Grieg String Quartet no. 1 in Gm, op. 27

performed by the Vertavo Quartet, or below by the Copenhagen Quartet

I have recently finished a string quartet which I still haven’t heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written.

Grieg, of his quartet

(cover image by Genevieve Perron-Migneron)

Holy cow it’s been a while since we saw Grieg! And only once.

We discussed his piano concerto more than three years ago, and that’s it, and I’m sure that article needs to be rewritten, or rather the piece revisited. (I don’t delete old articles on pieces; instead, I revisit them, don’t count them as ‘new’ pieces in the running tally, label them as ‘revisit’ articles and link to the new one in the old article.)

The piano concerto is his op. 16, and it’s also very famous.

Confusingly, though, Grieg’s “string quartet no. 1” is the second of three that he wrote, and the only completed quartet that is still in existence. The one before it was completed in “the early 1860s,” says Wikipedia, a homework assignment of sorts, and is now lost. The third he had tried to write, and what is now in some places described as no. 2, was partially written, and left aside, the composer feeling unable to complete the cheery piece after some time. At his death, only the first two movements and fragments of the third and fourth remained, and Julius Röntgen edited the manuscripts of those first two movements for publication.

But we’re not talking about that work now. We’re talking about the first (and only complete, extant) quartet from Edvard Grieg. It was completed in 1878, on a farm in Hardanger, a place that, according to its Wikipedia article, seems not terribly exciting but likely very beautiful.

From a purely musical standpoint, in that period of time, it wholly accomplishes what music was meant to accomplish: it’s moving and powerful and beautiful, emotionally significant, with plenty of color and contrast. I think this might be a work I’d recommend to someone for a first swing at a string quartet. But there’s more under the hood.

The work is in four movements, and plays for about 34-35 minutes. What we’re going to see in this work is some similarity to the way in which Brahms approached the composition of his violin sonata. Also evident is the same kind of dedication to unity and coherence, but in sort of a different way from the way we saw with Brahms.

Grieg, as you may know, was not much for large orchestral forms. His piano concerto is endlessly popular, and it is indeed very charming. You may be inclined to say “Oh, no, the Norwegian never wrote a symphony,” but that would only be because he was so successful at suppressing it for so long. He did, in fact, write a symphony, but it has only in recent years been discovered and recorded. I say all this to make the point that Grieg didn’t often work in large structures, so to make that a bit easier or more manageable for him, he plagiarizes. From himself.

As Brahms did with his own Regenlied, Grieg uses a theme from his Spillemaend, or ‘Minstrels’, a song of his own composition, and it helps to form the foundation that unifies this breathtaking string quartet. As a result, I’d rather not talk about sonata form (although he does make use of it) or other more technical details, and more about the effects and sounds and uniquities (a word English needs: “unique things”; see antiques/antiquities) and the overall effects of this work.

The first movement begins with two eight-bar phrases, unison chords that make up a sixteen-bar heady introduction to this work, like a strong gust of wind that rattles up under the eaves of even a strong house. It is kind of the rock upon which this quartet is based. The fullness of these double or triple or quadruple stops in places throughout the work gives it at times an intense, almost full-orchestra sound, in contrast with the lighter, delicate textures, something for which the composer received some criticism.

After this gusty intro, the following passage is marked allegro molto ed agitato, and that it is. The movement takes off, but not in a boisterous way. It suddenly scurries, with movement out of nowhere, but marked at pp, as if in whispers. It builds to a sort of gallop, gaining the power that the introduction had, and we’re off. In fact, the end of the first theme is a true driving kind of gallop, back in unison, if only for a few bars, before a long pause that leads to the B theme, now marked tranquillo, and back to pp.

Throughout this movement, we have these breathtakingly powerful, arresting unison passages where the string quartet, maybe sounding more like an army, falls in step with chest-crushing force from the thickness Grieg is writing. This is underlined by intense pauses, but regardless of the fascinating ways it’s presented, there’s a clear relation to that opening. Erling Dahl, Jr refers to it at Hyperion as “octave falling to major seventh then fifth,” but it doesn’t matter what it is. It’s obvious, powerful, memorable.

Appreciating the power and color and intensity of this first movement is all but effortless, and with each corner we turn, it is as if we’re presented with an entirely new yet also familiar landscape, in an irresistible way. It’s colorful and creative and imaginative. Listen for that allegro agitato theme to reappear, along with the contrast that follows it, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of this first movement. It’s a hell of a ride.

In contrast with the intense boldness of the first movement, the middle movements are marked as romanze and intermezzo, respectively, much smaller in scope, quainter. Do note that ‘romanze’ is plural, the singular being romanza, so this is ‘romances,’ and we can hear clearly that there are different sections to this movement, marked in the score with repeats, but even the allegro agitato section in this movement doesn’t come close to its counterpart in the first movement. The movement is serenade-like, reminiscent of folk music, essentially a presentation of a more lyrical, relaxed song and a more nervous, spirited one.

The intermezzo, though, has a heavier step, and is maybe one of the most immediately memorable things in the whole quartet. It has an intoxicating spiritedness throughout. It’s structured the way you would expect a scherzo or minuet to be, with what acts as the central trio section containing a wild folk-like passage of almost the kind of crazy intensity you’d expect to hear from Bartók, then back to the contrasting parts that make up the intermezzo proper. Wow!

Let’s take a moment in the finale to savor this opening. Again, as with the Brahms, you’ve heard it before, many times, in many ways. By now, you should have identified a uniquely cyclical nature to this work. Brahms reused material that unified the three movements of his sonata, but it wasn’t in a cyclical form, per se. This work is, and by ‘uniquely’ I don’t mean to say he was the first to do it. Liszt did, and others would, but it was a way that Grieg, as Tchaikovsky would, handled larger scale forms without being so boxed into the expected four-movement package, while still giving the overall work a convincing unity.

We’ve got more rich unison, but it leads to a ‘presto al Saltarello.’ What’s that? A saltarello, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an Italian dance with a lively hop step beginning each measure.” I’m not going to say anything else about this movement, really. Just listen, enjoy, and keep in the forefront of your mind this idea of a cyclical structure, of one overriding theme for the entire work, and how all four movements, whether it’s a romance, intermezzo, saltarello, all stem from that 16-bar opening, really, and how Grieg gives us quite a ride with excellent use of that material.

This work, some would say, influenced Debussy’s G minor quartet from a few decades later, which also makes use of cyclical forms, but Debussy apparently didn’t have nice things to say about Grieg, so that may or may not be true. What is true is that Grieg finds an effective, powerful voice in his G minor quartet, one you can probably appreciate at first listen. Enjoy the colors, the variety, the expressiveness, but also the unity.

We’ll be seeing a bit more of him next week, so do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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