Why is Edvard Grieg's 'Peer Gynt' A Staple In Pop Culture?

An actually good Wikipedia page.

If you want to visit a good Wikipedia page—and I know you do—might I recommend Grieg’s music in popular culture? Out of context, it might be a little confusing, but that’s why I’m here. Grieg is referring, of course, to Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian late 19th-century composer, whose most notable work, his first Peer Gynt suite, has completely saturated pop culture. It’s okay if you don’t know it by name: you definitely do know it, though. Here’s my favorite example in semi-recent years, but maybe you have another one. Like I said, it’s a good Wikipedia page.

Peer Gynt, which comprises a total of two suites (though the first is significantly more known than the second, the second is still excellent) was initially a play written by Henrik Ibsen (of A Doll’s House fame, among numerous other plays, and one of the fathers of Modernism) for which Grieg wrote the incidental music. It was from this accompaniment that he comprised the two suites, now more performed than the initial play. Peer of Peer Gynt is a mischievous little protagonist from Norwegian fables who lies and tricks and womanizes his way through society (a much more devious antihero than our friend Petrouchka from Petrouchka). Ibsen, however, was interested in the earnestness of Peer despite his being a bad person, as men are often compelled to do in their art. Whatever, it’s not my play. It’s because of this brighter outlook on Peer’s story that we have this extremely colorful representation of the drama depicted in Peer Gynt.

Though a later movement is perhaps most famous, you will certainly recognize Peer Gynt Suite No. 1’s Morning Mood, which perhaps we think of as the generic melody to waking up on an idyllic morning. That, or you know it from Bugs Bunny. (Or from Soylent Green!) It begins sweetly with a notable flute solo, but grows into itself, becoming––and forgive me—almost a little sensual in its power. It is a whole other topic entirely that I find it very funny to call any piece of music “________ Mood.” Not unlike dances from The Nutcracker or something of a similar notability, it’s easy to hear the beginning of Morning Mood and have an almost eye-rolling “oh, this” reaction to it, but I have found its depth and beauty upon relisten after relisten to be exponential. It’s such a textured portrait of morning. If this can’t transform you into a morning person, even just on principle, then you’re a lost cause.

The following is The Death Of Aase (which I have on NUMEROUS occasions typed as “The Death Of Ass,” jfc). They’re less recognizable in culture, but I have always found The Death Of Aase to be my favorite within the first suite. Only the strings play in this profoundly melancholy movement. I have distinct memories as a percussionist of silently sitting this one out, terrified to make a single noise while sitting in a chair on stage. The Death Of Aase feels so fragile to me that a single creak would destroy the sanctity of it. It’s beautiful, though, and listening to it knowing I can’t ruin it with an errant noise is deeply calming to me. Which is also why the following movement, Anitra’s Dance, is also a nice tonal reprieve. It’s not unlike Dvořák Slavonic Dances, cheeky and full of personality.

Of course the final movement is In The Hall Of The Mountain King, one of the most famous pieces of classical music of all time. Apparently there’s a—take a deep breath with me—techno version of this in the movie Trolls. This works because this movement is about Peer literally going to meet trolls in the play, but still. Its sound is instantly iconic; its melodic profoundly recognizable. This is a piece of music that will have you worshipping the bassoon (and rightfully so). It’s playful: it builds like Boléro if Boléro had any sense of humor about itself. In The Hall Of  The Mountain King is impossible to dislike or forget. Mark Zuckerberg stole their website, etc.

Here is a question: despite its oversaturation, is Peer Gynt good? George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and critic, once wrote of the piece: “Two or three catchpenny phrases, served up with plenty of orchestral sugar.” (He goes on to call Grieg a music grasshopper. Rude!!!) Something uncomplicated and popular jumps to the top of the charts; we’ve seen it a thousand times in culture. For all of Shaw’s criticism, however, Peer Gynt’s memorability, to me, at the very least, comes in how clearly it depicts characterization in its music. You don’t have to know Peer the character to understand the tonality of the pieces—they work for Bugs Bunny or the Winklevoss twins or whoever the hell you’re telling the story about it. And, should you go so far as to listen to the second suite (which I’ll cover, I promise, in another future column), you see the continued crisp characterization of a composer with a clear vision and intention. Besides, sugar can be good for you.


Image: Mark Anderson via Flickr