By common consent, the music itself achieved far more for Ibsen’s vast and bewildering dramatic poem than any mere stage performance alone could have done, and therein lies a problem. For as Ibsen’s English biographer Michael Meyer writes, Grieg’s music “turns the play into a jolly Hans Andersen fairy tale,” one thing its author would certainly never have wished for. And the critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw, a fervent advocate of Ibsen’s works, similarly concluded that in his music Grieg “could only catch a few superficial points in the play instead of getting to the very heart and brain of it.” Edvard Grieg waited better than a dozen years to draw up a concert suite from the body of incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt that he had composed in 1874 and 1875; but this Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1888) was such a great success that everybody involved clamored for more and a second suite followed just a few years later (Op. 55, in 1891 – 1892). While the Peer Gynt Suite No. 2 failed to reach the commercial and popular heights that the first reached, some argue that the music in it is actually superior to that in its predecessor. Ibsen’s play puts a new and, to some, disturbing spin on the classic hero-drama. Peer Gynt himself is a rough-and-tumble Norwegian peasant; he dreams of power and glory but is very nearly a common rogue — a real anti-hero. Ibsen tells us of his colorful adventures and not altogether wholesome or moral adventures over the course of five acts.
The first Peer Gynt Suite opens with the famous “Morning Mood”, originally played at the beginning of the fourth act. A lovely E major melody is announced by the flutes and then taken through a sparkling palette of gentle inflections; bright flute trills chime in as “Morning Mood” comes to a gentle close. “Äse’s Death” (Op. 46, No. 2) is number 11 in the original score, and originally served as the prelude to the third act. Peer Gynt has returned home to his mother Äse, only to find her dying. No. 3, “Anitra’s Dance” is originally the 16th number of incidental music. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (Op. 46, No. 4), written to accompany the gnomes’ taunting and chasing of Peer Gynt after he has refused to marry the Mountain King’s daughter, is perhaps the most famous of the Peer Gynt pieces. The whirlwind-like music is built from a small thematic fragment that grows wilder and wilder until Peer Gynt — and the poor orchestra — can take no more. “Ingrid’s Lament” No. 1 of the second suite, originally accompanied Peer Gynt’s abduction of the maiden Ingrid on her wedding day. There is real drama in this four-minute work; it surges and pulses, starts and stops, sobs and then shrieks — and is utterly unlike the pastoral mood-paintings that have made the first suite so famous. Grieg follows it with a lively “Arabian Dance” (Op. 55, No. 2), colorfully employing tambourine and piccolo. At the end of Ibsen’s tale, Peer Gynt makes his way back to Norway and finally arrives on the shores of his homeland as his ship is demolished by a violent storm. No. 3, “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming” is a powerful rendering of this chaotic scene. The piece makes its way, quietly, directly into the next and final number, an orchestral arrangement of the song sung by Solvejg, Peer Gynt’s patient and devoted wife, when he finally returns to her and dies (Op. 55, No. 4).
Peer Gynt Suite – The Death of Åse, Åse’s Death, Åses Død.