An example of Hardanger fiddle
© Frode Inge Helland | Wikimedia Commons

Pause for a moment and bring to mind what must be one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of classical music ever written, the evocative opening theme of Morning, from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1. You know, A F♯ E D E F♯ and so on – surely as Norwegian as smoked salmon and flatbrød. It’s difficult to hear that melody without imagining a golden sun rising over blue water and stately mountains, and when it expands within the orchestra it’s as though you are being flown across Norway’s waterfalls, pine forests and those lush green fields, dotted with little wooden farmhouses.

But where did Grieg – Norway’s national composer – get his inspiration for such a glorious tune? The answer lies within another national treasure, the Hardanger fiddle. To the uninitiated, it looks like any other violin, but look again and you will see that four and sometimes five sympathetic strings lie under the bridge, resonating with the bowed strings above. There are many different tunings for these strings, but the most popular is – yes, you’ve guessed it –  A F♯ E D E, the opening of his theme.

A Hardanger fiddle is not just a musical instrument; it’s a minor work of art, with ornate purfling, inked decorations called “rosing”, mother-of-pearl inlays and a carved lion or dragon’s head in place of a scroll. Picturesque Norwegian wedding processions are often led by a Hardanger fiddle player, who then plays foot-stomping tunes for dancing.

In recognition that Norwegian folksong and art music meet in Grieg's Peer Gynt Suites no. 1 and 2, the composer Tormod Tvete Vik has arranged them for string orchestra with solo Hardanger fiddle and violin – arrangements that will feature in just one of the myriad concerts, masterclasses, lectures and events at this year’s Bergen International Festival, which runs from 26th May to 9th June.

Norway’s second city Bergen is an elegant, sophisticated place, ringed by mountains and fjords (its name Bjørgvin means “the green meadow among the mountains”), with a spectacular, ancient waterfront, known as the Bryggen, now a World Heritage Site.

© | Endre Knudsen

Seasoned Bergen festival-goers will know that one of its many special delights is the opportunity it offers to hear music not just in impressive modern concert halls, but outdoors in the city’s main square, inside beautiful theatres and ancient buildings, at a sail-in venue on the waters of the Sognefjord and even while lying in a hammock in the open air. And in normal, pre-pandemic times, when the music is over, in the evening it’s fun to gather for meals, drinks and gossip at the buzzing festival meeting-point in the middle of the city. 

Alas, these are not normal times, but nevertheless the festival will carry on this year, offering some 90 concerts, lectures and theatrical events, most with limited, socially-distanced seating, but crucially, most also available to international audiences through sophisticated digital streaming. 

And so it will still be possible to enjoy perhaps the most special element of the Bergen Festival: the chance to hear music played in the exquisite historic homes of Norway’s premier composers, Edvard Grieg and Harald Sæverud.

When completed in 1885, Grieg described his villa Troldhaugen as his best work so far, and it’s easy to see why. Perched on an outcrop overlooking Lake Nordås on the outskirts of Bergen, this beautiful timber-clad house lies in large, tranquil gardens, filled with attractive blooms at festival time. Down in a hollow lies Grieg’s composing hut, a modest little dwelling where he wrote, among other works, his Lyric Pieces for piano. He chose to name one – Wedding Day at Troldhaugen – after his home, and its joyful melody captures perfectly the very special atmosphere here, particularly at festival time.

Troldhaugen, Edvard Grieg's home
© | Dag Fosse

Grieg’s Steinway piano, given as a silver wedding present in 1892, still stands in his living room, and on Friday 4th June, the pianist Ingrid Andsnes will give a late-night recital in these intimate surroundings, playing Grieg, Stravinsky, Bach and Ligeti, as well as a new work by the Norwegian composer Erlend Skomsvoll entitled Step Sway Spin and A Map of Laughter by Missy Mazzoli, who is the 2021 festival composer and artist in residence. A world premiere of a new work by Mazzoli is scheduled to be given by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on 2nd June at the city’s main concert venue, the Grieghallen.

Just across the garden from Troldhaugen stands Troldsalen, a beautiful concert hall built into the side of a steep bank with a grass and wildflower roof, making it almost invisible. The epitome of cool, classic Norwegian good taste, it was completed in 1985. Its masterstroke is a plate-glass floor-to-ceiling backdrop for the performers which gives the audience a lovely view of Grieg’s little hut and Lake Nordås beyond. 

© | Dag Fosse

On Thursday 27th May, a digital and live audience can enjoy that backdrop when pianist Christian Ilhe Hadland will perform The People United Will Never Be Defeated by the American composer Frederic Rzewski, a series of variations on a Chilean song which became a symbol of the people's opposition to the Pinochet regime in Chile. And on Sunday 30th May, Troldsalen will host an evening exploring the folk roots of music by Grieg, Geir Tveitt and Øistein Sommerfeldt, with the violinist and singer Arve Moen Bergset and pianist Håvard Gimse.

Christian Ilhe Hadland returns to Troldsalen on Saturday 5th June to accompany the young Swedish-Norwegian violinist Johan Dalene, who won the Norwegian Soloist Prize in 2019, an award which included an opportunity to give this recital at the Bergen International Festival. He and Hadland will play works by Sinding, Auerbach, Ravel, Roumain and Saint-Saëns.

Hadland is at the piano again at Troldsalen when Norwegian baritone Johannes Weisser sings Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe and works by Gustav Mahler and Edvard Grieg on 6th and 7th June.

One of the unique events at last year's Bergen International Festival
© Thor Brødreskift | Bergen International Festival

Tormod Tvete Vik’s arrangements of the Peer Gynt Suites with the Hardanger fiddle will be heard on 29th May when Ragnhild Hemsing and the Trondheim Soloists ensemble will appear at the imposing 13th-century Håkonshallen. “Edvard Grieg said the suite was inspired by Norwegian folk music. With that in mind, my wish throughout this project is to dive deeper in Grieg's Peer Gynt music and examine the exciting place where folk music and art music meet,” says Hemsing. 

At Siljustøl, the home of Harald Sæverud, pianist Håvard Gimse appears again, this time playing Sæverud’s mighty Ballad of Revolt, written during the Nazi occupation of Norway, alongside works by Norwegian, Finnish and Lithuanian composers. The Hardanger fiddle makes an appearance here too, when concert-goers bring hammocks to sling among the trees of the garden and listen to folk song and improvisation.

The trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth sets sail with her trio on 28th May, out of the city and through the mystical maelstroms in the narrows of Sognefjord, to play at the old trading post, Skjerjehamn. Visitors are invited to listen to the music from their boats or to clamber ashore. Now you can’t do that at most music festivals...

The arrival of Covid-19 proved a tremendous accelerator for Bergen Festival’s digital creativity, with a wide range of concerts streamed last year. This year a digital pass will give the audience access to the whole digital programme and single tickets will also be available for each event. 

This year's programme is naturally subject to change due to the pandemic, but the festival guarantees that the pass will give access to between 20 and 30 events and that at least ten of them are classical concerts. Those who purchase before 15th May can pay 64 euros (£56). After that date the cost rises to 94 euros (£82). Live broadcasts can only be viewed once, but recordings, with the option of English subtitles, can be viewed repeatedly until 23rd June. To ensure a good experience, early pass buyers will have access to three concerts from last year’s programme before the curtain rises on the Bergen International Festival 2021 and the fun and fascination begins.

Click here to find out more about the Bergen International Festival's full programme.

This article was sponsored by the Bergen International Festival