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Peer Gynt (Bill Barclay adaptation)

The BSO commissioned and premiered writer/director Bill Barclay’s exuberant adaptation of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt with music written for the play by Edvard Grieg.

Edvard Hagerup Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, on June 15, 1843, and died there on September 4, 1907. He composed the incidental music to Ibsen’s five-act verse play Peer Gynt (written in Danish, the common written language of Denmark and Norway in Ibsen’s time) at the invitation of the author in 1874, completing the first version of the score in 1875. The play was produced with Grieg’s music at the Norwegian Theater in Christiania (Oslo) on February 24, 1876. Dissatisfied with the instrumentation of that version (which limited him to the musical forces available in Christiania), Grieg revised the scoring considerably for later productions, most notably for one in Copenhagen in 1886, and it was this later version (with some further retouchings) that formed the basis for the published score.

Grieg’s score for Peer Gynt calls for vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and an orchestra consisting of piccolo, 2 flutes (each also doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, chime, tam-tam, side drum, tambourine, harp, piano/organ, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Bill Barclay’s staged adaptation additionally calls for Hardanger fiddler and 8 actors (covering 21 different roles). The duration of this version is about 75 minutes.

A synopsis of the plot and a note from writer/director Bill Barclay follow this program note.

The Norwegian playwright, poet, and theater director Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is known to theatergoers today almost entirely for plays written in the last half of his fifty-year career as a dramatist, the twelve great modern prose dramas that began with The Pillars of Society in 1877, among them A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People, and Hedda Gabler. But the preceding quarter-century had seen the creation of a number of romantic comedies and satires in verse. Of this large body of early work, only two plays are read much by anyone except specialists, both of them in verse—Brand and Peer Gynt. Ibsen intended both of them for reading, not for acting.

During a residence in Rome, Ibsen met the young Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who was making his first trip to pass the winter of 1865-66 in a sunnier clime. In less than a year he would be writing Peer Gynt. Of course neither man could have had any notion how closely the new work was to unite their names. The fact that Peer Gynt was intended for reading, not acting, gave Ibsen unusual freedom in creating a blend of fantasy and reality—dozens of scenes, exotic locales, invisible characters, and the like. Upon publication the play caused a storm of protest for “lacking idealism.” In 1874 the director of the Christiania Theater proposed a production and suggested that music might enhance the effect. Ibsen invited Grieg to undertake the job. The composer admired the way Ibsen’s poetry “splutters with wit and venom,” but found the play “unmusical.” Still, he needed the money, so he went ahead.

Despite Grieg’s reservations, his score is so rich with wonderfully engaging melodic invention that—at least in the form of the two concert suites he arranged from the complete score—it has long since become one of his best-known works. The composer believed quite properly that many parts of the music were so closely allied with the drama that they should be heard only in that context. His two suites were an attempt to make available a large part of the music that he felt could stand alone, organized not with regard to the original order in which the selections occurred, but to present a musically satisfying arrangement. (Suite No. 1 includes Morning Mood, Åse’s Death, Anitra’s Dance, and In the Hall of the Mountain King. Suite No. 2 is made up of Ingrid’s Lament, Arabian Dance, Peer Gynt’s Homeward Journey, and Solveig’s Song.)

In fact, there is no really “standard” score for Peer Gynt: Grieg himself used different pieces in various performances, even if his choices were rarely his own to make, depending instead on whatever cuts the producer of a given staging decided upon. Because the staged play is scarcely known today, and also because Grieg’s richly colorful Norwegian music is most often heard in the context of pops or youth concerts, we tend to think of it as being a kind of fairy tale. Yet Peer Gynt was Freud’s favorite play: a kind of dramatization of internal conflict, a psychic battle between ego and id—before Freud had invented those terms—disguised as a folk tale.

Steven Ledbetter

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has in general performed music from Peer Gynt only as represented by Grieg’s two well-known orchestral suites, the first occasion being Arthur Nikisch’s performances of the Suite No. 1 in January 1890—which he then conducted more than twenty times in the ensuing five months on a tour of nineteen cities from New Bedford in the east to Minneapolis in the west. Music from the suites entered the Boston Pops repertoire in 1889 and has been performed in Pops concerts frequently.

In January 1985, Kurt Masur led subscription performances of a “new concert version by Friedhelm Eberle and Kurt Masur” including narration from Ibsen’s verse play, which included fifteen numbers from the complete score and featured Eberle as both narrator and the title character, soprano Shari Saunders as Solveig, Sandra Shipley as Anitra, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor. The Bill Barclay staged adaptation was premiered by the BSO under Ken-David Masur’s direction in October 2017.

Synopsis of the Plot

After an introduction by the Button-Moulder, Peer Gynt arrives home after some time away and teases his mother, Åse, with stories before heading off to the wedding of a former sweetheart. There he first meets Solveig (who will become significant later). Peer gets drunk and abducts the bride, Ingrid. She quickly gets used to the idea, but Peer thinks better of it. Having escaped, Peer goes off to where he thinks he can’t be found, ending up in the realm of the Mountain King.

Peer meets the Mountain King’s daughter, The Woman in Green, and engages in some hanky-panky which, to his considerable surprise, necessitates marriage. So Peer flees again, but is quickly caught by trolls, who seem to be trying to steal his soul—but the prayers of the women at home, Åse and Solveig, are too powerful. The trolls make him question his own identity and actions, however.

After the struggle, Peer wakes up suddenly back in his own world, and contemplatively climbs a mountain to observe daybreak. He returns home, where his mother Åse, grown very old in the meantime, doesn’t recognize him. After a short, confused conversation, she dies. Solveig appears, but Peer is not yet ready to accept her. In Solveig’s song, which follows this scene, she sings of the passing of time and her willingness to wait for Peer to come to her.

Continuing to ramble, Peer becomes wealthy gambling in South Carolina before returning to Europe as a magnate. A storm wrecks his yacht and he wakes up in North Africa, having lost his worldly possessions but none of his self-actualization. The people mistake Peer for a prophet—and perhaps they’re right. Welcomed by the Bedouin chieftain’s daughter, Anitra, his inevitable instinct is to seduce, but he is unsuccessful. Peer decides to travel further, arriving in Egypt, where, standing before the Sphinx, he ends up in conversation with the keeper of the local madhouse. More self-examination.

Finally the Button-Moulder, possibly an emissary from God, answers Peer Gynt’s forlorn call to his mother Åse. He leads Peer to the hut where Solveig, now blind, accepts him with a closing lullaby.

Robert Kirzinger

Bill Barclay on Grieg/Ibsen’s Peer Gynt

Henrik Ibsen’s sprawling verse play has always been intimidating to stage. His protagonist encounters a who’s who of Scandinavian folklore across three continents, 40 scenes, and 60 years. As a contrast, Grieg’s original incidental score survives neatly in two concert suites, fashioned by the composer after the 1876 Oslo premiere. Our adaptation tries to tame the story while going back to the wilder incidental score, mining for fresh bits of Grieg you’ve probably not heard before.

It’s hard to identify a more exuberant writer than Ibsen in 1867. In its grab bag of genres from fantasy to naturalism, Peer Gynt is said to anticipate the literary modernism of the First World War. I rather think it anticipates film, cutting from place to place, exploring fantastical imagery, and using comedy to connect us to Peer the person (who many believed had actually lived). Those innovations still amaze readers today, and all this before he wrote his greatest plays: Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and The Master Builder.

Like the play that barely contains him, Peer has a foot in both romantic and modernist impulses. A dreamer and an opportunist, he pursues the world’s temptations in the mold of the self-made man, only to realize at death’s door the hollowing consequences of individualism. In all the translations I’ve read, the word Self reigns supreme in Peer Gynt. His simple aim is to be who he is above all else. After all, didn’t Shakespeare counsel us to be true to thyself “above all”? Peer dares us to criticize him for this. What is amazingly insightful is in the decades since Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, our global industrialized economy has only increasingly spun on this idea, as does our social media, celebritizing the Self one Instagram photo at a time. But where does compassion factor in? Where meaning? Is pleasure all? Peer’s cautionary tale of hedonism becomes more relevant with each passing day.

It is a joy to bring theatrical tools so fully into the concert hall with this iconic score. Too often, Peer Gynt is only known to us through Grieg’s greatest hits. I have labored to find homes for as many unfamiliar movements from the original score as I could. To serve the music, the text had to be written from scratch, economizing the narrative while retaining the spirit of Ibsen’s many different meters and rhyme schemes. We have committed to a rare fully staged presentation in the concert hall so that Grieg’s music can reunite with the grandeur of the story and the caprice of its characters. Above all, we have stayed true to the spirit of equal partnership between Ibsen and Grieg in our “concert-theater” approach. I hope we are honoring these legends most however, in making something that feels true to us too.

Bill Barclay
Writer and Director