The odyssey began with an innocent question: "Where can I get a recording of this?"
Many a European country has a "national composer" whose music is enmeshed in its cultural identity. For Norwegians, that's Edvard Grieg, best known for his flamboyant Piano Concerto and evocative music for Henrik Ibsen's play "Peer Gynt," including the ubiquitous "Morning Mood" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King."
But William Halverson, an Edina-based Grieg scholar, is particularly enamored of the nearly 200 songs Grieg composed. So much so that he translated them into English.
Flash forward to January 2019. Several of his translations were sung to an enthusiastic audience at a fundraiser hosted by Minneapolis' Norway House. People asked where one could find them on record.
"There aren't any," Halverson replied.
So folks from Norway House set out to do something about that. The nonprofit cultural organization just released its first CD, "Edvard Grieg: Songs From the Heart." It features 25 Grieg songs recorded in English for the first time, performed by soprano Melissa Holm-Johansen and pianist Stephen Swanson.
That pair recently returned to Weyerhaeuser Auditorium in St. Paul's Landmark Center, where the album was recorded, to film a 15-song recital that will be streamed Saturday evening at norwayhouse.org.
"Melissa struggled with her Norwegian conscience for a while, I think, and finally gave in," Halverson said of the project's genesis. "Because the prevailing orthodoxy among singers is that songs should be sung in their original language, that you cannot separate the original language from the music.
"Well, people like me think you can, if you have a version of the song created with the musical setting clearly in mind."
Holm-Johansen is indeed Norwegian, born in Halden near the Swedish border. She came to the United States to study at Northfield's St. Olaf College and has lived here since, earning a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. She holds dual citizenship, as her mother is from Minneapolis, her father from Oslo.
"Melissa seemed an ideal choice for the project," Halverson said. "Because A) she's been singing Grieg all her life, and B) she's fluent in both languages."
As for Swanson, "Grieg himself was a pianist and gives the piano a large role [in these songs]. Stephen plays with such sensitivity to the tradition. … You could perform with him in Norway and the audience would presume him Norwegian."
Rooted in Norwegian folk
What makes Grieg's work so uniquely Norwegian? While some of the songs' lyrics seem light, the music gives them a darker cast.
"The majority of his melodies are based on Norwegian folk music," Holm-Johansen said. "And a lot of those folk melodies have minor modes, dark chromaticism."
Halverson agrees "that what sounds like dark, sad music isn't really dark and sad — it's just Norwegian. There's a kind of melancholy undertone, and I've thought that reflects the fact that life in Norway really was tough for most people throughout most of history. It was a very poor country, people were isolated from one another and they had long, dark winters."
A recurring element in the poetry that Grieg set — from such sources as Ibsen, Hans Christian Andersen and Grieg's good friend Bjornstjerne Bjornson — is emotion left unexpressed.
Stereotypically Norwegian, right?
"We laugh at that, because it's so true," said Holm-Johansen. "We don't always express what we mean. We keep a lot back."
But Halverson said that's changed.
"I first visited Norway in 1950," the retired philosophy professor said. "And I've been there many, many times since then. And I would say that there has been a real change in the Norwegian temperament during those years. Because Norway has gone from being a very poor country — mind you, 1950 was right after World War II and the Nazi occupation — to being one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
"Today, when you meet Norwegians, they're no longer looking at their own feet. They're looking you in the eye. There's a new confidence and it's evident in so many ways."
But Holm-Johansen said one thing remains true for the people of Norway: They know Grieg's songs. Take the last two on the album, "At Rondane" and "Last Spring," she said. "Stop [Norwegians] on the street and they can usually sing a verse. ... And it's melodic genius writing."
Now they'd like more people to discover that genius.
"I think it's very important that someone who could have easily sung it in Norwegian chose to sing it in English in order to reach a new audience," said Halverson, who was first commissioned to translate the lyrics way back in 1988.
"Exactly," replied Holm-Johansen. "How many more people this would reach. How many more would get to hear Grieg's music. Maybe they would sing it more and teach it more."
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
Edvard Grieg: Songs From the Heart
With: Soprano Melissa Holm-Johansen and pianist Stephen Swanson.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sat.
Tickets: $25-$20 (students free)