Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Norway's greatest composer, is also, in my opinion, one of the most underrated ones.
Grieg is now mostly known for his Piano Concerto, the Holberg Suite, and the incidental music from Peer Gynt (especially "Morning" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King"). In the later 19th century, however, Grieg was, like most composers of that time, mainly known for the music he wrote for songs. (Before radio and recordings, it was about selling sheet music.) He also had the advantage of being married to Nina Hagerup, an outstanding soprano.
Grieg wrote his great Piano Concerto in A Minor at the age of 25, during the third trimester of his wife's pregnancy. He and Nina had been married for a year, and the concerto may seem to reflect some of the joy, hope, passion, and excitement he was feeling about starting a family. Nearly two years later, in April 1870 in Rome, the 58-year-old Franz Liszt did a spectacular solo sight-reading of it (including the orchestral parts) in front of Grieg and an audience. While it was not the premiere, Liszt's enthusiasm for the concerto was a huge boost for Grieg's career. He would continue to revise the piano concerto for the rest of his life, and the final version is the one we usually hear today.
Sadly, after their daughter, Alexandra, was born in September, 1868, she died from meningitis before reaching her first birthday. She would also be the Griegs' only baby who reached full term birth, and Nina suffered a miscarriage near the time of Alexandra's death. Nina was a concert pianist and soprano, and she was ready to give that up to raise a family, which would not happen. This caused considerable strain in their marriage over time.
Though he was an excellent orchestrator, Grieg mostly preferred writing his solo piano works. He would often compose on a piano in an unheated shed next to his house, even on the coldest days of winter. (Based on the coat he's wearing, that's probably where he is in this photo.) Despite battling ill health through much of his life, he was a hardy Norwegian, and there is a certain purity to sound in the stillness of the cold. One can imagine him writing some of his delightful Lyric Pieces, the little gems of his piano solo literature, out in this shed.
In 1874, the Norwegian Government granted Grieg (then age 31) a lifetime stipend that freed him and his wife from any future financial worries. He was now free to compose full-time, and he would produce many more wonderful works. This was not just an incredible gift to Grieg and his wife, but to all of humanity. Talk about a great government program!
Grieg will always hold a special place in my heart. It was listening to his piano music that first inspired me to try composing something of my own at the tender age of six.
This photo of Grieg at the piano comes from the Edvard Grieg Archives at the Public Library in his home town of Bergen, Norway.
More will be added to this page in the future.