Grieg, Schnittke, Holloway: Music for Henrik Ibsen's Dramatic Poem Peer Gynt

Edvard Hagerup Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, on June 15, 1843, and died there on September 4, 1907. He began work on the Peer Gynt music in May 1874 and finished the score in September 1875. It was first performed as part of the first production of the play in Christiania (Oslo since 1924) on February 24, 1876, Johan Hennum conducting. In May 1988, Herbert Blomstedt conducted the San Francisco Symphony and SFS Chorus in the first public concert performances (anywhere) of the complete Peer Gynt musicThe score calls for an orchestra of piccolo and two flutes (one also doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, tambourine, chimes, tam-tam, xylophone, organ, piano, harp, and strings.

Alfred Garrievich Schnittke was born on November 24, 1934, in Engels, in the Volga German Republic of the Soviet Union, and died on August 3, 1998, in Hamburg, Germany. He composed his music for Peer Gynt in 1985-87, and it was first heard on January 22, 1989, with Eri Klas conducting the orchestra of the Hamburg Ballet. The score calls for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, four tenor trombones, four bass trombones, tuba, timpani, gong, marimba, crotales, cymbal, tam-tam, wood block, flexatone, harp, vibraphone, celesta, piano, cembalo, and strings.

Robin Greville Holloway was born on October 19, 1943, in Leamington Spa, England, and currently lives in Cambridge, England. He composed his music for Peer Gynt between 1984 and 1997. One part of the score (Panorama) was premiered in London on March 28, 1989, by Andrew Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Ocean Voyage, heard at these concerts, is receiving is first performances. The score calls for four flutes (one doubling piccolo), three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three saxophones, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets (one doubling piccolo trumpet), four trombones, two tubas, bass tuba, timpani, tam-tam, bass drum, cymbals, sizzle cymbals, gong, iron chains, maracas, wind machine, flexatones, triangle, jingles, rattle, claves, anvil, train whistle, snare drum, side drum, tenor drum, tambourine, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, celesta, piano, two harps, and strings.

Performance time: about seventy-five minutes.

“Yourself is just what you’ve never been—So what’s the difference to you to get melted down?” asks the Button-Molder as he delivers his sensible but chilling evaluation of a man so aimless as to be unworthy of either Heaven or Hell, good only for melting into a collective pot of base metal and eventually cast anew. Peer Gynt: liar, cheater, slacker,  cad, braggart, narcissist, dupe. The son of a once-worthy gentleman who drank away his honor and fortune, Peer grows up with only a faithful but scolding mother who cannot fill the emptiness that gapes within. Peer has no moral center and no ambition beyond childish daydreams of glory and power. He acts only on the whim of the moment, without heed, direction, or care for the potential consequences of his rash deeds.

In some ways, Peer is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s beloved Little Tramp character, inevitably snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and often mocked as he toddles along in a fog of insouciant self-deception. But the comparison goes only so far: the Tramp’s goofy exterior conceals a golden inner core that manifests in acts of poignant nobility, whereas Peer is a vacuum through and through. He just survives, ever following the path of least resistance, shunning commitment and often as not betraying those few who continue to love him. He is neither good nor evil, but merely unformed and undefined, in his own way as amorphous as the Bøyg, the invisible being that blocks his way through the mountains.

George Bernard Shaw credited Peer with sufficient imagination “to persuade himself that Peer Gynt, the shabby countryside loafer, is Peer Gynt, Emperor of Himself, as he writes over the door of his hut in the mountains.” But others see through his posturing, so “only in the mountains can he enjoy his illusions undisturbed by ridicule: yet even in the mountains he finds obstacles which he cannot force his way through, obstacles which withstand him as spirits with voices, telling him that he must go round.”

Peer slouched into worldwide view in Henrik Ibsen’s eponymous dramatic poem, first published in 1867 and deemed by Ibsen himself as unstageable. Certainly Peer Gynt is no ordinary play; sprawling and pageant-like, it repeatedly crosses the boundaries between play and poem, waking and dream, comedy and drama, fantasy and reality. Downright silly episodes verging on slapstick give way to sustained introspective soliloquies, followed by existentially anguished encounters with otherworldly beings. Through it all, Peer habitually runs away from the women in his life: his mother Åse, his erstwhile flame Ingrid, the hideous troll-born Woman in Green, and most importantly, his one true love, Solveig—to whom alone he eventually returns after a lifetime of drifting.

Although Ibsen based the story on Norwegian folk tales, his overriding pessimism dictated that folkish elements would be subsumed in a brooding fantastical allegory on the failings of human nature. Ibsen’s prestige ensured that Peer Gynt would be received respectfully, but critical reviews were mixed and sales were sluggish. By January 1874 a third edition was due and Ibsen determined to have a go at a stageworthy adaptation. To address the play’s theatrical intractability, he approached fellow countryman Edvard Grieg for an expansive musical score that would be considerably more than incidental music, but considerably less than a full-fledged operatic treatment. Grieg jumped at the opportunity, retired to a comfortable summer-house near Bergen, and by August was able to report steady and successful progress. But the going, as usual with Grieg, was slow; the orchestration was not completed until the summer of 1875. At last, the abridged and adapted Peer Gynt with Grieg’s music was given its premiere on February 24, 1876 in Christiania (Oslo) to overwhelming public approval; thirty-six more performances followed. In 1885 a Copenhagen revival spurred Grieg to revise and reorchestrate, a task he was to repeat for an 1892 Christiania staging.

Despite the work’s popularity, the full score was not published until the year after Grieg’s death. Instead, it was Grieg’s two suites (opuses 46 and 55) that brought the Peer Gynt music worldwide affection and acclaim. The first suite in particular has become a perennial hit-parade item, containing as it does “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and that charming chestnut “Morning Mood.” By necessity the suites take the music out of context and thus rob it of considerable dramatic impact. Only via the full score can a listener appreciate the sweep of Grieg’s achievement.

That score, spread over twenty-six separate musical numbers, presents a lavish cavalcade of music encompassing elements as diverse as an unadorned hymn setting, luxuriant orchestral interludes, rowdy choral passages, exotic dances, intimate cradle songs, and dialogue-with-music episodes (“melodramas”) that are irresistibly reminiscent of the background scoring to 1940s Hollywood movies à la Max Steiner or Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

The extended sequence that illustrates Peer’s Act II adventure in the ravine of the trolls makes for a case in point. Peer, having capriciously abducted Ingrid from her wedding and just as impulsively abandoned her in the mountains, pursues a troll’s repulsive daughter, whom he feigns to view as the comely Woman in Green. Her hypnotically propulsive dance sports an ingenious orchestration that includes harp, xylophone, cowbell, and side drums. As she and Peer descend into the fetid trench where her royal father holds court, we hear “The Hall of the Mountain King,” that familiar pops-concert standard. Or is it so familiar? In Grieg’s original setting, it includes uninhibited rhythmic shouts for unison chorus as the trolls cavort, followed by their ferocious pursuit of the escaping Peer, complete with spoken and choral interjections. The scene comes to an abrupt end as the bloodthirsty trolls are dispersed by the sound of distant church bells—one of the convenient deus ex machina deliverances that pepper the play. Masterfully paced, imaginatively scored, and brilliantly executed, the sequence is certain to contradict any received opinion of Grieg’s Peer Gynt as a mere miscellany of cute tunes and dances.

That said, commentators have been known to question whether the soft-hearted Grieg was really the ideal musical foil to the hard-minded Ibsen. Their reasoning: While Grieg’s warmly lyrical musical language cushions the harsh edges of Ibsen’s cynicism, perhaps those edges don’t need cushioning. Opportunity thus awaited for a darker, moodier, and altogether more Ibsen-like Peer Gynt.

Quite a few composers have taken on the challenge, including Germany’s Werner Egk, who made an opera of Peer Gynt in 1938, but it took the Russian Alfred Schnittke to compose an appropriately introspective Peer Gynt score for modern times. Written for a ballet by American choreographer John Neumeier, Schnittke’s monumental and eclectic score occupied him for two years—even throughout a harrowing period following a devastating, near-fatal stroke in 1985. Schnittke related that “Peer Gynt caught my interest at once, and I will tell you why. There are some subjects that seem to have only one possible realization, and once realized, are at once exhausted. And there are other subjects with an endless number of realizations, and none of them is ever completely exhausted. In this sense the subject of Peer Gynt reminds me of Faust—it is something with a limitless periphery.”

At the heart of Schnittke’s vision is the demonic and formless Bøyg, interpreted as a shape-shifting entity that, from time to time, speaks to Peer’s inner self. Sometimes it appears as the Button-Molder, another time as the hooved and clawed Thin Man, or yet again as the ghostly passenger on the shipwrecked vessel returning Peer to Norway and home. A brittle chord in gong and cembalo that represents the Bøyg opens the ballet (and this performance) with an ominous prefiguring of Peer’s ultimate doom in the Button-Molder’s crucible. The Prolog goes on to anticipate Peer’s forthcoming journey with creepy climbing scales, a persistent timpani beat, and the strange wail of the flexatone—a percussion instrument with a vibrating steel blade that produces a sound like the moaning of the wind. This music will be heard again, near the end of the play. In between, Schnittke’s treatment of “The Bøyg” accompanies Peer’s encounter with the entity in its purest, invisible state; in addition, Schnittke’s music is used to illustrate the middle-aged Peer’s ethical nadir as a wealthy Charleston slave-trader.

British composer Robin Holloway has also taken on Peer Gynt, in the form of a vast multimedia affair that acts as a counterpart to his 1981 oratorio based on Ibsen’s verse play Brand. It’s the universality of Peer Gynt that has captured Holloway’s interest: “That hollow indecisiveness; all of us ask ourselves about that, if we’re reflective at all. We’ve all been like Peer at one time or another, and we’ve all been at the same point he reaches, when we’re asking about our successes and failures. We wonder what it’s all been worth. I’m drawn to him as he is confronted by himself—something that we all face. Thus I’m drawn to the essential humanity of Peer’s life and reflections.”

Holloway describes his Peer Gynt as “more than a concert-opera à la Damnation de Faust (though equally definite in not being for the stage): might be a Gesamtkunstwerk (except that the term is so specific to Wagnerian music-drama).  ‘World-Theater’ seems to have the right connotations. I suppose that if the monster were ever to reach performance it would have to be in the concert hall, with or without ‘visual aids.’ ”

The orchestral “Ocean Voyage” that chronicles Peer’s thirty-year trek across the globe is at last reaching performance. As cinematic as it is musical, it offers a dazzling array of styles and idioms that complement the various locales to which Peer journeys.

The notion of a hybrid Peer Gynt that would combine parts of these three scores—Grieg, Schnittke, and Holloway—with a semi-staged multimedia production came about in the aftermath of the San Francisco Symphony’s spectacular 2011 performance of Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a long-time Ibsen fan, has spoken about his inspiration for the project. “Peer Gynt is a gigantic, sprawling play, probably best known through Grieg’s music. I don’t think that people have an idea of what a challenging and provocative play it is—filled with questions about life, and love, and all of those things. It’s about identity. Peer is living an extravagantly out-of-control life, but yet he holds on to a meaningful identity; the thought that he might be melted down and fused with all of the other also-rans is terrifying. He would rather be in torment than that. I was aware that there are other composers besides Grieg who wrote music for the play. Both Alfred Schnittke and Robin Holloway produced huge scores for Peer Gynt. This program is a wonderful opportunity to connect Ibsen’s play with these three composers. Given the vast length of the play—four hours!—we can offer a musical and dramatic snapshot of both music and text.”

Whatever the music or stagecraft, any performance of Peer Gynt is inextricably bound to Ibsen’s bleak vision of the Everyman that nobody wants to be. At least the play ends with a modicum of hope, as the aged Peer returns to his hut in the mountains, there to find an equally elderly Solveig who has lovingly awaited him throughout the long years of his wanderings. But it isn’t Ibsen’s nature to provide an unambiguously happy ending. “We’ll meet at the final crossroads, Peer,” warns the Button-Molder, “and then we’ll see. I won’t say more.” So the ultimate outcome remains undecided—and for Peer Gynt, that’s just business as usual.

Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.


For Grieg—Recordings Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony and SFS Chorus (London)  |  Edo de Waart conducting the San Francisco Symphony and SFS Chorus (Philips)  |  Neeme Järvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic (EMI)

Reading Edvard Grieg, by Henry Theophilus Finck (Cambridge Scholars Press)  |  Edvard Grieg: Letters to Colleagues and Friends, edited by Finn Benestad and William H. Halverson (Peer Gynt Press)  |  Edvard Grieg: The Man and the Artist, by Finn Benestad and Dag Schjulderup-ebbe (University of Nebraska Press)

For Schnittke—Recordings Eri Klas conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Stockholm (BIS)

Reading Alfred Schnittke, by Aleksandr Ivashkin (Phaidon)  |  Seeking the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke, compiled by George Odam (Guildhall School of Music and Drama)  |  A Schnittke Reader, by Aleksandr Ivashkin (Indiana University Press)

For Holloway—Recordings None as yet, but Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra have recorded Holloway’s Third Concerto for Orchestra (NMC)

Reading Robin Holloway has written about his Peer Gynt music on his personal website, at | Composer-conductor Julian Anderson’s 1993 technical but rewarding article Robin Holloway: in medias res is published in Tempo No. 187, December 1993 (Cambridge University Press).


Reading about Henrik Ibsen Ibsen’s Selected Plays, translated by Brian Johnston (Norton) | “The Quintessence of Ibsenism,” by George Bernard Shaw (an 1891 essay available online and in various collections, including one published by the University of Toronto Press, Shaw and Ibsen)  |  “Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’: A Philosophy of Life,” by William Bishop, in The Sewanee Review, Volume 17, no. 4—October 1909 (Johns Hopkins University Press)


Part One

Peer Gynt’s mother, Åse, is flustered by her wayward son. She accuses him of running to the hunt when she most needs his help with chores. He tells her of the great reindeer he tracked and brought down but failed to dispatch when the creature reared and carried him off. Åse has had her fill of Peer’s lies. She berates him for failing to win the hand of Ingrid, a woman with property. Tomorrow Ingrid is set to marry Peer’s rival, Mads Moen. Peer invites himself to the wedding. There, he meets the sixteen-year-old Solveig, dances with her, and steals her heart. Ingrid, meanwhile, has shied from her new husband, and Mads Moen enlists Peer to convince her to unlock the door behind which she hides. Peer, having other ideas, makes off with Ingrid while the others watch, helpless.

In the mountains, Peer abandons Ingrid and encounters the Woman in Green, the Troll King’s daughter. Enchanted, Peer follows her to her father’s kingdom to request her hand. To be accepted into the troll realm, Peer renounces “the things of light.” However, he draws the line at eye surgery that will assure him a troll’s skewed vision of the world. Furious at his refusal, a chorus of trolls vows to kill him, and the Troll Children pursue him as he flees the troll court. Church bells break the spell. In darkness, Peer confronts the Bøyg, a formless and threatening presence that dissipates at the sound, again, of church bells, and at Solveig’s arrival. Solveig pledges her fidelity to Peer. But the Woman in Green appears in her true form, old and ugly. With her is the Troll Brat, whom Peer has fathered. The Woman promises that she will not let Peer rest. When he is alone with Solveig, she also will be there, to torment them. Peer forsakes the faithful Solveig and rushes to Åse’s hut. His mother is dying. Peer distracts her in her last moments, pretending to drive a carriage that conveys them across imagined fjords and snowfields to a fancied palace. As the ruse ends, Åse dies.

Part Two

Peer considers his rise from tatters to wealth through such lucrative but unethical professions as slave trader and dealer in pagan images. The scene shifts abruptly to the hut that he and Solveig have chosen to call theirs. Solveig, alone, reaffirms her love for Peer Gynt. Meanwhile, Peer continues his travels on a storm-tossed sea.

We join Peer on a moor, where he encounters the Button-Molder. This being is determined to claim Peer’s soul. The grave is dug, the coffin prepared. Peer argues that his offenses have been minor. The great offense, says the Button-Molder, is that Peer Gynt has wasted his life. Great things had been planned for him, but Peer chose a different path. Desperate for a character witness, Peer implores the Troll King to recall how he refused to embrace troll-vision. The King counters that, vision or no vision, Peer embraced the trolls’ philosophy. Peer despairs of his approaching departure from an earth whose beauty he now recognizes. A church bells rings. Solveig appears, now old and blind. She hears Peer’s voice. Through him, she says, her life has been fulfilled. As churchgoers sing a Whitsun Hymn, Solveig gathers Peer in her arms, pledging her love and bidding him to sleep.