They never played the string quartet in G Minor at the museum. It disturbed the tourists. The repeated anguish of the chords made busloads of Americans and Germans stay outside in the gardens, merrily walking down to see Grieg’s grave or to admire the flowers and the view rather than read of the grief in his life that flowed from the sounds of the quartet in G minor.

She first heard it on her second day as a museum guide. They told her to watch the short film of his life, screened every half hour, and she sat there with the tourists, feeling out of place in her national romantic guide’s costume. The filmmakers had permitted one of the less penetrating half minutes of the quartet to accompany the mandatory images of fjords and mountains. The tourists can take half a minute, with pretty pictures, just as they can take seeing the christening gown of Edvard and Nina’s baby daughter who died of menigitis on a visit home to Bergen. They wanted to show her to their families; she died. Music cut to half a minute, the christening gown of a child that died, safely inside a glass container: tourists can take that, contained grief, contained emotions.

She listens to the rest of it at home. The jagged chords of the first movement affect her the most. The second violin holds a single note, refusing to let go, while the first violin tries to escape in half tones and crooked angles to the frightened stability of the second violin. Impossible to sustain such tension, they fall into slow beauty that holds no less fear, then on to complex chords and harmonies, always spiralling through stages of grief, never letting go.

The biographies they gave her to study so she could explain his life to the tourists were circumspect and reserved. They all mentioned little Alexandra’s death, Edvard and Nina’s disappointment at never having other children and the death of Edvard’s parents. Some hinted at possible affairs, Nina’s probable miscarriages after losing her daughter, Edvard’s desertion of Nina, and the tormented months he spent at Lofthus writing the Quartet in G Minor, before their reconciliation. Mostly, the biographers kept a respectful distance.

There’s no distance in the Quartet in G Minor. When Grieg first played it for his publisher in Leipzig, tears ran down his face, washing the keys of his piano. She imagines sitting there, invisible beside the listening publisher, hearing and seeing grief so raw. Would she try to comfort him? Leave the room, as the busloads of American and German tourists do? Perhaps the only reason she can stand this emotion is that she plays the CD alone, in her room, lying flat on her bed, eyes closed, emotions in turmoil.

Once, at the end of the season, she was alone in the museum. There were no busloads of Americans and Germans, only a few lone tourists, and the other guides were outside or in the residence. Guiltily she turned off the easily accepted piano concerto that he wrote when he was happily living in Copenhagen with sweet-voiced Nina and little Alexandra, just a few months old and such a bouncing, healthy child. She slipped the almost unplayed CD of the string quartet in G minor into the CD-player. The music filled the museum with sounds infinitely richer than in her living room. As the chords escalate, tears run down her cheeks, washing the keys of the cash register as she longs for the calm moments of respite, mellow harmonies where violins, viola and cello speak languid legato, but they’re so brief, followed instantly by chopping chords and then finally, the restful but oh so melancholy end, no, it never ends, a pause, you think that the grief is over, but there’s more, fast, anxious tremolo, slowness, and no resolution at all in the end, just a harsh, sudden decision that this is enough. No more. It’s over.

(Biographical details are mostly from memory and might not be exact. And of course, there is more resolution in the second and third and fourth movements, for those who are ready to listen to them.)

12 thoughts on “quartet in g minor

  1. lisa

    Brava.

  2. elouise

    Another moment that captures more than grand vistas.

  3. Rorschach

    I love what I’ve heard of Grieg: Peer Gynt and other less “emotional” selections. When I was a kid “Hall of the Mountain King” was one of my favorite songs. I even got to see the statue when I visited Bergen on a business trip.

    But I didn’t know about his life or his torment. Thanks. I need to go buy some music.

  4. jean

    tears on my keys also, now.

  5. mcb

    Gosh…
    Just beautiful Jill.

  6. Francolis Lachance

    Hmmm,

    Another story ending might involve a gesture towards an other type of techno-mediated listening experience reminescent of the audio walks prepared by artist Janet Cardiff

    http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2001-07-05/art_reviews.html

    The protagonist of the story becomes a curator or a museum space designer. And those that wish to weep while walking the galleries with an audio pack, do so. The presences of a listening device helps onlookers avert their eyes. Imagine a Greig museum that hands out darkglasses and CD … redefines the privacy of space.

  7. Francois Lachance

    Uncanny another echo…

    Elouise’s entry also treats the theme of music in a gallery setting:

    quote:

    At the Met, blew by my usual faves. Mostly enjoyed walking by myself…was arrested by Chagall – the lovers. Stopped by an Ingres – portrait of a woman in blue. So wanted to touch her dress.

    A woman with a beautiful voice sang an aria to her daughter in a stroller. The little girl whined, “Mommy, I can’t hear you!” “Then stop talking and listen.” The aria continues and crosses the walk in another direction.

    http://www.rit.edu/~eroics/MT/WeezBlog/archives/000336.html

    Last parallel universe experience: Elouise’s quoting Man Ray palimpset on the Ingres painting (those violin f curves) that were remembered while viewing a neat close up of the f curves on a violin that Jill presented to blog reader viewers.

    I can just imagine what the two of you would do with audio!!

  8. Jill

    Perhaps we’ll try and see one day 🙂

  9. Anne Lennon

    Have you ever been anywhere for a weekend and thought “I should come here for a weekend sometime”, then remembered that you were already there? This has happened to me. When I read your piece on Grieg, I thought “Jill, you should write”, then I remembered….

  10. Jill

    Oh, thank you. And yes, I’m a happy blogging writer 🙂

  11. Paul Gordon

    Some years ago I recorded this wonderful piece of music on to an audio tape.
    I recently played it and was deeply moved by it. I listen to classical music while I paint.
    I wonder if I can Purchase the sheet music for this and if there is in existance a piano acompaniment.
    I am an amateur violinist, and would to play it with some musical friends of mine.
    Thanks…..The history so aptly written about the tragedy the Greigs suffered was something I hadn’t heard.
    Paul Gordon

  12. Jill

    I’m glad it moved you. I hope you find the sheet music.

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