Edvard Grieg: Shaping the Norwegian Folk Landscape through Sound and Text

In nineteenth-century Scandinavia, cultural productions burgeoned with deeply nationalistic sentiments in music and literature. From Norway to Sweden to Denmark, composers and writers turned to looking at their home countries in a more deep and personal manner. One composer’s works that stands out among these was that of Edvard Grieg. Born and raised in Norway, his music led the way in combining traditional Norwegian folk-song elements with the Romantic style of the time. As his composing developed, he focused on using poems by Norwegian poets such as Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson to set to his vocal songs. Among these works, Grieg’s Opus 25 is a set of six songs all set to poems by Ibsen and number four, Med en Vandlilje,  is a prime example of Grieg’s compositional style. This piece reflects his views about Norwegian nationalism through his synthesis of text and compositional elements. His tight relationship with Norway’s landscape is represented in the musical writing in terms of form, harmony, and melody. His allegiance to his home country’s folklore literature is often evident in his works, and Med en Vandlilje is an accurate representation of this. The combination of these elements work together to present Grieg’s deep sense of Norwegian nationalism in the nineteenth century.

Europeans during the nineteenth century felt nationalism spread quickly and vastly across the countryside. Scandinavian nationalism, in particular, found its roots in the influence of French, Italian, and Polish reinstitution of unity, and can ultimately be “attributed to the Enlightenment ideals of liberte, egalite, and fraternite.”1 In light of the French Revolution, French Opera began to focus on real stories that represented France’s history. The emergence of the French Grand Opera celebrated huge staging, music, and voices creating a sense of unity and strength. Later, Italy began its fight for unification through the Risorgimento. During this time, Italian opera followed the literary movement, verismo, focusing on natural plots with average characters. Because composers followed this movement, audiences were able to better relate to the story lines, creating a greater feeling of harmony. Keyboardists in the 1800s also drew nearer to their national folk-song and dance traditions. Fryderyk Chopin modeled his works after traditional Polish dances that used folk-like melodies which created a stronger tie to his Polish background. Moving northward to Scandinavia, composers like Carl Nielsen, Jean Sibelius, and Edvard Grieg represented the countries of Denmark, Finland, and Norway, respectively. To Scandinavian artists, landscape played a large role in their national identification; many spent great deals of time in nature to absorb its color and sound. Grieg was at the forefront of this natural connection as he “regarded the Norwegian landscape as already conveying the Norwegian art. Landscape, music and nation to Grieg were an inseparable unity”2  With this three-sided concept in mind, Grieg was able to produce a particular set of songs that exemplified his musical understanding.

Med en Vandlilje was published in 1876 as part of a set of six songs set to poems by Henrik Ibsen. The order of the song cycle is as follows: Spillemaend (Fiddlers), En Svane (The Swan), Stambogsrim (To Her was All My Longing) , Med en Vandlilje (With a Waterlily), Borte! (Departed!), and En Fuglevise (A Bird Song). It is unknown where and when exactly this song cycle first debuted but it is certain that the poetry was not all written at the same time, indicating that it may not have been written for the purpose of song setting. The text for all six pieces remain in Norwegian and are set for voice and piano. Med en Vandlilje serves a unique purpose in the song cycle: the plot is one of mythical proportions as the narrator tells a child, Marie, about the water sprites that trick humans. Overall, the poem is a tactic to scare and thrill the child into believing in mythical creatures.

The text is organized into 5 strophes making the overall form of the song ll:A:ll BA. The first A section consists of the first two strophes of text repeated to the same music. The B section consists of the following two strophes in a written-out repeat. The final A section repeats the opening text and music but only one time through before bringing the music to a close. The main points of the text follow closely with how the form of the piece is set up. The A sections seem to have an innocent, story-telling nature while the B section becomes more ominous and forewarning towards the child. This structure will become more evident when examining the musical elements as well.

There are a few changes from Ibsen’s original text to Grieg’s setting. In Ibsen’s original poem, he intended to speak to a more general audience and one can see the changes in the text from the original to Grieg’s setting. The words in brackets replace their preceding words in Ibsen’s poem. Grieg altered a few words to speak more specifically to “Marie.” The *indicates the repeat of text in Grieg’s music that was not in the original poem.

Se, Marie [min bedste], hvad jeg bringer:

blomsten med de hvide vinger.

På de stille strømme båren

svam den drømmetung i våren.


Vil du den til hjemmet vie [faeste],

fæst den på dit bryst, Marie [min bedste];

bag dens blade da sig dølge

vil en dyb og stille bølge.


Vogt dig, barn, for tjernets strømme.

Farligt, farligt der at drømme!

Nøkken lader som han sover;—

liljer leger ovenover.


Barn, din barm er tjernets strømme.

Farligt, farligt der at drømme!

Liljer leger ovenover;

nøkken lader som han sover.


*Se, Marie, hvad jeg bringer:

blomsten med de hvide vinger.

På de stille strømme båren

svam den drømmetung i våren.

See, Marie [my dear], what I bring,

the flower with the white wings.

On the quiet streams floating

it was swimming, laden with dreams, in the springtime.


So that it may be at home,

pin it on your breast, Marie [my dear];

beneath its leaves then will be hidden

a deep and peaceful wave.


Careful, child, of the currents of the lake,

dangerous, dangerous there to dream!

The water sprite pretends to be asleep,

lilies play above him.


Child, your bosom is the current of the lake.

Dangerous, dangerous there to dream!

Lilies play on the surface;

the water sprite pretends to sleep.


See, Marie [my dear], what I bring,

the flower with the white wings.

On the quiet streams floating

it was swimming, laden with dreams, in the springtime.

Translations taken from The Ring of Words: An Anthology of Song Texts by Philip L. Miller

As for details of harmony, accompaniment, melody and rhythm, Med en Vandlilje has many elements that correlate with the text. The piece begins with a two measure introduction of the rhythmic pattern that drives the accompaniment throughout. The A section develops on this rhythm in A major with a sort of wave-like motive in the melody, much like that of water (Figure A). This motive keeps developing, using highly chromatic movement until it reaches its peak on the final word.  The harmonic movement of the A section moves gradually upward from A major to B to D before pausing for a moment on a C major 11th chord and resolving to A major. After the first two phrases, Grieg echoes the last measure of the vocal line in the accompaniment (Figure B). The melody of the B section takes on a completely different feeling as it is made up of a falling chromatic melody above a harmony that moves through modal mixture to create tonal ambiguity (Figure C). The first phrase begins in A minor, already sounding much different from the A section. It then moves to C minor, peaks in F minor and works its way through D minor before landing back in A minor to repeat the melody again.  The final A section returns as the first in A major, but only with the first stanza. Throughout, the accompaniment rhythm stays constantly on sixteenth notes, only pausing for a few select moments, creating excitement with moments of tension. It doubles the voice as the melody is weaved into the piano part. For a clearer picture of the form and key areas, see the chart below that lays out the piece on a line graph as well as pictures of the themes introduced from the actual music (Figure D).

Wave Motive
Figure A- Wave motive
Figure B- Echoes
Figure C- Falling motive
Figure C- Falling motive
Figure D
Figure D


By looking at the fine details of an isolated work such as Med en Vandlilje, one has to wonder: Are these musical characteristics typical of Grieg’s writing? His earliest works reflect an influence of his Danish background with little knowledge or interest towards Norwegian nationalism.3 After meeting Rikard Nordraak, the composer of Norway’s national anthem, Grieg was inspired by his use of folk melodies and began to change the direction of his music. In the late 1860s, signs of his newfound sense of Norwegian nationalism began to show through in titles such as Folkevise and Norsk  (no. 5 and no.6, respectively, from Lyric Pieces for piano op. 12).4 In the early 1870s, Grieg began to collaborate more with Norwegian poets Bjornstjerne Bjornson and Henrik Ibsen. Coincidentally, Peer Gynt was premiered the same year the set of six poems, indicating his close ties with Ibsen. A more mature sense of nationalism followed in the 1890s when he published the Haugtussa song cycle set to texts by Norwegian poet Arne Garborg. Garborg’s outlook on being an active form of nationalism was quite strong as he stated that “only through the formation of distinct Norwegian musical style could Norway achieve full political self-determination.”5 Grieg’s set of six songs, including Med en Vandlilje, fell between these two waves of  support for Norwegian unification, indicating that a new, mature sense of unification was developing within his music. Twentieth-century Norwegian composer Monrad Johansen spoke highly of Grieg’s new compositional direction by stating:“He has awakened in Norwegians the consciousness that as a nation they too are capable of creating of creating for themselves, a strong clear-cut individuality.”6 Looking deeper at Med en Vandlilje in the context of his broad range of works helps to identify how and why Grieg turned to focusing more on his home-country and thus will help to explain what characteristics help shape the Norwegian landscape.

By taking a closer look at the musical features and text choice of Med en Vandlilje, many elements are noticeably distinct among Norwegian folk music. One must keep in mind that “Grieg’s folk-song arrangements are not straightforward; they support and demand some level of analytical engagement in order to be understood fully.”7 However, Monrad Johansen presents his unique way of looking at Scandinavian music and finds that “Norwegian music’s modal instability is the most pervasive feature and the lydian fourth is the most characteristic of Norwegian temperament and feeling.”8 The start of the piece fits this description exactly, as the raised fourth (D sharp) adds the effect of making the melody feel more chromatic, and creating cognitive dissonance about what the true key area is. Added harmonies such as the 11th chord in C major call the key into question during the A section as well.Throughout the piece, and especially the B section, the harmony becomes highly ambiguous as the listener cannot pinpoint one key area for the section. Most of this is done through the feeling of falling in chromatically descending harmonies. Along with the use of the raised fourth and tonal ambiguity, Grieg weaves in his own personal style with an element that is quite common for his vocal songs. His use of echoing the voice in the accompaniment creates a playful, one-measure motive which imitates the sound of a bird in the distance (Shown in Fig. B). Another piece that exemplifies this element is his song set to Otto Benzon’s poem, Snegl, Snegl kom ud af dit hus, as the very same echoing motive follows each phrase of the vocal line. One cannot help but picture a bird echoing the phrase because “Grieg’s music cannot be understood without imagination and the capability to perceive pictures through one’s ears.”9

Something can be said about Grieg’s choice of language for Med en Vandlilje and many of his later songs. Amidst the controversy of the choice of the Norwegian national language, Grieg’s choice of Bokmaal text represents his allegiance to Norway. Although not yet officially set as a national written language for Norway, Bokmaal was and is a progressive language moving away from Danish influence and purposefully evolved to Norwegianize its citizens.10 Its sister language, Nynorsk, is based on more modern Norwegian dialects, making the Norwegian language its own. Riksmaal, the Dano-Norwegian language, was being pushed out of use after a long standing as the official language. As Grimley notes,“Grieg’s text was far from neutral;” the mere fact that Grieg chose a language with the purpose of identifying as its own, is evidence of his movement towards national identity.11 The choice of substance in the text alludes to his great sense of pride for Norway’s culture as well. For centuries, the cultural landscape of Norway has been greatly “connected to legends of water-sprites in the sea and trolls and giants in the mountains… and mixed with folk music, they [unique landscapes] were regarded as the nation’s ‘treasures.’”12 This comes back to the point by Grieg that Norwegian landscape already conveys the Norwegian art: Perhaps Grieg’s choice of location for inspiration comes into play. Grieg was growing in his inspiration to build Troldhaugen, where he would compose in a hut by the water until his death in 1907. Before this, he was seeking inspiration of nature. For Grieg, “great nature at home was related to great art.”13

It’s intriguing how Edvard Grieg made his way from having little knowledge of his national folk-song history to being one of the preeminent composers from Norway, creating an image of Norway that now lives on into present-day.  His work Med en Vandlilje is simply a small example of his work to establish a national identity. Its musical elements exemplify a Nordic sound through changes in harmony and expand on the idea of folklorism through melodic motives, painting pictures of nature. Its text reflects a choice in movement towards a national unity by its subject matter and language. Ultimately, these two main components create a “pure experiencing of landscape with different senses.”14 Listening to Grieg’s music, and Med en Vandlilje in particular, one gets a clear-cut image of Grieg’s growing influence of Norway’s landscape as well as his deep pride for his Nordic heritage.




1 Daniel M. Grimley. Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 12.

Yvonne Wasserloos, “‘Hearing Through Eyes, Seeing Through Ears’: Nation and landscape in the works of Niels W. Gade, Edvard Grieg and Carl Nielsen,” Studia musicological norvegica 33 (2007): 45.

John Horton and Nils Grinde, “Edvard Grieg,” (In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., 2009.)

4 Horton and Grinde, “Edvard Grieg.”

5 Grimley. Grieg, 195.

6 Grimley. Grieg, 195.

7 Grimley. Grieg, 192.

8 Grimley. Grieg, 195.

9 Wasserloos, “Nation and Landscape,” 46.

10 Grimley, Grieg, 8.

11 Grimley, Grieg, 8.

12 Wasserloos, “Nation and Landscape,” 42.

13 Wasserloos, “Nation and Landscape,” 45.

14 Wasserloos, “Nation and Landscape,” 46.



Foster, Beryl. The Songs of Edvard Grieg. Brookfield, Vt.: Scolar Press, 1990.

Grieg, Edvard. Op. 25, Med en Vandlilje. Lieder. Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Bengt Forsberg, piano. Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 1993. Compact disc.

Grieg, Edvard. Samlede sange. Edited by Gerhard Rosenkrone Schjelderup. Kristiania [Oslo]: Alb. Cammermeyers Forlag, 1907.

Grieg, Edvard.  Seks Digte af Henrik Ibsen. Romancer og Sanger. Oslo: Norsk Musikforlag, 1898.

Grimley, Daniel M. Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006.

Horton, John and Nils Grinde. “Grieg, Edvard.” In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., 2009.

Wasserloos, Yvonne. “‘Hearing Through Eyes, Seeing Through Ears’: Nation and landscape in the works of Niels W. Gade, Edvard Grieg and Carl Nielsen.” Studia musicological norvegica 33 (2007): 42-52.