Thursday, March 16, 2017

Peer Gynt

I teach 4th grade but much of me non-teaching time goes into playing the French horn, which was my first career. Now I play in several community groups. I love getting to know the other people in my groups and playing a variety of music. On Sunday, I will be playing a program of Scandinavian music with the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest. One of the pieces on the program, the longest piece, is Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg.

Peer Gynt was first a play by Henrik Ibsen. I didn't know much about it or the music by Grieg except for the famous "In the Hall of the Mountain King," the part where Peer visits the bloodthirsty trolls, and "Morning Mood," which has been used in many classic cartoons. Our conductor gave us a summary of the story to help with our performance. After reading the overview and some of the narration, I decided that Peer Gynt's story is a combination of Faust and Don Juan, with Norwegian elements (like the trolls). At the beginning, Peer is a young, wild 20-year-old, roaming the hills. He abducts the bride from a wedding, then leaves her and is seduced by the daughter of the king of the trolls. There are quite a few other women who flit in and out of the tale, but there is also Solveig, a truly good woman who continues to have faith in Peer as he roams the world, winning and losing fortunes, always searching for something, like Faust. And he does encounter the devil along the way, like Faust. Peer must save himself by proving that he has been true to himself. At the end he is an old man who returns to Solveig, who is still faithfully waiting for him.

The play is difficult to stage because of the many exotic places -- the Norwegian mountains, the interior of the mountain where the trolls reign, Morocco -- and the many strange creatures he meets in his adventures. Does anyone remember the movie "Educating Rita"? Julie Walters plays a waitress who wants to complete her education and ends up with Michael Caine as her tutor. At one point he assigns her to read "Peer Gynt" and write an essay on how to stage it. She comes back to him with one sentence: "Do it on the radio." It's a great moment. You feel for Michael Caine's character -- "I wanted her to think about the literary elements and discuss the problems and possibilities," he must be thinking. At the same time, you think, what a brilliant answer! Of course! My students have given me quite a few of those moments, too.

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