszt sight read it before an audience of musicians and was very favorably impressed by the piece. He had a quote that Grieg liked to tell, and Grieg said that Liszt was quite emotional when he said this. He said, " Splendid! That's the real thing. Keep it up. I tell you, you have what it takes and don't let anyone scare you."
John Banther: I love that. And from Liszt, I mean, a change maker in his own right telling you this. That's quite something. Even Tchaikovsky writing about Grieg, saying, " In Grieg's music, there prevails that fascinating melancholy which seems to reflect in itself all the beauty of Norwegian scenery." Composers right away knew how great this was. I also love how they're talking about the scenery because you think of Norway's folk music tradition, very mythological, fairytale connection, stuff like that, but also the scenery of Norway. I didn't quite put that together with Grieg before, maybe surprisingly, but of course Norway has devastatingly beautiful landscapes.
Linda Carducci: Oh, yes. This touches on what you had mentioned earlier, John, and that is the use of folk idioms and folk rhythms. That was getting to be very popular during the time of Grieg during the Romantic Era. This was what called music nationalism, referring to musical ideas or rhythms or motifs that are identified with a particular country or a region or a particular ethnicity, not only identified, but maybe even originated. This was getting to be quite, quite popular during the 19th century as new nations were starting to gain independence and they wanted to be independent from the Germanic tradition of music that had been prior to that. Grieg very much wanted to incorporate and embrace music nationalism, and he did. Now he didn't quote directly though from some Norwegian folk tunes, but he would use stylistic references, like rhythms.
John Banther: Yes. Because Grieg is writing in this language that to us today, it still sounds unique. But especially for his audience, these Norwegians, he was writing in a language that they would understand; they would pick up on right away. Although maybe not those explicit examples or quotes of other things, like you just said; he was writing in that language that they understood. I think it still sounds so different because you think of, well, how many Scandinavian composers are there from this time period compared to the endless supply from Germany and Austria and France. So he was writing in that language that they could really understand. He said Norwegian everyday life, fairy tales, history and above all Norwegian nature, and that's where I kind of started thinking about the Norwegian landscapes. Grieg said, " They have all had a powerful influence on my work ever since I was a lad." So this wasn't even a realization as an adult to write this kind of music. This was something with him from the very beginning.
Linda Carducci: Ingrained within him. Mm- hmm.
John Banther: Ingrained. So let's talk about the music. The first movement, one of the most iconic openings, too, for a concerto. I mean, it's just with that huge timpani roll and kind of explosion onto the scene. It's so iconic, very heroic. But it's also similar to another one before this by Schumann.
Linda Carducci: That's right. The Edvard Grieg is considered to be or called sometimes the Chopin of the north, but in this piano concerto, he looked more to Robert Schumann from the Romantic Era, who was a little bit older than Grieg but also from the Romantic Era, and that there are some similarities that we will hear in Grieg's piano concerto to Robert Schumann. And please remember, too, that Grieg heard the Schumann piano concerto performed by Clara the Schumann. Whether he took from it, the ideas, consciously or subconsciously, there are some similarities and one is the opening, as you say, which doesn't really have much of a beginning or an exposition. It's almost like, well, in this case, a drum roll... bursting into it is the piano with these big chords. Schumann's was very similar to that.
John Banther: It's always surprising to me when I remember that this is not written like 50 years later. I'm thinking after the 1900s, it still, to me, sounds quite modern and forward- sounding at this time in the 1860s. The opening here already has a different kind of sound. I think it goes into what you were talking about with the Norwegian influence of we have this simple cascading line. We're outlining A minor, but he does it by adding this color for us with this unexpected note. So we have this opening that's outlining, like an arpeggio, our key A minor. Not to get too technical, but if we assign numbers to the notes, we can think of it this way. The arpeggio, very simple if you think of 1, 5, 3, 1, those are the different scale degrees. He adds the 7th scale degree on his way down. So it's just below A, it's a G sharp. It really wants to lead to A when it's going up. He adds that going down, which adds this whole different sound that I think 50 years ago in Germany before this, no one would've written something like this.
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: Yeah.
Linda Carducci: Yeah, yeah. I think it sounds very modern and dramatic.
John Banther: It's so dramatic. It's just a little, little change, but it's so unexpected that it adds a whole new character to it. I think we hear that going on these descending minor 2nds and 3rd, which is also a hallmark of, from what I understand, of Norwegian folk songs.
Linda Carducci: Yes. That's very true. So that's an example of what we were talking about before, where maybe he's not quoting directly, but he is using stylistic references to Norwegian folk music.
John Banther: The rhythm in this opening is also something, I think, in a folk style. But I think we'll get into that in a more clearer sense when we get to the final movement. But there's so many contrasts here in this concerto. It doesn't feel like we have long stretches of different sections. Like, if you think of something by Mozart or by Haydn. There's a lot of back and forth. There's a lot of dialogue with instruments, with the orchestra. And shortly after this introduction, we get to this more calm theme.
Linda Carducci: Yes. One thing I've noticed in the first movement is there are several themes, but he keeps bringing them back, as you said. Maybe not in long, long expositions, but every time he brings them back, they're in a slightly different way. So they're developed with the orchestra and with piano. I think it makes it sound so interesting and fresh that way every time they're reintroduced.
John Banther: The repetition never feels old. It always feels like when I'm listening to this, there's always something interesting happening. This might sound terrible. There's a lot of piano concertos I hear and it's like, " Well, okay, I guess. I'm sitting here for four minutes between something interesting to me," but here, this is all kind of grabbing you. One reason I think he does it so well is because he has this control over the momentum. We're pushing forward. We're pushing forward. And then he can stop like in this slow section. It's as if he's had us on this hurried journey at night and we're following him through some long path, and then he stops us for a second and we just look up and we see all the stars in the sky that we just didn't see before.
Linda Carducci: That's a beautiful way to explain it. I think that is so full of imagery. It's very much present in this first movement and actually all three of the movements.
John Banther: One of my favorite back and forth dialogues, one with horn and piano, really beautiful. But also you see how he uses the oboe to kind of just spin a line back and forth with the piano really quickly that just it's like a fountain overflowing, sometimes, the way he's bringing lines in and out.
Linda Carducci: Yes. And it's interesting too that he uses oboe sort of at the beginning, too, when he's introducing the theme. Robert Schumann did that in his piano concerto as well. But yes, you're right. There's an interplay of woodwinds and piano in that first movement that is just beautiful.
John Banther: He didn't write too much for orchestra. This is his only concerto, right?
Linda Carducci: Yes.
John Banther: And we don't have a whole list or catalog of music, like someone from Beethoven for the orchestra. So when I listened to his cadenza in this first movement, it makes me miss... You know, what could we have listened to from him from orchestra? Because the way he utilizes the piano, it's very orchestral, in my opinion. He has this statement with chords and then this huge rumbling sound in between these statements... It's just so huge. You could hear a whole string section doing this if they wanted to, but he has it just for the piano.
Linda Carducci: Yes. I think it's worth remembering along those lines, John, that this shows his maturity at the age of 25. He was 24 and 25 when he wrote this work. He was newly married. He was a young father, and he was a very good pianist. So this is quite a grandiose, mature work for somebody of that age. But as you say, as he got older, he wrote smaller and smaller pieces, a little bit more in miniature.
John Banther: One thing I like that this is so grandiose when we have these huge moments in the cadenza, he ends it with these long trills and a transition that's kind of ambiguous. It's not this long trill and then all of a sudden the orchestra jumps back in forte loud, and it's a big rousing end, but rather there's these trills and then the transition's a little ambiguous. And then it builds back up to the end.
Linda Carducci: Yes, very dramatic at the end, very conclusive, as you have said.
John Banther: That end, it's bringing back the theme of the opening, but now he's doing it in triplets when we'll get in more into the rhythm again in the finale of this opening, I guess, in the closing here. But he does it with triplets, which is just full propulsion to the end. It's just... as opposed to...
Linda Carducci: The use of triplets, I think, in this piece is worth noting. I hadn't noticed it as much when I would just hear the work as when I was preparing for this podcast. I actually got the score of this work and followed the score as I was listening to it. I was struck at how often he uses triplets, not just in the first movement, but throughout the piece, triplets. So I think of triplets sometimes as sort of dance kind of movement. This goes back to what we were talking about about nationalism and him bringing into the ideas here into the imagery, Norwegian folk dance.
John Banther: The rhythm is so important as you're describing it. As we're getting into the second movement now, it's really obvious, I think, in a way he uses it reminds me of Chopin in a way where he's using rhythm to build in tempo or dramatic changes. So it can sound quite rubato and free... There's just so much you can do as a musician when you have triplets followed by eighth notes, for example. So three notes in a beat and then two notes in a beat, and then a conclusion. You really can kind of slow down and dig your fingers, I think, into the keys on those moments.
Linda Carducci: Yes. Reminiscent of Chopin.
John Banther: Yes. I also hear moments of Sibelius, his second symphony in this as well, one that would come decades later. This one, I think for many, this is one of the most beautiful slow movements of any concerto.
Linda Carducci: It certainly is. It has such a beautiful melody that he, he brings in very simply at first with the orchestra. So really, the orchestra takes the show piece at the very beginning and brings in this gorgeous melody and the piano finally enters, not early on, but when the piano finally enters, it's almost just a little filigree just to add a little bit of touch to what the orchestra is doing. Again, reminiscent of Chopin...
John Banther: The reason I think Chopin is, it's self- indulgent; it's very time has stopped. We are all focused on the soloist and the piano and just the manipulation, almost the emotional manipulation they're able to do with us. We're hanging on by a thread with each triplet into a set of eighth notes that they give us. It's just... I'm wondering, have you played this as a pianist?
Linda Carducci: No, I never have.
John Banther: I mean, I wonder even just this late at night at the piano, just playing some of the second movement would be wonderful.
Linda Carducci: Yes. Some of the themes. Actually, I did that in preparation for this podcast. I wrote some of my own little notes on a staff and I went to the piano just so I could solidify them in my brain and understand the rhythm a little bit better. Beautiful melodies.
John Banther: Oh, yeah. Do you have any notes or edits for Mr. Grieg? In your editing?
Linda Carducci: No. I don't. He spent his lifetime editing this work.
John Banther: Yeah.
Linda Carducci: Yeah.
John Banther: Never satisfied.
Linda Carducci: Nope.
John Banther: Lots of filagree. So expressive. I love how he's decorating this. Again, when you're listening to this movement and you're hearing some of the outlines of chords or arpeggiated sounds, think of the notes that are adding that extra color. You can hear not necessarily that 7th scale degree, like in the first movement, but he's doing all kinds of things here that add a different kind of color than I think we're used to...
Linda Carducci: Yes. At one part of the second movement, he marked it specifically on the score cantabile, which means singing. Yeah. That's very prevalent in Chopin's piano music, and also tranquillamente. That's the extreme form of tranquil. The piano is doing that. That main theme, though, that is so beautiful is brought back again with the piano doing some chords, which is very reminiscent to me of Rachmaninoff. To me, it foreshadows Rachmaninoff that the melody is being played with chords by the piano. Then there's this gorgeous dialogue between the piano and the French horn.
John Banther: Listening to this as well, and you're saying Rachmaninoff, I've never listened to this concerto before, like this recently where I'm hearing all of the other composers coming after. I think it's because I've not listened to this in so long. I think you study it and you hear it a lot when you're younger. And then now a few years later, as I'm listening to it, I'm hearing all of these other composers, maybe other Classical Breakdown listeners who have now learned about all these other composers hear them as well in the music.
Linda Carducci: Yeah. We've already mentioned Chopin, Robert Schumann, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff.
John Banther: Yeah.
Linda Carducci: Yeah.
John Banther: Quite a lot.
Linda Carducci: Yeah. Not that Grieg borrowed from them, necessarily, but in some cases, those other composers may have been influenced by Grieg.
John Banther: Absolutely. This movement ends in a bit of suspense and quiet that leads right into the final movement, which we'll get into right after this.
Classical Breakdown is made possible by WETA Classical. Listen to the music anytime day or night at wetaclassical. org or on the WETA Classical app. It's free in the app store.
And that, Linda, brings us to the third and final movement.
Linda Carducci: Here's another similarity with Robert Schumann's piano concerto in this third and final movement in that the second movement leads directly to it, pretty much.
John Banther: Yes. Without a pause, you go right from one to the other.
Linda Carducci: Mm- hmm. That's right.
John Banther: The opening rhythm to this third movement has a familiar sound to the first movement, and that's where I think we see the Norwegian dance influence called halling, which that kind of comes after, but this introduction to it... If you look at what's written for the first movement, the entire intro for the piano is... It's the same thing. But of course in the beginning, they have so much freedom of expression with that. It sounds like that opening is now in its final form here in the third movement, which brings us into that strong Norwegian influence that people would have understood at the time, which is this dance called halling dance.
Linda Carducci: Yes. A popular in Norway, and again, this goes back to what we were talking about, music nationalism, the idea and the goal to bring in stylistic references to rhythms and to melodies that were popular within a region or a country or an ethnicity.
John Banther: I'll put a video of this dance, this traditional dance on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. It's interesting. It's a man that's going around, kind of deliberately dancing in this circle, and then it kind of builds up and he does this kind of sideways flip and kicks a hat that someone who has a pole with a hat hanging off. I think it's his hat or someone on someone else's shoulders holding a hat in the air. And then they kick and everyone screams.
Linda Carducci: Done for celebrations, probably.
John Banther: Weddings, especially, I think.
Linda Carducci: Mm-hmm. There is a sense of kind of joy in this particular third movement. Remember, we have just come off of this gorgeous contemplative second movement in which we have all sort of been brought down a moment to reflect and to bask in the beauty of his orchestration and the beauty of the melodies. Now, very softly we're told, " Okay, we're coming up now to this little dance. So get ready." He does it very softly at the beginning. And then he goes full force into it.
John Banther: I think another characteristic of, well, of course, folk music, smaller, easier, or easier to hear, easier to sing melodies. But also these beautiful cascading lines, a sign of Norwegian folk music as well, arpeggios, and those extra notes that give it that sound like we heard in the opening of the first movement.
There is this beautiful slow section. This is where, Linda, I've started to think of I'm hearing nature now in his music. Maybe if there's just something about birds and composers, I feel like if you're composing, you're near a window. If you're near a window, there's birds nearby. I feel like they get distracted or sometimes write that distraction into the music. I think Tchaikovsky has done it, in my opinion. I hear it here as well, where we have this tremolo of the strings, and it's almost like his mind is caught by a bird or a butterfly passing by... It feels like we're just in his head for a moment, and then as the music goes on, " Oh, yeah. What was I doing? I was writing the greatest concerto. The most popular concerto."
Linda Carducci: I had the sense as you played that of being outdoors in the beautiful Norwegian countryside nature, as you said, maybe with a shimmering breeze, just a little bit, maybe the trees just shimmering a little bit. And that bird kind of being brought out so gently and beautifully with that flute.
John Banther: I'm glad you said trees because the tremolo, maybe that's the leaves in the tree rustling around and then that bird coming out. I love it. I'm hearing more and I hope everyone is as well, the nature in his music, the sounds of Norwegian landscapes. Again, a lot of contrast with big sections, fast sections, and slower sections. The dance returns with the opening tune in the piano and builds into this stormy section and this brief cadenza. Another point I love about this is no matter how big it gets, it doesn't feel like the piano's ever overpowered.
Linda Carducci: No, I agree. In fact, there are times that I think in this piece that the piano does take the spotlight. There are some gorgeous moments of dialogue with piano and orchestra, but I think sometimes the piano is definitely the centerpiece.
But I think what you said about the contrast is important. I noticed that a lot in this last movement, that he's able to shift contrasts, bringing in different tempi and change the tempo and change the mood and change the texture without it seeming jarring. It flows very beautifully. But he keeps it interesting that way. It does not seem like it's on the same plane for any long period of time.
John Banther: It almost sounds like this final movement is a mini concerto in itself, and that we do get a longer slow section built into it as well.
Linda Carducci: Yeah. With that beautiful melody.
John Banther: And the conclusion to here, I think it's worthy of a symphony that he brings here for the concerto. How do you hear this end and not jump up?
Linda Carducci: Oh, yeah. Yes. Very vibrant. The piano has bravura sections to at the end. I mean, you have to be a very good pianist to be able to pull this off.
John Banther: Absolutely. Now, that is just a little bit about the three movements of the concerto. The only one that he completed. Is most popular. I mean, he really struck gold with this one. I'm going to put a video on the show notes page. I found a clip of this English comedy show. I forget the name of it exactly. People probably know and cringe that I don't know the name as it is right now. But Andre Previn is on this show, and there's this comedy skit where he's trying to get this pianist to play with the orchestra and they're playing all the wrong notes, but they say they're playing the right notes, just in a different order. It's pretty funny. I'll put a video on the show notes page.
Linda Carducci: I would love to see it. I had the opportunity to work with Mr. Previn for a number of years.
John Banther: Okay. So you've not seen it?
Linda Carducci: I have not seen it. And he had a great sense of humor. So I'm sure that it's funny.
John Banther: Okay. You're going to love this. Absolutely. Because of course you did work with him for several years, and that video will be on the show notes page. Now, as I said, we are going to enjoy a full performance of this concerto. So Linda, as our morning host, why don't you introduce this piece for us?
Linda Carducci: We will hear now one of the grand heroic piano concertos from the Romantic Era, which in itself was a grand heroic period. We'll hear a performance by the Polish Radio Symphony led by Tadeusz Voychahovsky with pianist Ava Poblatska.
John Banther: What a concerto. I hope you were able to pick up on some of the things Linda and I were talking about. I also recommend listening to this work again in a couple of weeks because you may hear it completely differently. I'll put another performance on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. If you have any comments, questions, or episode ideas, send me an email at classicalbreakdown@weta. org. If you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app and tell a friend. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.