By Steve Bergsman
It was a dark and gloomy day with rain periodically blowing in sheets across the cobblestone streets. If I had to sum it up, my Norwegian world was the color of dull steel. Or as someone from the coastal city of Bergen would say, a typical autumn day. I considered it the perfect day to visit the home of Bergen's, if not Norway's, favorite son, the composer Edvard Grieg.
Although to be honest about the weather, Grieg said he didn't like autumn in his home city. That was probably because he lost a lung to disease and suffered rheumatism, none of which was made better by the damp, cold Bergen fall and winter. He compensated by touring often, starting in early autumn and not returning until spring.
Grieg, a Norwegian nationalist at the end of the 19th century, tapped into his country's deep folk roots to compose some of his most-often-played piano compositions, such as "Piano Concerto in A Minor," probably second in popularity and esteem to Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 5."
Even those of us who have a vision of classical music closer to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode" would recognize Grieg's melodic "Morning Mood" or the galloping "In the Hall of Mountain King," although the names of the compositions might remain foreign. The latter tune is so adaptable to modern music that jazz great Duke Ellington recorded a version of it in his "Swinging Suites by Edward E. and Edward G.," and rock bands The Who and Electric Light Orchestra, among others, have recorded renditions, as well.
What made Grieg such a successful composer was his ability to create accessible and light compositions that were easily accepted by audiences anywhere. Grieg's music had pop sensibilities 100 years before the ascent of pop music in the Western world.
He was born in Bergen in1843 and then lived on the continent of Europe, mostly in Leipzig and Copenhagen, before returning to his hometown. In 1885, he moved into a Swiss-styled wooden villa called Troldhaugen. He would live there until his death in 1907. As early as 1928 it was converted into a museum dedicated to the composer.
Visiting Troldhaugen was the first thing I wanted to do while in Bergen, but it's not easy to do as the home sits in a leafy suburb in the hills overlooking Nordasvannet Lake to the south of Bergen proper. For the dedicated, here's what you do: Find the terminus of the Bergen light-rail line around Christie's Gate. Climb aboard and then stay on for about 40 minutes until you come to a stop called Hop. After the light rail pulls out, cross the street and turn right until the first intersection. Find the sign that points to Troldhaugen and keep following the signs. After about 15 to 20 minutes you will arrive at the Edvard Grieg Museum and home.
Between the two structures there is a wealth of Grieg-arcana, and that's because Grieg's wife, Nina, outlived him by 28 years and oversaw the creation of the museum. It's all things Grieg: photos, paintings, compositions, traveling bags, top hat and cane, lucky charms and even a lock of his hair. The highlight, of course, is a tour of the home, which is led by a very knowledgeable guide. Also check out the gardens, gravesite and his isolation hut.
More than 100 years after Grieg's death it still is exciting to be able to stand next to his Steinway piano and think that the maestro played this instrument. Note to modern music lovers: It's as good as seeing Jimi Hendrix's guitar. For visitors who visit Troldhaugen in the summer, a free concert series is offered in the site's 200-seat concert hall.
To put things in a modern perspective, one Christmas in the late 1800s, Edvard and Nina were gigging across the Continent, where they ended up having dinner with a couple of fellow musicians who were also weary from the road, Johannes Brahms and Peter Tchaikovsky. The original seating would have put Nina between Brahms and Tchaikovsky, which made her so nervous she exclaimed to her husband, "I wouldn't dare" to sit between them. That was OK with Grieg, who proclaimed, "I dare."
"The Million Dollar Quartet" is a musical that celebrates the meeting in Memphis of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins at Sun Studio. Here was "The Billion Dollar Trio," although no one has written a play about this gathering of musical geniuses. Just imagine, there might have been a little spinet in the next room, and after a few bottles of Rhine wines the three giants could have begun banging out quick concertos between shots of aquavit.
After all, it was Grieg who noted: "Yes, life is just as strange as folk music tunes; you never know whether it unfolds in a major or minor key."
WHEN YOU GO
International flights do arrive in Bergen, but most tourists fly into Oslo and then take the picturesque train ride across the country. Norwegian State Railways: www.visitnorway.com/listings/nsb-norwegian-state-railways/491
Edvard Grieg Museum Troldhaugen: www.griegmuseum.no/en
There are many hotels from which to choose. I stayed at the refurbished Hotel Augustin — small rooms but good breakfast and location: www.augustin.no/en.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.