Saturday, November 28, 2009

Solveig's song

A couple of weeks ago, after almost three years of it sitting on my shelf, I finally read Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt". A grand achievement indeed, reading this... hmm... 223 page long play, by one of my favorite playwrights, one who has disappointed me so rarely (though Ibsen has disappointed me, here and there...). How... complex.

The thing about "Peer Gynt" is that I kept putting it off. Here's a play best known for Edvard Grieg's musical interpretation of it, not for its literary merit. That's where I know it from and I suspect the vast majority of readers associate Ibsen's work with the quite beautiful suite (my personal favorite from the bunch is "Solveig's Song"; absolutely incredible). It's a rare example where listening to the music doesn't remind the reader of the book, but rather the music paints the story and the book reminds the reader of the music. It's strange, too, because the music is meant to accompany the play. The English translation and the ultimate suite make this difficult to imagine these days, when the play is typically thought of only in reference to Grieg.

Here's what I discovered: it makes a difference. I had long intended to read the play along with the music, except I suddenly found myself wanting to dig into Ibsen and Grieg was nowhere to be found. So I just read the play. It was strange, partly because the order within the suite is different than the progression of the book (completely different, in fact), but also because I had a feel for the story before it even began. I knew key points simply because the songs were titled as such and the music to "Solveig's Song" made one scene clear just based on the musical interpretation. It actually meant that even though the play was far from the best of Ibsen's I've read, it was a moving, intense read. Scenes where I liked the music, I smiled at the words. Scenes where the music was unimpressive, I shrugged my shoulders and felt the urge to skim.Grieg and Ibsen (allegedly, according to Wikipedia and my translation) often had different ideas about how the music should sound. I have to wonder how this schism is reflected today, when Ibsen is largely ignored for his verse work and Grieg is played in concert halls round the world. And what it'll be like to reread "Peer Gynt" along with the actual incidental music (not the infamous suites...)? I'm intrigued to find out. Of course, it may take something akin to three years just to get there...


  1. I love that you also included information about Grieg's Peer Gynt. I'm fascinated by how music and literature intersect.

  2. I'm going to have to listen to the music to see if I've heard it before. I've played some of Grieg's music in band, and I really like it. I haven't read any Ibsen though. . . . Ok, I went and listened to some of the music on Youtube and I'm feeling pretty silly. I've played some of these before. :) Like "Morning." I didn't know that they went with Ibsen's work. It's always good to learn something new. :)


Anonymous comments have been disabled due to an increase in spam. Sorry!