Norway: In the thrall of the Mountain King

The obvious thing to do, when wandering down the tree-lined entrance of composer Edvard Grieg's property, where he and his soprano wife Nina spent 22 summers, is to pull out  your smartphone, pop on the speaker and play some of his compositions. The familiar, if not by name then by melody, In the Hall of the Mountain King is broadcast, and immediately it is clear to our group, Australians all, that his music was a reflection of the environment in which he lived.

Bounded by fiords, the property, known as Troldhaugen, is on the outskirts of Bergen in Norway. It's where Grieg composed some of his greatest works on the upright piano in his little red cabin by Lake Nordas. He would spend his days in the cabin writing and looking out to the water and distant mountains. When not touring in Europe to rapturous audiences, he would spend time at Troldhaugen or hike in the Norwegian fiords with friends, learning of Norwegian folk music.  He took inspiration from the countryside. You can hear the rain and smell the pines in every harmony.

"To paint in music the Norwegian landscape, Norwegian life, Norwegian history and Norwegian folk poetry was where I believed I could achieve something," Grieg wrote in a letter from 1900.

All of us from the APT Majestic Fiords adventure cruise had a good feel about where Grieg was coming from. We could picture what he might have seen, we had been to places he'd been. We'd already spent a few days weaving our way in and out of some of Norway's most spectacular fiords aboard the MS Hebridean Sky, flanked by steep cliffs, their rugged beauty cloaked in mist. We'd seen fishermen hauling in their catch and we' had sampled the salmon and cod.

Grieg's thorough belief of the Norwegian essence  of his compositions made him once quip, "I am sure my music has a taste of codfish in it."

The composer's hometown of Bergen is our first city stop on the 13-day cruise. With a population of 265,000, it's Norway's second largest after Oslo. Bryggen (Norwegian for wharf) is now a UNESCO  World Heritage Site because of the Hanseatic colourful wooden merchants' houses that line the shore near the fish market. 

Edvard and Nina moved to Troldhaugen,  eight kilometres from the wharf, in 1885. Both would welcome guests including a young Australian named Percy Grainger, the eccentric pianist and composer, whom Grieg admired. Though they entertained a great deal, Edvard liked his solitude. 

Our guide tells us that when Grieg didn't feel like socialising, he would sit on a rowing boat on the lake and wait for Nina to hoist the flag, a signal the guests had left. He called Troldhaugen his "best opus so far".

The main house, a Swiss-style wooden structure, showcases much of Edvard's and Nina's original Victorian furniture. There is a grand Steinway piano and, on the walls, numerous portraits of the composer. Small in stature, late in life Edvard let his  hair grow and moustache thicken so he came to look like a mix of  Mark Twain and Albert Einstein. 

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Afterwards we head across the garden to the chamber music hall known as Troldsalen. Built in 1985, it's sensitively tucked into the landscape, the turf roof  concealing the structure. Here, we are treated to a private recital as part of APT's Signature Invitation unique experiences. Russian pianist Marina Kan Selvik flexes her fingers and delicately plays the first note. 

Admittedly (and shamefully), at least two of us on the tour know one of Grieg's well-known works best not from the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's poem-turned-theatre-play Peer Gynt, but from the waterfall and fiord-filled Norsca soap and shower gel ads from the 1980s. It is 109 years since his death and it's clear that in the last half-century Grieg's music has suffered from overexposure, bludgeoned through overuse into semi-classical fodder.

He would be rolling in his grave (which is in a cliff at Troldhaugen next to Nina's tomb) if he knew that In the Hall of the Mountain King is the tune heard when the Smurfs are in danger, or that Morning Mood is best known from Bugs Bunny cartoons. 

The pianist plays some of Grieg's lesser known pieces with just the right balance of wistfulness and exuberance. It's the perfect setting. Music has the ability to transport, even through time. Just for a few seconds before the loud claps and bravos break the spell, you could see, through the  concert hall window, beyond the rhododendrons down to the composer's cabin and imagine him tinkering on the Steinway, while the water from the lake laps against the banks. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

griegmuseum.no/en

CRUISING THERE

APT's Majestic Norwegian FIords – Edinburgh to Tromso 13-day cruise aboard MS Hebridean Sky departs June 30 and August 5, 2017.

Fares from $13,995 a person twin share with airfare credit of up to $1500 a couple if booked by October 31, 2016. See www.aptouring.com.au

The writer travelled as a guest of APT. 

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