Countless composers throughout time have found influence in folk music. During the 19th century in particular, a rise in nationalism played a large role in many composers’ musical output. Seeking to display a sense of national pride, composers often used the folk music of their homeland as inspiration for creating national themes in their work. Over the next few weeks, let’s look at several countries where folk has played a significant role in the classical music world.
Let’s begin with Norway and Edvard Grieg (1843–1907). Known for his Peer Gynt Suite, Grieg also has many other works that contain folk influences. Though brought up in a middle-class Norwegian family, Grieg was not exposed to folk until he was in his twenties! At that time, Danish influences dominated society traditions, speech, and even music.
When Grieg met Rikard Nordraak in 1864, he gained exposure to this idea of nationalism and decided to become a nationalist composer for his homeland. Nordraak is another famous Norwegian composer, primarily known for composing the country’s national anthem. Grieg’s first attempt to use folk in his own music can be heard below in his Humoresque, Op. 6:
Striving to promote Scandinavian music, Grieg helped found a society named Euterpe. He also helped begin the Norwegian Academy of Music, all the while finding ways to incorporate folk or nationalist qualities in his work. The Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, for instance, contain nationalist titles includes “Norwegian,” “Folktune,” and “National Song.” Many of his works contain folk-like qualities including modal melodies and harmonies, folk dance rhythms, and the use of drones reflecting drone strings found on Norwegian folk instruments.
Below you can listen to Grieg’s Slatter, Op. 72. This work is a collection of peasant dances arranged for the piano from transcripts of country fiddle playing. It uses folk dance rhythms and the way Grieg uses dissonance resembles the double-stopping technique of the folk Hardanger fiddle. Not sure what I mean by double stop? This is a technique used by bowed string instruments in which the musician plays two notes at the same time.
Want to hear more Norwegian music? Join me next time as we discuss Johan Svendsen, the man for whom Grieg dedicated his Second Violin Sonata.