It's not unusual when travelling to encounter a small, sometimes surprising slice of Australia. Generally it's home-comfort food – that life-saving flat white or ubiquitous smashed avo. In Bergen, it's Percy Grainger.
Our very own Melbourne-born, world-class composer held a lifelong enchantment with Nordic culture and Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's music, not to mention the maestro's "elvish sparkle". And the interest was reciprocated – Grieg considered Grainger a genius.
Grainger's Grieg fascination endured along with his other somewhat unusual eccentricities. These, according to a remarkably honest Grainger, included an interest in balancing on narrow window ledges, sleeping naked under pianos, sado-masochism and self-flagellation. Also, despite being happily married to Ella, who accepted his interesting foibles, he was passionately in love with his mother, Rose. He wrote his first known composition, A Birthday Gift to Mother, aged 11.
We have come to Bergen, Norway's second largest city after Oslo with 300,000 people, on APT's Island Sky. This lovely former Hanseatic League trading city, one of Europe's rainiest, basks beside the Gulf Stream among mountains and fiords, including the country's longest and deepest, the Sognefjord.
Bergen is also known for being Grieg's "happy place", where he was born and where he built his summerhouse, Troldhaugen. The city lavishly celebrates its bantam-sized composer. There's the Grieg Hall concert building, the Grieg Academy music school, the Edvard Grieg Kor professional choir, Troldhaugen's Edvard Grieg Museum, plus little Grieg statues populate Bergen.
What is perhaps less well known about Grieg is the Australian connection. Percy Grainger's fascination with Nordic culture began early. Home schooled by Rose after being bullied, he studied the Icelandic Saga of Grettir the Strong, writing later that it was "the strongest single artistic influence on my life".
The young Percy signed letters "Grettir the Strong" and Scandinavian culture might have found a warm nook in his heart when a Danish student was one of the first not to laugh at his compositions.
In Bergen, we're launched into Grieg's world, visiting Troldhaugen (Troll Hill) and the villa of Nina and Edvard, the Grieg Museum with its fascinating cornucopia of Grieg memorabilia including a lock of hair cut a few days before his death, the troll and the pig, which resided on his bedside table and to whom he faithfully wished good night, a Hardanger fiddle used in Norwegian folk music, the family christening robe and a rather lovely portrait of Nina, who like Edvard, was minuscule.
Neither measured more than 152 centimetres and Grieg also suffered curvature of the spine and a tuberculosis-induced sunken chest. A rather sweet man-sized bronze statue of the composer in the garden looks very much like a tiny Mark Twain. There's a copy in Bergen's central park.
We're also treated to a concert of Grieg's folk songs and dances at Troldhaugen's sunken, turf-roofed chamber music hall, the Troldsalen (Troll Hall). His distinctive folk music, played with great expression by Christian Ihle Hadland, with the trollish views of Grieg's gardens and Lake Nordas beyond, provides a perfect backdrop to contemplate Grieg's passion for Norwegian folk music, which inspired Grainger's obsession.
The 24-year-old, musically precocious Percy Grainger met Grieg in 1906 in London at a society dinner. Grieg was greatly impressed with Grainger's playing, writing, " I have written Norwegian peasant dances that no one in my country can play and here comes this Australian who plays them as they ought to be played. He is a genius that we Scandinavians cannot do other than love."
The two corresponded, with Grainger visiting Troldhaugen for 10 days in July 1907 where they rehearsed for that year's Leeds Festival. The collaboration was cut short when Grieg died in September. Nina gave Grainger Grieg's fob watch and chain shortly after she was widowed, writing, "Take it, keep it and never forget him". When Nina died in 1919, Grainger was shocked that she had sold Troldhaugen and he contributed to efforts to open it as a museum.
Grainger championed Grieg's music until his own death in 1961, though he felt he never lived up to the great man's expectations.
Nina's gift is in the Percy Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne. This autobiographical museum is nothing if not comprehensive with its highly eclectic selection of more than 100,000 items. These include what Grainger called the "Lust Branch" of his life – among other things, more than 50 of Grainger's self-flagellation canes and a startling photo showing his buttocks striped with cuts and welts.
One shouldn't perhaps focus on the prurient, but Grainger's life, woven through with a passion for Grieg's folk music, is fascinating in all its myriad aspects. And who knew he popped up in Bergen?
APT's 15-day Majestic Norwegian Fjords small ships expedition cruise from Tromso to Copenhagen starts from $16,895 a person, twin share including $900 a couple air credit. Based on an August 22, 2019 departure.
See https://www.aptouring.com.au/trips/russiascandinaviabaltics/nobhtc15 or call 1300 196 420.
Qatar Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm or Oslo via Doha, then Tromso with Scandinavian Airlines. Seeqatarairways.com/
Alison Stewart was a guest of APT.