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Edvard Grieg (1843–1907): Sonata for Cello and Piano in A minor, op. 36 (1883)

Edvard Grieg is better known for his Norwegian nationality than for his German musical style. However, German music and the city of Leipzig played a main role throughout Grieg’s career. At the age of nine, after being taught piano for three years by his mother, Grieg wrote his first composition: Variations on a German Melody. Between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, Grieg studied with E.F. Wenzel in the Leipzig Conservatory, where he absorbed the influences of German romantic composers such as Schumann (a friend of Wenzel’s) and Mendelssohn. Grieg’s well-known incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1875-6) was written in Copenhagen as well as in Leipzig.

The Cello Sonata in A Minor was composed for Grieg’s brother, John Grieg (1840- 1901), an amateur yet accomplished cellist. However, for the premiere (Tonkünstlerverein, Dresden, 22 October 1883), Edvard Grieg, playing the piano part, preferred to use a professional player, the renowned cellist and musical editor Friedrich Grützmacher.

The first movement’s piano part share many characteristics with the first movement of Grieg’s piano concerto (the latter inspired by the piano concerto of Robert Schumann).

Both pieces share the tonality of A minor, and the agitato mood.

The second movement’s theme is a paraphrase on Grieg’s incidental music to Bjornstjerne Bjornson’s play, Sigurd Jorsalfar (op. 22), which Grieg composed in 1872 and revised in 1892 for his Leipzig publisher, C.F. Peters. This theme appears in the “Homage March” at the end of Act I of Sigurd Jorsalfar (Sigurd the Crusader), a play that deals with the brothers Sigurd and Oystein, two returning crusaders and joint rulers of twelfth-century Norway, and their beloved Borghild. The “Homage March” was extensively expanded in the 1892 revision, and reappeared as a prelude to Act III.

In both versions, the theme is played by four solo celli (!), then gradually expanded to a full orchestral setting, which is accompanied by followers of the two brothers crowding the stage in the original dramatic production.

The third movement of the sonata is in the character of Halling – a Norwegian duple time folkdance, usually played on a violin or on the Norwegian Hardanger- an ornamented folk violin with four melody strings as well as four to five sympathetic strings below the fingerboard. Usually performed by men, the Halling demonstrates strength and agility. The dancer is required to high kick towards the ceiling, or to attempt to kick down a hat hanging from the ceiling.[1] In a similar way, the sonata soloist is challenged with jumpy, acrobatic ascending and descending passages. Grieg incorporated the Halling dance in numerous works, among them Peer Gynt (Act I), and the third movement of his piano concerto.

Ron Merhavi

[1] Nils Grinde, “Halling”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition. ed. Stanlie Sadie (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907): Sonata for Cello and Piano in A minor, op. 36 (1883)

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Second Dissertation Recital; McIntosh Theater, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 17.3.2004


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