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Composers

Agathe Backer Grøndahl

(1847- 1907)

The composer, pianist and teacher Agathe Backer Grøndahl (1847-1907) was born in Holmestrand, Norway and died in Kristiania (today Oslo) in 1907. After initial resistance, her parents recognised her considerable talent and supported her musical ambitions. Backer Grøndahl eventually studied at the Neue Akademie der Tonkunst in Berlin, a private institution led by Theodor Kullak which specialised in training pianists. She also studied with Hans von Bülow in Florence and Franz Liszt in Weimar.

Although based in Kristiania, she undertook many concert tours throughout Europe, with partners including the violinist Ole Bull, the singer Nina Grieg and Edvard Grieg (as conductor). Triumphs included her 1868 debut in Kristiania with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Grieg conducting. Indeed, Backer Grøndahl and Grieg were colleagues and friends; she gave the premiere of several of his works, including the song cycle Haugtussa Op. 67.

Backer Grøndahl initially persisted with both composition and performance tours after her marriage to the choral director Olaus Andreas Grøndahl in 1875. They had four children, of which three survived. However, from the age of thirty her hearing deteriorated, resulting eventually in complete deafness. Despite encouragement from Grieg and a brave attempt to return to concert life, from 1903 she turned her energies to composition and teaching; the latter was an important source of household income. Her output includes numerous songs and piano works, some choral works, a cantata and two orchestral works. Pianists may be interested in her exceptionally fine concert studies. Her Scherzo for orchestra is the first work by a woman to be publicly performed in Norway.

Backer Grøndahl composed approximately 180 songs, including numerous folksong arrangements. She favoured clear, symmetrical forms enriched with adventurous harmonies. Exceptionally, nearly all her music was published during her lifetime. Many of her songs are part of the standard Norwegian song repertoire, including Barnets vårdag (‘The Child's Spring Day’). Her songs are enormously appealing, with a tendency towards varied strophic settings, highly singable melodies and well-crafted, characterful accompaniments that do not overwhelm the voice. Although her music is often dismissed as ‘conservative’ (a charge that is regularly applied to women’s compositions), it stands well beside that of contemporaries such as Grieg.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

Worked with the following poets texts

Click here to listen to a recording of Østenvinden.


Click here to find scores of Agathe Backer Grøndahl's compositions.