quartet in g minor
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.)