It’s been a turbulent week, and I have found some distraction in playing through a volume of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. I’ve always liked them, though I admit I knew only the more famous pieces, and only recently discovered that there are many more – all worth getting to know.
The first set, opus 12, contains a little piece called ‘Watchman’s Song’, over which Grieg noted that it was written after seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Over the middle section, Grieg wrote ‘Spirits of the Night’. Which would lead us to expect something atmospheric and scary – wouldn’t it?
Actually, the Watchman’s Song consists of two verses of a tranquil hymn in E major, separated by a short ‘intermezzo’ of gently rippling arpeggios and distant fanfares. ‘Spirits of the Night’ seems too bold a stage direction for a few bars arousing the merest hint of unease.
It’s quite amusing to wonder what would happen if you gave the ‘Watchman’s Song’ to someone who knew nothing of Macbeth and asked them to imagine what sort of play this represented…!
All of which raises some interesting questions. First of all, I suppose one would have to ask what sort of production Grieg had seen, and how it affected him. We know he saw the version of Macbeth devised by the German playwright Schiller. Surely this conveyed all the tragic and fateful qualities of the original. Yet the play, whose sinister atmosphere has provoked long-lasting superstitions in the theatre world, seems not to have ruffled Grieg’s feelings. So perhaps it was a terrible performance? It’s hard to imagine that one could see Macbeth and come out with nothing more than the desire to write a cheery little tune for the watchman. Or was Grieg was so terrified that the watchman was the only character he could bear to describe?
Anyway, what watchman? To my recollection, there isn’t a watchman in Macbeth, at least not named as such. There’s a porter, who diverts proceedings by telling the audience how he imagines being the doorman at the gate of hell. There’s a messenger who comes to Dunsinane to tell Macbeth that he thinks he saw ‘a moving grove’ coming towards the castle. Is one of these the watchman? Or did Schiller perhaps put one in? If so, why was he the character who stuck in Grieg’s mind? And what about the ‘spirits of the night’ – did they not inspire any terror?
It can’t be that Grieg lacked imagination, because many of his Lyric Pieces are beautiful little cameos conjuring up all sorts of delicate emotions. How intriguing it would have been to hear his take on the Witches, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, or the drunken Porter!
Grieg’s family emigrated to Norway from Scotland – the family surname originally having been spelled Greig, as is the custom in Scotland. Funnily enough, in 2010 the Scottish contemporary playwright David Greig wrote a play called Dunsinane – a kind of sequel to Macbeth. So the play links Grieg and Greig – perhaps they have a connection?