Queen of Her Instrument
BY KRISTÍN JÓNÍNA TAYLOR WITH SHELBY VANNORDSTRANDQueen OF HER INSTRUMENT
THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF PIANIST AND COMPOSER AGATHE BÄCKER-GRØNDAHL (1847-1907)
The quality of 19th century Norwegian composer Agathe Bäcker-Grøndahl’s music makes it ripe for performance, analysis, and teaching purposes. Pianists and vocalists looking to add Nordic music to their repertoire, in addition compositions by Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius, Christian Sinding, and Selim Palmgren, would do well to explore her music.
Agathe Bäcker was born in Holmestrand, Norway, in Telemark County, south of Oslo. At age 10, she and her family moved to Christiania (now Oslo). She studied with Halfdan Kjerulf, Theodor Kullak, Hans von Bülow, and Franz Liszt, and earned the reputation as an exceptionally fine pianist and composer, as attested to by George Bernard Shaw, who declared her one of Europe’s greatest pianists. Her first teacher, Kjerulf, however, initially discouraged her from pursuing a life as a concert pianist, instead advising that she “follow the common road of women, if that is what God grants you to do….” In a letter dated January 1866, Agathe responded to her teacher that she had other plans:
I do not understand how both you and my parents could object to the fact that I want to become what one calls a female artist [. . .] It seems to me that a beautiful, independent future for a woman can be found in the simple act of striving, if possible, to be able to present an enjoyable experience to people, especially if that future included a way to travel and to see a little of the world! But time will decide. I just feel that there is something in me that will never give me peace, and which constantly drives me onward [...] for I love art so much that the desire to master it is indescribable.
She was a contemporary and also good friend of composer and pianist Edvard Grieg. Her first public performance in Christiania was in 1868 with Grieg, who was still unknown at the time, as conductor. The program included Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Agathe Bäcker as the soloist. Bäcker’s first songs were dedicated to and often performed by Nina Grieg, Edvard’s wife. According to Cecilie Dahl, “In Agathe, Grieg had one of the most splendid interpreters of his concerto.” Camilla Hambro mentions that in a diary entry shortly before he died, Grieg wrote of her, “If a mimosa could sing, it would sound like her most beautiful, intimate tunes.”
In 1875, Bäcker married Olaus Andreas Grøndahl, a central figure in Norway’s choral movement. (She also took his name in addition to her own.) Both she and her husband were offered teaching posts at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, but they both turned down the offers.
Bäcker- Grøndahl performed all over Europe, including Berlin, Florence, Leipzig, Paris, and London. Karin Pendle remarks in her book on women and music that Bäcker “managed to combine a rich domestic life and a fulfilling musical career, a feat that would make her the envy of many a modern woman.”
Many anecdotes attest to Bäcker-Grøndahl’s ability as a pianist. Dahl mentions that in 1889, she performed Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor at the Paris Exposition universelle, for which she was deemed “a queen of her instrument,’ by a critic. In a performance of the Grieg concerto at the Philharmonic Society’s second concert of the season at St. James’ Hall in London, Hambro describes: …an extraordinary success was gained by her brilliant and artistic interpretation of what The Morning Post described as the “quaint and graceful work” (March 30, 1889). The reception was full of superlatives: The pianist whose reputation hardly had travelled
1898 Music festival in Bergen by Agnes Nyblin. Left to right: Christian Cappelen, Catharinus Elling, Ole Olsen, Gerhard Rosenkrone Schelderup, Iver Holter, Agathe Backer Grøndahl, Edvard Grieg, Christian Sinding, Johan Svendsen and Johan Halvorsen
beyond her native country was proposed as an instrumentalist of exceptional powers, a second Clara Schumann, with a superb technique that added to her rare brilliancy of style and a full, rich tone with a singularly delicate, sensitive touch.
Bäcker-Grøndahl’s piano works are typical of the time period, consisting of, “for the most part, descriptively titled lyric pieces in simple song forms or, less often, in larger fantasy-like forms,” according to Nils Grinde’s entry in Oxford Music Online. Bäcker-Grøndahl’s compositions include six formidable yet audience-pleasing opuses of etudes, fantasy pieces, Norwegian folksongs and folks dances, idylles, morceaux, suites, dance pieces, and a set of skizzer (sketches). The skill level required to play these works varies widely. Some pieces are easily in the intermediate level, others are quite advanced. According to Pendle, the dance works “in various guises represents another feminine connection: women’s centrality in ballet, an art form then at its height, and in dance in general.”
As a good introduction to Bäcker-Grøndahl’s piano works for intermediate pianists, it is best to start with the Små Fantasistykker (Small Fantasy Pieces), op. 55. These 12 works in two books contain many colorful depictions, including a march, two Hungarian works, a little waltz, a goodbye (likely an ode to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26 in Eb Major, Op. 81a), a Spanish piece, an Austrian Ländler, a Grandmother’s Minuet (probably a nod to Grieg’s own composition with this title), a romance, a barcarole, a Polish composition, and a Norwegian springdans (folk dance). The effort to be international in scope should be noted, especially the compositions using exoticism. Of these, the most often performed is No. 5, “Spanish.” It makes use of the Hungarian minor, or double harmonic minor scale, although it waxes and wanes within this tonality. The piece does sound like a Norwegian writing within their own impression of what Spanish music sounds like. Also of interest is the Springdans at the end of the opus. This traditional triple-meter Norwegian dance, of which Grieg also wrote several, is a couples dance that makes use of the traditional Hardanger fiddle playing in fifths for harmonies along with the ornamented melodic line. It’s a bit of a leaping dance, which we can see demonstrated in the left hand skipping around various octaves.
The études, which make up many of Bäcker-Grøndahl’s solo piano works, are fantastic alternatives to Chopin or Liszt. Her first set of études pose typical challenges of the day with many of them being reminiscent of challenges in Liszt’s own études: No. 1 in B-flat minor is fast and chordal; No. 2 in D-flat Major focuses on melodic voicing challenges; No. 3 in G minor has many awkward leaps and large chords; No. 4 in B-flat major is a left hand étude and requires special attention to hand balance; No. 5 in E-flat Major is a repeated chord hand balance exercise; and No. 6 in A Major is an arpeggio étude for the left-hand with the right-hand melody in octaves.
Bäcker-Grøndahl’s solo vocal music is lesser known and under-appreciated. While left out of many music history textbooks, her influence, artistry, and compositions are an integral part of Norway’s musical past. Her songs reflects her Norwegian heritage, setting poems by Wilhelm Krag, John Paulsen, Hans Reynolds, Andreas Jynge, and C. Hauch, among others. From time to time, she would also set the texts of Danish poets, such as Ernst v.d. Recke and Otto Borchsenius.
Her vocal works are very accessible to the singer at an intermediate level and beyond. Her tuneful song melodies sit in very comfortable tessituras. It is evident that she understood discrepancies in range preferences between voice types, and some opuses’ cover pages are clearly labeled “For Baritone, For Mezzo,” for example. Her harmonic language shows influence from other European contemporary composers, especially those from Germany, where she studied for a time. One also notices moments of mutual influence between Backer-Grøndahl and Edvard Grieg, who were both living and composing in Norway during the same time. Her tasteful use of chromaticism adds much expression to her songs, both in the vocal and piano lines. The piano accompaniments are supportive of the vocal line without losing their independence. The piano texture and range can be quite varied
from song to song, with well-utilized moments of silence ranging to virtuosic bombasticity.
Her song oeuvre includes both art song and folk melodies. She set texts featuring themes of nature, including Nordic landscape imagery, and stages of life, with a focus on childhood and motherhood. Perhaps most importantly, her song settings are interesting and draw in the listener. The ultimate joys of the art song repertoire are experienced in her music when one stops to notice, “Why did she write this chord on this word of the text?” or “Why does the melody suddenly leap at this point?”
The challenge to the non-Norwegian singer is familiarizing oneself with Norwegian diction, and the use of bokmål (official written standard for the Norwegian language), Dano-Norwegian, and Danish in Backer-Grøndahl’s song text settings. Luckily, there are good resources available for those who wish to learn. One recommended resource is “Scandinavian Song” by Anna Hersey. The need to address two recognized forms of the Norwegian language and the Danish language is born from Norway’s history as a colonized land by Danish rule from approximately 1300 to 1814. Through sharing her own voice, Backer-Grøndahl’s songs give us a glimpse into her view and expression of her own country and experiences.
Bäcker-Grøndahl’s Op. 52, Mor synger (Mother Sings), is a set of eight songs with poems by Andreas Jynge, a Norwegian civil servant and writer. All of the works have references to nature, some with the addition of motherhood or love. Every part of these songs is carefully and expertly crafted, from the gorgeous harmonic progressions filled to the brim with secondary dominants, to the tuneful melodies which sometimes sound like folk songs on steroids! Bäcker-Grøndahl truly created a clever interaction between singer and pianist as there are many moments of stop-and-go, requiring intense collaboration between the performers.
At the end of her life, Bäcker-Grøndahl was suffering in health. She required a surgery which led to nerve problems. She also suffered from tinnitus and was going deaf, so she focused more on teaching at this point, although she composed through until the end of her life. Dahl remarks, “For Agathe herself, it was probably never a matter of a fight to establish herself as a composer. But on the other hand, she did not cross the line set down for women composers. By confining herself to songs and piano pieces she placed herself in a particular tradition, and in this respect, she confirmed the opinion that women and the lesser forms go together.” She did write bigger works, including a piano concerto and some early larger orchestral works. But mastery does not need to be confined only to large grand forms, as Bäcker-Grøndahl’s compositions clearly demonstrate. Her accomplishments deserve to be celebrated.
Dr. Kristín Jónína Taylor (Alpha Kappa) is an Icelandic-American pianist who has been enthusiastically received for her performances of Nordic piano works. She has performed widely in the U.S. as well as in Iceland, France, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Sweden, Austria, Serbia, and Lithuania. Dr. Taylor received a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in piano performance at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She was the grand prize winner of the Naftzger Young Artist Competition and a national finalist in the Music Teacher’s National Association Young Chang Collegiate Competition. She was the recipient of two Fulbright grants. Her debut CD recording The Well-Tempered Pianist: The solo piano works of Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson was released by the Iceland Music Information Centre in November 2010. Her second album, which is self-titled, was released by Pólarfónía Records in March 2011. Her third album, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson: Short Stories for Flute and Piano, was released by Smekkleysa Records in November 2014. Her most recent album, Gone but not Forgotten, released by MarkMasters, was a collaboration with trumpeter Dr. Marc Reed and pianist Dr. Bryan Stanley on rarely-performed music for trumpet and piano. Kristín frequently collaborates with her husband, Dr. Bryan Stanley, in the Atlantic Piano Duo. Dr. Taylor also serves as editor-in-chief for Homo ludens Publishing. Dr. Taylor is assistant professor and piano and keyboard area coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She serves on the Mu Phi Epsilon Professional Music Fraternity Foundation Board and is its scholarship and grant coordinator. Kristín Jónína Taylor is a Steinway Artist. For more information, visit kristinjoninataylor.com.
Shelby VanNordstrand is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha where she serves as Voice Area Coordinator and Director of Opera Theatre. Soprano Shelby VanNordstrand has appeared as a soloist with a wide range of ensembles and companies; including Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival, New York Lyric Opera Theatre, Opera Omaha, Omaha Symphony, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, and the Simon Estes Young Artist Program. Her voice students have been named winners of the National Association of Teachers of Singing Student Auditions at the state, regional, and national levels and winners of the National Opera Association’s Collegiate Opera Scenes Competition. As a clinician, she has presented at the National Collegiate Music Society Conference, the National Opera Association Conference, and other state and regional conferences. She is a frequent guest clinician for high school and collegiate musicians. VanNordstrand holds a Bachelor of Music in music education from Iowa State University, and a Master of Music in vocal performance from Michigan State University. For more information, visit shelbyvannordstrand.com.