Musically, the 19th century went through amazing upheavals. It started out with Beethoven at the height of his powers reinventing the symphony. He changed it from the sweet pleasant “sounding together” of what in Handel’s time was a sonata for orchestra, into a great momentous format for working out the turbulence of the times. Hot on his heels came Brahms ushering in the Romantic movement with the struggles of the passionate artist finding order and creating beauty out of this chaos. The idea of the Romantic artist, laboring alone in his garret, pouring out his soul seems to match the ascendancy of the concerto as a form for giving air to the creative process. By the end of the century, Europe was in the midst of such a cultural revolution–think of Wagner and Brahms, Monet and Van Gogh, Hardy and Tolstoy–the likes of which I dare say we might not see in a long while. They were humans imitating gods, while during our century we’ve been trying to get machines to do that for us.
Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor is one of those wonderfully gushingly Romantic works from the late 1800s. He wrote it when he was 25. When he premiered it at one of his concerts, for he was a gifted pianist, it garnered him instant acclaim and established his reputation as a major composer. His output was modest–no symphonies, no operas and no other concertos. His best known work is Peer Gynt but his Holberg Suite gets a fair amount of air play. Maybe this was due to having to run his family’s business after his father went bust trying to corner the lobster market.
Here is an interesting anecdote about Grieg and two other “noteworthy composers” that gives a little of the flavor of what the cultural life was like in fin de siecle Europe:
“At the home of Adolf Brodsky, who had launced his Violin Concerto five years earlier, Tchaikovsky inadvertently walked in on a rehearsal of Brahms’s Piano Trio in C minor, with the great man himself at the piano. When Tchaikovsky grew ‘uneasy’, evidently reluctant to pay Brahms the compliments expected of him, their hostess feared ‘a difficult scene’ until the day was saved by the arrival of the short, frail figure of Edvard Grieg, to whom Tchaikovsky quickly warmed. At lunch Grieg’s wife Nina, finding herself seated between Brahms and Tchaikovsky, sprang from her seat after only a few minutes, exclaiming: “I can’t sit between these two. It makes me too nervous.” “I have the courage,” said Grieg, promptly taking her place. “So the three composers sat there together, all in high spirits,” recalled Mrs Brodsky. “Brahms grabbed a dish of strawberry jam, insisting that he wanted to eat it all himself, and that no-one else could have any… It was more like a children’s party than a gathering of great composers.” (From Tchaikovsky,by Anthony Holden).
Who among our artists, composers, and writers would we place in the same Pantheon as those who were alive 100 years ago? Frankly I’m at a loss right now, so if anyone is out there with someone they’d like to nominate, please email me. Or even nominate yourself: you’ve probably got a lot more going for you than Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus.