The Peer Gynt Suite1 was first composed by famed Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) in the year 1876. All eight songs are an effort to put a musical interpretation to Henrik Ibsen’s play by the same name, which was written about a decade earlier in 1867. The play is approximately 5 Acts (dependent on which version you follow) and spans from Norway to Morocco to Egypt before returning home. The play has surprisingly few principal characters, but of course all action follows the tragic (and possibly delusional) Peer Gynt in his travels and deeds. Supporting roles are filled by his mother Aase, a plain girl Solveig who is his faithful love, a young bride Ingrid, The Troll King, and finally the play’s “judge” of humanity, the Button Molder. The play is quite entertaining, with several ending altering plot twists. Its summary can be found below.
Peer Gynt Suite I, Opus 46 12:282
I Morning Mood 3:48
The proper way to hear classical music for the first time is with your eyes shut. You need to let your imagination paint its own picture for the music you are experiencing. No music, IMHO is as self-fulfilling to this to as the Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg. The first song of the Opus is a sharp and chipper song, written with dominating string sections. Letting your mind drift you imagine yourself in a room, just waking up. Your bed, still warm, faces an open window through which you see sunlight streaming through to wake you. Morning Mood is the song of rising suns and chirping birds and mist sounding like great gentle whales to brave new heights. Morning Mood is the song of the moment when you step out of bed for the first time all night and give that one, really satisfying morning stretch.
II The Death of Aase 3:57
Grieg wastes no time in this Opus showing his range. The Death of Aase is much more somber than Morning Mood, as evident by the rumbling baritone in the piece. Marked alganto, this song is a snapshot of memories as if slowly paging through a sad photo album. It is the song of a funeral dinner at which none can speak of the dearly departed. It is the song of wine glasses left untouched. The slow, quiet song that plays in your mind as you rip the black tie off your neck, still tied at the collar, to throw into the corner of your room.
III Anitra’s Dance 2:10
In Anitra's Dance Grieg again refuses to return to a used style. Slow and seductive, this song teases the inner ear until the listener is lulled onto the edge of their seat. Most appropriately, upon first impressions it seems to be the song of the young daughter who sneaks into her parents' party to dance with a local school boy.
IV In the Hall of the Mountain King 2:17
Grieg waits until the finale of this opus to scare the listener. It is within the Hall that you learn the face of the shadow that stalks you. This is the song of that fear that festers in your dreams. This is the song of the hairs raising off the back of your neck when you realize you're being followed. The song follows a strict staccato pattern, and at 1:30 of the song the cymbal crashes delivered with sharp discipline remind you of nothing other than a terrifying chorus of haunted screams.
Peer Gynt Suite II, Opus 55 15:552
I The Abduction and Ingrid’s Lament 3:44
Grieg wrote this song with the intent of it possessing a dual nature. At irregular intervals you hear two different voices; there is the angry roar of a mob storming the castle which is most pronounced at the beginning and end of the piece. Throughout the remaining bars we hear a sadder song; the song of a father who has lost a child, sitting hopelessly at his own home. Grieg masterfully comprehends the loneliness of such a situation and transcribes it to music beautifully.
II Arab Dance 4:37
The song of a lover's glance; Arab Dance arouses images of a playful chase through a park or getting caught in a rainstorm. Not quite nearly as sultry as Anitra's Dance, Arab Dance is a bit more playful in nature. A childish aura completes this song as a sly smile completes a risque joke.
III Peer Gynt’s Homecoming 2:46
Anger from the Gods rains forth in this, Song of the thunderclap. Song of the coming winds and rain from atop a hill looking over the quiet village, boarded up against the changing weather. Peer Gynt's Homecoming is the song of the ominous electricity in the air with lightning heating the horizon.
IV Solveig’s Song 4:37
In Solveig's Song, Grieg concludes his efforts as per the Peer Gynt Suite. He does so with a quiet, peaceful song. This is the song of the respectful; song of the elderly sitting on a bench, walking through a park, contemplating the end of their days. It is one of the stronger songs in the second opus, and is quite on par with several from the first.
Peer Gynt 5 Acts
The setting of Peer Gynt, as mentioned earlier, ranges from Norway to Morocco, to Egypt, and finally back to Norway sometime in the 19th century.
Isben makes a strong play with suprisingly few characters. The central ones are the Norwegian farm boy Peer Gynt, his mother Aase, his faithful love Solveig, the Troll King, and the Button Molder.
III Music Scene Selection
Documented scene selection for Griegs accompanying music is found easily for the first opus, but so many variants are used timing wise for the second opus that it would be unwise to include them all here. In short:
Morning Mood accompanies the prelude to Act 4
Death of Aase accompanies the on stage death in the midst of Act 3
Anitra's Dance accompanies Act 4, Scene VI in N. Africa
In the Hall of the Mountain King of course relates to Act 2, Scene 5 in which Peer Gynt faces the Troll King, and learns of the consequences of marrying the Troll Princess
In the second opus the song titles are titled appropriately so that they may accompany the play during the reference action (i.e. playing Peer Gynt's Homecoming when Peer washes ashore in Norway).
*Warning: Contains Spoilers*
The play begins with Peer getting caught in a lie to his mother. They argue. Mother then shifts focus on the pretty local girl Ingrid, to whom he shows no interest until her wedding day. He then fights with his mom in public. At the wedding, villagers shun him for his earlier argument; only Solveig dances with him. After Peer is thoroughly drunk, he kidnaps the bride Ingrid, defiles her at the edge of the village, and flees into the woods.
Peer soon enough meets the Troll King's Daughter. He learns and is tempted by the dowry until he is secretly told that he would become a Troll himself if he were to accept. Peer then makes a harrowing escape from the Troll King's Hall and lives in a hut on the mountain, where Solveig happens across him that next winter.
Peer at this point learns of the fate of the Troll Princess, who he has shunned since the debacle at the Troll King's Hall. Peer realizes that his sins stand between he and his dream life with his "Princess Solveig" and resolves to leave the country pausing only to say goodbye to his aging mother who passes away as he is looking out the window telling tall tales of his adventures.
The following act takes us to Morocco, where Peer is a businessman. He deals with drugs, slaves, and a harem of dancing girls of whom Anitra is his protégé. She eventually escapes after seducing him into a drug-induced slumber and takes with her all of Peer's money and possessions.
Peer decides to become a scholar of history and moves to Egypt. In time Peer goes insane trying to make sense of his life. He is placed in an asylum. Peer after some time escapes and gets on a boat for Norway. The boat sinks someplace off the coast of Norway, indicative of Peer's cursed luck. Peer and the ship's cook are the only survivors, and they fight over one plank of wood in the bone chilling waters. Peer kicks him off and makes for shore. At the first village he gets to he hears of Ingrid's death, and decides that at last it is safe to return home.
It is on the long walk home that Peer meets the Button Molder, whose only job is to determine if one has been evil enough to go to hell or if more time is needed. Peer grows excited because he has concluded that his life has been evil and wishes to atone for his sins by going to hell. The Button Molder insists that there is not enough evidence, but if Peer finds a witness to speak against him he will allow it. Peer frantically searches for a witness against him, but all whom he failed or commited evil against are dead.
Finally, he finds Solveig and, collapsing at her feet, begs her to speak out against him.
She refuses to do so.
And proclaims her undying love for Peer.
And holds Peer close to her
as he cries himself
1The common name for Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite I, Opus 46 and Peer Gynt Suite II, Opus 55. Often the common name will be in reference to Opus 46 only, as that is the better known and more popular of the two.
2All times are from “Grieg: Works for Orchestra” as performed and recorded by the Utah Symphony and Chamber Orchestra.
"Grieg: Works for Orchestra" by the Utah Symphony and Chamber Orchestra