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Edvard Grieg
Fra Holbergs tid (From Holberg’s Time)
At a Glance
  • Composer: born June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway; died September 4, 1907, Bergen
  • Work composed: 1884, originally for solo piano. Grieg arranged it for string orchestra in 1885. The suite is dedicated to Erika Nissen, a Norwegian pianist who gave the premiere of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in Norway.
  • World premiere: Grieg premiered the solo piano version of Op. 40 during a commemorative festival in Bergen on December 7, 1884. The orchestra version was first performed on March 13, 1885, also in Bergen.
  • Estimated duration: 19 minutes


1884 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), who wrote droll comedies that earned him the nickname, “the Molière of the North.” Holberg’s hometown, Bergen, planned a grand celebration, and commissioned a cantata for male voices from Edvard Grieg to be performed outdoors next to a new monument to the playwright. “I can see it all before me,” Grieg wrote to a friend, “snow, hail, storm and every kind of foul weather, huge male choir with open mouths, the rain streaming into them, myself conducting with waterproof cape, winter coat, galoshes, and umbrella! And a cold afterwards, of course, or goodness knows what kind of illness! Oh well, it’s one way of dying for one’s country!” Grieg’s predictions about the premiere proved correct, and the cantata quickly sank into obscurity.

Grieg composed a second work in honor of Holberg, a suite of French Baroque-style dances for solo piano. Grieg thought little of it, describing the music as “a perruque piece,” in reference to the elaborate powdered wigs favored by the aristocracy of the 18th century. Over time, however, the suite, originally titled In Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style, has become one of Grieg’s most popular and beloved works, particularly the version he arranged for string orchestra.

The opening Prelude creates a mood of excited anticipation with tremolo strings accompanying a lyrical up-tempo series of melodies. The Sarabande follows, a slow, reflective interlude in ¾ time featuring solo passages for cellos. A sparkling Gavotte and its contrasting musette are accompanied by a drone imitating the sound of a bagpipe in the lower strings. The melancholy Air, the only movement in a minor key, combines Baroque style and poignant cello solos with Grieg’s penchant for wistful melodies. In the closing Rigaudon, the solo violin and viola evoke the rowdy folk sonorities of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.

© Elizabeth Schwartz