Some historical and dramaturgical musings on the occasion of the premiere of Enchantment Theater Company’s Peer Gynt, which took place February 11, 2023 with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote his play Peer Gynt in 1867 as a dramatic fantasy based on folktales of his native country. He composed his text for publication, his imagination unfettered by the practical considerations of presentation on the stage. 

The popularity the work enjoyed as a printed text led Ibsen to adapt it for the stage in 1874. To provide music for the vivid spectacle Ibsen imagined, the author turned to Edvard Grieg, the leading Norwegian composer of the day. Ibsen gave Grieg detailed instructions about the music – key themes, moments for ballet and pantomime, specifics of mood and tempo. The composer responded with a creative outpouring of music scored for orchestra and chorus, heeding Ibsen’s advice to “score your music according to an ideal standard and let them worry about how to perform it.” Two years elapsed between the commissioning of Grieg’s score and the work’s premiere in February of 1876 at the Christiania Theatre in the Norwegian capital, now called Oslo. “Theatrical history may have been made by the Christiania performance for never had so ambitious an enterprise been undertaken in Norway,” observes Robert Layton in his biographical study Grieg (Omnibus Press, 1998 and 2010).

Piano arrangements of several of the compositions from Peer Gynt began to appear shortly after the opening, but Grieg forbade his orchestral music from the production to be performed in the concert hall for some time. The work did not return to the stage again for ten years, in a lavish production in Copenhagen. For this production, Grieg re-scored the work, making many improvements in orchestration and adding some new material. At last, he seemed well satisfied with the results, and undertook to arrange two concert suites of the music from Peer Gynt; the first debuted in 1887, while the second had its first performance a few years later.

Viewing this narrative through the lens of my experience as a composer and music director working in the theatre, I am struck by how familiar so many if the details are: an ambitious composer working with a gifted playwright to tell an exotic and expansive tale; the exigencies of theatre production and how difficult it can be to bring work to life on the stage; the extended period of revision, adaptation, eventual publication. And especially the composer’s efforts to make certain his music could be more widely heard and enjoyed outside of the theater. 

For all its supposed historical significance, Peer Gynt is a very odd work of art. It depicts episodes in the life of its eponymous protagonist over a considerable span of years. Peer is an adventurous young man with a streak of egotism and an undeniable lust for life. As a young man, he attracts the attention of Solveig, a woman in his village whose love for him remains steadfast even as Peer travels far and wide, seducing other women and getting into various shady schemes and scrapes. Late in his life, sadder and wiser, Peer returns home to Solveig and is deeply moved by her loving acceptance of his foolish behavior.

Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt is occasionally produced; Classic Stage Company recently mounted a production off-Broadway, under the direction of John Doyle, and it has been performed at both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain. In Norway, Peer Gynt is celebrated with an annual festival, and the work and its creators are revered, but outside of Norway, Ibsen’s play is a curiosity read by drama students, a paragraph or footnote in theatre history books. Grieg’s music, on the other hand, is widely known, and themes from Peer Gynt have been absorbed into popular culture thanks to Looney Tunes cartoons, to name one of many culprits. The work is occasionally performed by orchestras in a concert format with actors, and has been recorded in this format, and the two suites enjoy “war horse” status as staples of the orchestral repertoire.

Several years ago, I began a conversation with my colleagues at Enchantment Theatre Company about adapting Peer Gynt for the stage in their signature style. Enchantment has created short stage works based on other narrative symphonic works, such as Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and performed these adaptations with symphony orchestras in the United States and Canada. Given the popularity of Grieg’s music in the concert hall, Peer Gynt seemed like an attractive prospect for their next adaptation.

This meant, though, that Grieg’s music would need to be curated and arranged in a way that would support the narrative – a consideration that the concert suites from Peer Gynt conveniently ignore. I was invited to join the team as a kind of musical dramaturg, stitching together the appropriate passages from Grieg’s score to support a highly-condensed telling of Ibsen’s dramatic tale, one that spans several decades in the life of its principal character.

We began by reading and discussing the play, and I studied the full score of Grieg’s incidental music (over 90 minutes of music) with the goal of selecting just over a half hour of music that would give my collaborators a framework on which to build their dramatic narrative. It was decided that we would use all the movements of the two orchestral suites, supplemented by additional movements from Grieg’s incidental music where needed. I re-ordered the movements of the suites according to the parts of the narrative for which they were originally composed.

  • “Morning Mood” Suite 1 No 1
  • “At The Wedding” Incidental Music No 1
  • “The Abduction (Ingrid’s Lament)” Suite 2 No 1
  • “Dance of the Troll King’s Daughter” Incidental Music No 8 
  • “In The Hall of the Mountain King” Suite 1 No 4
  • “Ase’s Death” Suite 1 No 2
  • “Arab Dance” Suite 2 No 2
  • “Solveig’s Song” Suite 2 No 4 (1st half)
  • “Anitra’s Dance” Suite 1 No 3
  • “Storm at Sea” Suite 2 No 3
  • “Night Scene” Incidental Music No 21 (excerpt)
  • “Solveig’s Song” Suite 2 No 4 (2nd half) 

In my efforts to give the work a dramatic arc, I found it useful to introduce themes early in the program that would be heard again later in the composition. Most importantly, Incidental Music Number 1, “At The Wedding,” introduces “Solveig’s Song,” a tender, yearning theme which is heard several more times in the drama. In Ibsen’s play, Solveig’s song has words:

The winter may pass and the spring disappear
The summer too will vanish and then the year
But this I know for certain: you’ll come back again
And even as I promised you’ll find me waiting then

God help you when wand’ring your way all alone
God grant to you his strength as you’ll kneel at his throne
If you are in heaven now waiting for me 
And we shall meet again, love, and never parted be

Here’s a beguiling and doe-eyed performance of Solveig’s Song by Sarah Brightman:

In Ibsen’s drama, Solveig sings this late in the story, as she waits for Peer to return from his “adventures.” It attests to her tender, steadfast personality, especially when set to Grieg’s compelling melody. It is heard twice more in the Enchantment Theatre version, and provides a touching conclusion to the work.

Other examples of thematic transformation include the boisterous dotted eighth-sixteenth note theme heard at the beginning of “At The Wedding,” a marvelous depiction of Peer’s disruptive vitality; having heard it in an upbeat major-key version early on makes its appearance in a minor key at the beginning of “Ingrid’s Lament” more meaningful. Additionally, incorporating the “Night Scene” music for the encounter with the mysterious Button Molder late in the story provides a muted reprise of “Ase’s Death,” the theme we associate with Peer’s beloved mother and the grief and regret he experienced on the occasion of her death.

A soundtrack was assembled from various recordings, which the team used to construct a scenario for their production, and the episodes in that scenario were fleshed out in a week of workshops with the cast in the summer of 2022. Once it had been confirmed that this sequence of selections would work to tell the story effectively, my job became that of an orchestra librarian, doing a cut-and-paste job on the parts and score to create performance materials that could be played by a professional orchestra with a minimum of explanation in rehearsal.

It’s remarkable to look back and consider all the robust collaborations that have gone into the creation of this work, starting with Ibsen and Grieg in 1875 and 1876, developed over the lifetimes of the original creators in a series of revivals and concerts, and continued in the last few years through conversations and collaborations with the core team at Enchantment Theatre Company, co-founders Landis and Jennifer Smith and resident director Leslie Reidel. So many artists, so many years – is it any wonder that the resulting product is a particularly rich and exciting work?

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