Musical Dichotomies in Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27, I

Edvard Grieg's Home and Studio

Musical Dichotomies in Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27, I

While Edvard Grieg was living in Hardanger, Norway in the 1870s, he wrote String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 – his first string quartet – at a time when strong nationalist sentiment ran through Norway.[1] The work thus portrays Grieg’s nationalist inspirations of Norwegian folk tunes, the landscape, and important figures, such as the violinist Ole Bull. As Grieg reflects each of these inspirations, he develops strong musical dichotomies throughout the quartet, regarding texture, motifs, color, and character. Throughout this paper, I will analyze the form of the piece, tracing its structure through themes, motifs, and texture as well as pointing out contrasts. Then I will take a closer look into the Norwegian culture of the time period, including the influences of folk tunes and the Violinist Ole Bull, the importance of landscape, and how each influence ties into nationalism throughout Norway.  

Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway in 1843 into a musical family. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany and spent many years there, absorbing the German musical styles.[2] Throughout his life and career, Grieg had experienced numerous ups and downs, from early world recognition to battling health issues later in life. A description of Grieg’s physical and emotional duality can be read in the following excerpt:

Grieg was of small stature, delicate but impressive. The fine serene forehead he had in common with many a creative artist. His light blue eyes under the bushy eyebrows sparked like those of a child when listening to a fairy tale. They mostly had a joyful though gentle and dreaming expression, but when roused to sudden anger or indignation they could flash like lightning… Grieg’s astounding energy gave to his frail body an elastic and impressive gait and more than once in his life he performed true feats of endurance.[3]

Scholars call Grieg a ‘miniaturist’ due to his petite stature.[4] His music reflects this description. The song genre was his most popular type of composition because it was short and lyrical. Grieg had trouble writing large-scale forms, including that of the string quartet. He stated that this was “due to lack of practice and lack of technique.”[5] In writing the string quartet, he also stated, “I want to battle myself through the larger forms,” but this led to much frustration and overpowering self-criticism.[6] Grieg was ‘his own strictest critic’, constantly revising and doubting a positive reception.[7] In an article by Bjarne Kortsen, Robert Heckmann, a famous violinist and critic, writes to Grieg and says “I quite honestly could find no sign at all in the quartet of your imagination having been paralyzed.”[8] In another letter, he again reassures Grieg saying:

I think my answer has been sufficiently clearly expressed in my repeated desire and firm intention to perform your quartet at my first soiree in Cologne and Bonn at the end of October. That should be proof enough that as far as beauty, value and sonority are concerned, your quartet is worth publishing.[9]

It is clear that Grieg was a critical man. Heckmann reassured him numerous times that his quartet was of high quality. Grieg, most certainly frustrated in the writing process and perhaps with the outcome of some transitions or phrases, seemed to be consistently unpleased. He revised many sections with the help of Heckmann, yet still he was unsettled about the final outcome and apprehensive about its reception. Grieg trusted Heckmann and published his quartet in 1878. In all, Grieg was a humble man with humble ambitions who claimed, “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights. My aim in my music is exactly what Ibsen says about his own plays: ‘I want to build homes for the people in which they can be happy and contented.’”[10]

            Grieg was his own strictest critic, but there are many others who greatly criticize Grieg’s work. In the book Grieg: A Symposium, Gerald Abraham analyzes many of Grieg’s works, including the string quartet. The first movement of Grieg’s first string quartet is in sonata form with a coda at the end.  The exposition, from mm. 1-206, introduces the three prominent themes. The first slow motto-theme, (musical excerpt 1) beginning at measure 1, introduces the piece with strength and vigor. The first three notes, G F D, are a common motif in much of Grieg’s work, showing up in a number of his other pieces and songs.[11] All voices are in unison until mm. 9, where dissonance creates an uneasy and suspenseful feeling. The melody from the motto-theme is taken from Grieg’s song Spillemaend [Fiddlers] Op. 25 No. 1.[12] The second theme, beginning at mm. 17 (musical excerpt 2 in the 3rd system), presents the intense, driving, and at times dissonant mood that appears throughout the piece. Abraham criticizes Grieg’s lack of rhythmic complexity in this theme given that it is mostly made up of quarter notes and eighth notes.[13] But through the rhythms, along with harmonic structure and dynamic phrasing, Grieg is able to build intensity throughout the theme. In the passage from mm. 50-52, the first measure is quarter notes, the next triplet quarter notes, followed by eighth notes. Included in those bars is a stretto, which further anticipates the building intensity in each bar. The constant imitation of double stops and triple stops bar after bar in this theme can be tiresome to the ear, yet another critique of this theme by Abraham.[14]  The next theme at mm. 95 (musical excerpt 3 at letter B), in the major dominant key, contrasts the previous theme with its tranquil, slower moving melody, thus another dichotomy. Yet the viola and cello interrupt the theme with bold hints of theme two. It is a variant of the motto-theme,  but instead of being forceful and rigid,  it is tranquil and dolce.  A third theme is hinted until mm. 175 when theme three officially begins. The major key gives it a less intense feel but still driving and rapid. The rhythms, composed of mostly quarter and half notes, are not too difficult, but they are pulsing forward with the lively tempo.

The development section, mm. 207-326, continues in the relative major key of Bb. The motto-theme, theme two and theme three are then developed through differing keys and modulations. Many of the phrases are segments of themes, for instance mm. 207-210. This phrase is theme two in the minor iii, but it is abruptly cut off after four measures by a transitional phrase. At letter E, four measures of the motto-theme appear but are once again abruptly cut off by four measures of theme two. At mm. 303, a tranquil yet driving transition leads into the recapitulation.

The recapitulation starts at mm. 327 with an identical theme two. Theme three at mm. 401 is in the parallel major key rather than the relative major.  Although it has a similar feel, being a 5th lower than the original theme creates a richer and deeper sound. At mm. 560, theme three returns, but this time the melody is in the cello with ponticello in the upper voices, which gives it a rich yet whisper-like quality.

The piece concludes with an augmentation of the motto-theme in the presto and a prestissimo in the original key of g minor, and the driving feel continues up to the finish of the movement. Pulsing eighth notes in the last few measures seem as if it were a race. The driving intensity is present up to the final cadence of the piece.

Grieg’s use of the motto-theme throughout provides the piece a sense of unity and cohesion. There is criticism that many of his transition passages are rather awkward and unfitting, such as that in mm. 586-89, leading the final theme three into the presto. This passage is simply the second violin and viola in unison playing the predominant and the dominant. It is a logical progression, but its simplicity is rather unfitting compared to the consistent fullness of texture throughout the piece.

From driving, intense eighth notes to cantabile melodies, the intentions of Grieg’s string quartet are constantly changing. Is he trying to convey a serene texture or a hurried, frantic feeling? This musical dichotomy reflects Grieg as a person, a miniaturist with vigor and serenity.


1)excerpt 1  

2)excerpt 2

3)excerpt 3


            Throughout the nineteenth century, Norway went about a number of significant changes. Many Norwegians developed a strong desire to be an independent country from Denmark and Sweden, not only politically but linguistically and culturally as well.[15] The shared desire and sense of pride in one’s own country is what helped nationalism in Norway to grow. There was a sense of incompleteness in Norway, and nationalism was “a way of ordering experience, of looking at the world and making sense of one’s place and identity in it”.[16] One form of nationalism was through the presence of folk tunes. Ole Bull, a famous violinist and family friend to Grieg, was known to have popularized folk tunes in Norway.[17] He gained his inspiration from a Hardanger fiddler Myllarguten who played a collection of fiddle melodies.[18] Many characteristics of the Hardanger fiddle can be seen in Grieg’s string quartet. With eight strings as opposed to four on a violin – the extra four acting as resonating strings – a drone quality is produced. In relation to the string quartet, Grieg uses many pedal tones throughout the piece. For example, in the third theme, the cello holds an F for six measures and continues on F in differing pitch classes for the next ten measures while the upper strings carry out a harmonic progression.  Another characteristic of the Hardanger fiddle is the strong 5th intervals.[19] The dominating 5ths appear throughout the string quartet. In the second theme, the cello carries a very prominent 5th double stop motif, which is also present in the viola and the first violin. Another example of this motif would be in the development, where a passage repeatedly begins starkly on beat two in perfect 5ths in all voices. Grieg emphasizes the 5ths by applying them unexpectedly on the second beat with accents and a sudden fortissimo. Hardanger fiddlers are traditionally known to have a habit of tapping their foot on the offbeat.[20] This characteristic can once again be applied to Grieg’s quartet. The most obvious example would be that which was previously mentioned, where the strings abruptly enter on beat two of each measure. Another example would be at the end of theme two at mm. 79. The second violin, viola and cello all play on the downbeats while the first violin contrasts rhythmically by playing on the opposite beats. Throughout the string quartet, representations of the Hardanger fiddle help to make this piece a nationalistic work and form Grieg’s traditional style.

From Ole Bull’s popularization of folk music stems a more scholarly interest taken in folk tunes. In the 1840s, ethnomusicologist Ludvig Lindeman traveled around Norway and compiled an anthology of Norwegian folk tunes. His anthology was a reference for many Norwegian composers such as Grieg.[21] Lindeman believed that “folk music needed an artistic reworking before it could become the foundation for a national art.”[22] Grieg took these folk tunes comprised by Lindeman and used them as inspiration for many of his songs,[23] including that of Spillemaend [Fiddlers] Op. 25 No. 1, which is found in the motto-theme in his string quartet. Even in this song, there are contrasting styles of tranquillo and agitato, which is similar to that of the string quartet. Folk tunes were of great importance to Grieg in inspiring his creativity. For a Leipzig magazine in 1907, he stated:

I was educated in the German school. I have studied in Leipzig and musically speaking am completely German. But then I went to Copenhagen and got acquainted with Gade and Hartmann. It then struck me that I could only develop myself further on a national foundation. It was our Norwegian folk tunes which showed me the way.[24]

Folk tunes gave meaning to Grieg’s work. The nationalistic implications were part of what made Grieg’s work so renowned, in his own country and abroad. With the country’s state of desiring cultural identity, music was one way through which that was achieved.

            Another way in which Norwegians took pride was through their country’s landscape. As nationalism grew throughout Norway, the Norwegian landscape “became celebrated as a site of cultural and ethnic uniqueness.”[25] The beauty of the nation – the steeping fjords, the rushing rivers, the vast hillsides – was all taken with pride. Through music, many composers, including Grieg, attempted to portray the beauty and natural aspects of the landscape. Grieg’s home and studio, outside of Bergen, overlooks a tranquil lake and rolling hills. The window in his studio looks out directly to the water, and there is a path just off his studio which leads down to the water’s edge. It is no surprise that nature was an influence in Grieg’s music. The agitato themes in the string quartet resemble a brooding storm, building in intensity and rage, for instance in theme two, with the overpowering double and triple stops. On the other hand the tranquil themes may represent the calm after the storm, where the waters lay peacefully and the fury is no longer. The contrasting landscapes reflect the contrasting feelings of agitation and serenity throughout the string quartet. When writing the string quartet, Grieg was living in Hardanger.

I am now 53 years old and have just learnt that one should go to Hardanger before midsummer, if one wants to see its poetry in all its greatness and charm. Then the waterfalls’ immense symphony can be heard, the glaciers shimmer, the air is filled with an aroma, the nights are light, and the whole existence is like a fairy-tale. Just imagine, we didn’t go to bed in the evenings. We sat out in the light night one evening after another, drinking in the beautiful air and the light dawning fjord, which then lay in its deep calm.[26]

The power of the landscape was clearly evident for Grieg. Using landscape in his music was a major aim for Grieg. In a letter, he wrote, “Bjornson has written a pretty sketch of me in today’s Norsk Folkeblad, which you should read. In it he says that I am a landscape painter – how fitting, for my life’s dream is to set the North’s nature in sound.”[27] Representing landscape through music adds color and life to a piece. It gives sound to images and allows a visual to accompany the music, and Grieg was a master at capturing the varying landscapes and transforming them into music.

            Throughout this piece, I have discussed how Grieg was inspired when composing his string quartet. His frustration in writing large forms led to forceful, agitated themes, and his lyrical expertise helped to develop the singing melodies. Norwegian nationalism and the popularization of folk tunes by Ole Bull and Lindeman were strong sources for many of Grieg’s songs, which similar melodies are prevalent in his string quartet. Being a landscape painter of music, portrayals of nature and the backdrop to his studio play a major role in inspiring contrasting characters and colors in the piece. There were a number of inspirations that went into the creation of the string quartet, but his quartet was also an inspiration for others. Frans Liszt was in the audience of one of the performances shortly after the piece had been premiered. He stated, “It is a long time since I heard a new composition, particularly a string quartet, which has interested me so much as precisely this unusual and brilliant work of Grieg’s.”[28]


[1] “Edvard Grieg’s String Quartets,” Edvard Grieg Society, <> (April 28, 2014).
[2] Daniel M. Grimley, Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 190.
[3] Gerald Abraham, Grieg: A Symposium (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), 11.
[4] Daniel M. Grimley, Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 4.
[5] Ibid., 6.
[6] Ibid., 6.
[7] Gerald Abraham, Grieg: A Symposium (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), 15.
[8] Bjarne Kortsen, “Grieg’s String Quartet and Robert Heckmann,” Music & Letters, Vol. 49, No. 1 (January, 1968), 22.
[9] Kortsen, “Grieg’s String Quartet and Robert Heckmann,” 24. 
[10] Gerald Abraham, Grieg: A Symposium (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), 13. Ibsen is a famous Norwegian playwright and poet of the 19th century.
[11] Ibid., 42.
[12] Ibid., 42.
[13] Ibid., 46.
[14] Gerald Abraham, Grieg: A Symposium (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), 42. 
[15] Daniel M. Grimley, Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 24.
[16] Ibid., 16.
[17] Ibid., 35.
[18] Ibid., 35.
[19] Daniel M. Grimley, Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 167.
[20] Ibid., 167.
[21] Ibid., 38.
[22] Ibid., 38.
[23] Percy Grainger, “Edvard Grieg: A Tribute,” The Musical Times (September, 1957), 482.
[24] Daniel M. Grimley, Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 190.
[25] Ibid., 55.
[26] Daniel M. Grimley, Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian Identity (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 69.
[27] Ibid., 69.
[28] Bjarne Kortsen, “Grieg’s String Quartet and Robert Heckmann,” Music & Letters, Vol. 49, No. 1 (January, 1968).


Abraham, Gerald. Grieg: A Symposium. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

“Edvard Grieg’s String Quartets.” Edvard Grieg Society. <> (April 28, 2014).

Grainger, Percy. “Edvard Grieg: A Tribute,” The Musical Times (September, 1957): 482-483.

Grieg, Edvard. String quartet in G minor, op. 27. Complete String Quartets. The Norwegian String Quartet. Norway: Victoria, 1991. Compact disc.

Grieg, Edvard. String Quartet No. 1 Op. 27 in G minor. New York, London: E. Eulenburg, 1900.

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

Kortsen, Bjarne. “Grieg’s String Quartet and Robert Heckmann,” Music & Letters, Vol. 49, No. 1 (January, 1968): 21-28.