Grieg – Holberg Suite Op. 40

Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907) Holberg Suite in full for String Orchestra, written in 1884.

This piece was originally written as a piano work with the subtitle “Suite in the olden style” but was rearranged for string orchestra a year later by the composer himself. Grieg composed it in 1884 for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the playwright Ludwig Holberg, and it now remains one of the best examples of neoclassical music written, using the baroque Dance Suite format in a brisk, late-romantic style.

The first movement is a Praeludium – a Prelude, or opening movement, and is in a brisk quadruple time, with tempo marking Allegro Vivace – Quick and lively. It maintains the lively jumping rhythm, called a Dactyllic Rhythm throughout, and it opens the suite in a lively, joyful way. It’s just about in a condensed, simplified sonata form, which you can see from the rhythmic opening music, followed immediately by the lyrical melody based in fifths in the 1st violins in the dominant key.

The second movement is a Sarabande, which was a traditional baroque dance. It follows a gentle, lilting style much like the original Sarabandes of composers like Bach and Vivaldi – try this sarabande from Bach’s 1st cello suite, transcribed for viola. (All links go to YouTube)

The third movement which follows is a gentle Gavotte – a court dance derived originally from a French folk dance. Like the first movement, it is brisk, except this time in a quick 2-time. This provides a perfect linking movement between the two slower movements, into the Air which follows. You may also like this section of the opening to Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings also for string orchestra; the B section has a similar light feel to it, and was composed only nine years before – which in Classical Music is not long at all 🙂

The fourth movement is the only one in the minor key, and it is much more expressive. Grieg makes use of much more romantic harmonies such as the interrupted cadence to a vi^7 chord, while still maintaining the baroque feel by using a turn ornament as the main melodic feature (at the start of bar 2.)

Suddenly there is a burst of energy into the fifth and final movement, the rigaudon. This is a chance for the solo violinist to show off – as you can clearly see from the sheer speed of the final dance. This movement is in ternary form, meaning there is a contrasting middle section in the minor mode, almost reminiscent of the fourth movement, before returning to the fast rigaudon melody, ending triumphantly with a broad coda in G major, the tonic key of the work, in which we originally began in the Praeludium.

This recording was performed by the amazing ‘A Far Cry’ ensemble, who generously upload their recordings for reuse on imslp.org – the Petrucci music library, which lists virtually every public domain score and classical piece ever written.

And no, I’m not sponsored by them… they’re just what got me through music college.

Hope you found this article useful 🙂 This description is entirely my own, however feel free to quote as much as you like for your own use.

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