Grieg: The Last Spring, Opus 34, No.2

The Last Spring, Opus 34, no.2

Edvard Hagerup Grieg was born June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway, and died there on September 4, 1907. He composed the song “Våren(“Spring,” but also known as “The Last Spring”) as his Opus 33, no.2, in 1880 and soon arranged it for string orchestra (minus voice), publishing this version in 1881 as the second of a pair of string arrangements titled Two Elegiac Melodies. The first San Francisco Symphony performances were in December 1923 and led by Alfred Hertz; the most recent SFS subscription performance was in February 2000, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the version that e hear at this concert, for strings alone. Performance time: about four minutes.

Most of us know Norway’s Edvard Grieg as the composer of just a few works, the Piano Concerto, some chamber pieces, and his music for Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt. But he also wrote 170 songs, many inspired by his wife, Nina, a talented singer from whom he learned much about the human voice and its capabilities. Soon after composing his song “Våren” (to a text by Aasmund Olavsson Vinje), Grieg arranged it for string orchestra. “Våren” translates to “Spring,” but English speakers are more likely to know it by the title “The Last Spring.”

Våren,” the poem, is spoken by someone who senses that life is drawing to a close, that the spring witnessed now is bound to be the speaker’s last. Here is a prose translation:  “Once more I saw winter before spring drove it away; again I was able to see the branches of the cherry tree blossom. Once more I saw the ice as it thawed. I saw the snow melt and the rapids in the brook foaming. Once more I saw the green grass and the flowers. Once more I heard the spring bird sing to the sun and the summer. One day, I will bathe in the spring air that fills my eyes, and there I will find a home. Everything that spring has brought me, the flowers I gathered, all seem the spirits of my forefathers dancing and sighing! And so under the birches and pine boughs I found a springtime riddle. And the sound of the flute that I carved seems as though I am weeping.”

Grieg’s gift of pure and simple lyricism is evident from start to finish, and through his exquisite and unsentimental restraint he conveys a sense of deep longing. With plainspoken and penetrating beauty, The Last Spring focuses not so much on life’s end as on life’s fullness.

Larry Rothe

More About the Music
Recordings:  Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Hänssler Classic)  |  Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Philips) 

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)

(May 2014)