Grieg’s Holberg Suite

Notes by TŌN violinist Misty Drake

The Backstory
While classical music’s top composers dished out symphonies and concertos to gain recognition, Edvard Grieg forged a slightly different compositional path to popularity. How did a Norwegian composer with a large compositional output of choral pieces and short lyric suites join the classical music cannon? Simple: Grieg drew inspiration from the traditional Norwegian folk songs of his homeland. Before long, his writings became adopted as the nationalistic style of Norway. That being said, it is no surprise that Grieg was asked to compose festival music for the 200th anniversary of prominent Norwegian-Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg. On Dec 3, 1884, From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the olden style was premiered, along with an assortment of pieces that were inspired by the popular music during Holberg’s lifetime. Grieg engages in various meters and rhythms to blend Norwegian folksongs with classic Baroque dances. Definitely written with twirling and toe-tapping in mind! A year later, the Holberg Suite was rewritten for a string orchestra. This was a clever move, in my opinion, because it showcases the wide range of color, techniques, and versatility of this lesser-known ensemble.

The Music
This five-movement suite begins with a Praelude, imitating the broken chord progressions found in 18th-century harpsichord preludes. The Sarabande spotlights a solo cello-turned-trio, while mordant trills add the flavor of folk ornamentation over bass pizzicatti. A cheerful lilt in the bow adds a buoyant spring to the Gavotte, accompanied by a leisure drone played by the first violins. After taking an unexpected detour in the form of a Musette, this drone inherits a bagpipe-like quality before returning back as an accompanimental role. The fourth movement, Air, showcases the rich sound of a large string orchestra, and 18th-century ornamentals add intensity by prolonging harmonic climaxes. The final movement is a lively Rigaudon. Solo violin and solo viola create an energetic momentum with rapid folk passages, while the Poco meno mosso recalls the lilting folk-like qualities of previous movements.