September 12, 2018
Today we planned to visit Troldhaugen, the home of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and his wife Nina when they resided in Norway—mostly during the summers. The home was completed in 1885, designed by Grieg’s cousin Schak Bull, and the Grieg family lived there in pastoral comfort until Edvard’s death in 1907.
Grieg had long been one of Joan favorite composers. She literally learned about Wedding Day at Troldhaugen and In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt at her Grandfather Martin’s knee. She can recall listening to this wonderful music at Christmas in her grandparents’ apartment in Gary, Indiana. But, she also confesses that Grandpa played less serious fare, specifically Yogi Yorgesson’s “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” This song never failed to produce peals of laughter from the three Nelson grandchildren.
As she grew older, her interest in Grieg deepened. When she started to learn to play the piano at the age of eight, it was probably inevitable that she would want to master the music she was growing up with—Christmas and grandparents are a powerful combination, imbuing the music with a deep emotional appeal. Her piano teacher, Catherine Dosen, realizing that practice might be promoted by choosing music her student wanted to play, gave Joan the sheet music to Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. Then, later, Miss Dosen gave her two volumes of selected Grieg compositions.
Greg learned to appreciate Grieg by listening to Joan play, first on the modest spinet in the Nelson’s Pittsburgh home, and then, later, on the baby grand piano inherited from Grandfather and Grandmother Cornelius. This piano had, undoubtedly, also had years of Grieg’s music played upon it by their daughter, Joan’s Aunt Alice, who was herself an accomplished organist and pianist.
Thus, in 2003 when Greg and Joan made their first visit to Norway and Bergen, a visit to Troldhaugen was a major priority. They remember being struck by the tranquility of the modest house and its grounds—the many tourists notwithstanding. The house perches on the crest of a small hill on the steep wooded shores of Nordås Lake. There is a small composer’s hut, rustic and quiet, right on the water, down a steep path on one side of the house. On the other side, a longer path leads to a small jetty. Set into the rock face of the exposed hillside are Edvard and Nina’s tombs. Greg took a picture there on the jetty in 2003 of Joan sitting by the water. It was one of those photographs one sometimes takes, that happens, by design or random chance, to capture the essence of a place—and of a woman, no longer a girl—who has finally been to Troldhaugen.
Today, as in 2003, we walked down to the harbor to board a bus to take us the few miles outside of Bergen, up into the hills, where Troldhaugen is located. Unlike our previous visit, this time it was raining, as it had been since we arrived in Norway. We walked the short quarter of a mile to the hilltop.
Our tickets included a tour of the house—first floor only—as it had last time, but unlike our previous visit, the four of us were also going to be attending a short concert of Grieg’s piano pieces in the intimate Troldsalen concert hall. The house tour came first; one half of the busload was given a docent and moved through the doorway into a small anteroom, a “memory room,” where there were photographs and memorabilia of friends and family and fame. The interior rooms, a dining room and a parlor, were not at all museum-like, but evoked the feeling that at any moment Edvard and Nina might enter to make themselves at home. Although the rooms had their share of elegant and expensive items, there was also ample evidence of Edvard’s lifelong appreciation for traditional Norway—the folk culture he celebrated in much of his music. Here, on floor and table, were the colorful geometric patterns of Norwegian handwoven textiles. There, on a sideboard, a painted bowl decorated with rosemåling and an ale tankard, or kjenge, in the shape of a dragon. The parlor held Grieg’s 1892 Steinway—playable still. It was paired with a rustic Norwegian bench. If only we were alone, with no tourist cohort around us, Joan could play. In Grieg’s home, on Grieg’s piano. In Troldhaugen.
But today it was for someone else to play. Thormod Rønning Kvam, a well-regarded young pianist offered a program in the Troldsalen called Selected Lyric Pieces. He played; he seemed entranced, absorbed in the music—perhaps amazed that he was here at all, in this hall, playing this music. He played in the sudden unexpected sunlight, in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that thrust out the end of the hall like the prow of a ship, opening onto a light-splashed view of the composer’s rustic hut and the dappled lake.
After the last note died away, and the well-deserved applause given, we had a few moments to ramble the grounds. We peered into the composer’s hide-away on the lake shore; we imagined him creating Hjemveh (Homesickness), one of Joan’s favorite pieces, one hand on the piano, and another holding a pen to scribe the notes.
We tried to recreate the photograph we took in 2003, but the rain had started again, and the rocky shoreline between the path and jetty was slick. We are older now, frailer, a bit more cautious. We found a less dangerous vista, and Joan posed there. Justin and Andrea went out to the end of the jetty and captured a new memory in the same place that we had made an older one. It seemed natural and right. Like passing something on while letting something go. Something like writing your last song, rising up from the piano, and letting someone else sit down to play it.