Peer Gynt “In the Hall of the Mountain King”

I asked my special someone to the ballet the other day. Yes, I asked her. Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt was playing.

Grieg’s music for the ballet is well-known–specifically “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which will be familiar to those in the classical music scene and outside of it. “Hall” is just a few minutes long, but gripping. The gradual build from quiet melody to swirling frenzy is unforgettable.

So remarkable is it, that various artists from the metal scene cover it.

Apocalyptica, the heavy metal cello quartet from Finland, recorded a curiously simplified version on 2000’s Cult–sadly simplified, because they delete the key change in the modalized melody, and that change of key is especially sweet.

Epica did the tune great justice on their live album, 2009’s The Classical Conspiracy. The Dutch symphonic metal band, note for note, true to Grieg’s spirit, seems to have “moved every zig,” to lift a phrase from Zero Wing.

Also, Trent Reznor, the frontman of Nine Inch Nails, arranged a delightful industrial-themed version for 2010’s The Social Network in his new stint as a film composer.

The Texas Ballet Theater did a wonderful job with the production. Particularly fortuitous was the “found harmonium” of the dancer cast as the dark stranger who abducts Peer and imprisons him in an insane asylum.

Yes, the ballet begins outside a rustic house in the forest and proceeds deeper into the forest, where Peer meets the king of the goblins of the mountain, in good fairy tale fashion until the second act, when Peer is seen to be a textiles merchant in Egypt, then shipwrecked, then hauled to the “arche” of Arkham.

I have lost the dancer’s name, but he was tall, thin, and lanky, like a cartoon. His smooth, deliberate movements and his sheer presence, even when still, added a eerie quality that went a long ways toward justifying an indulgent expressionist digression from any sensibly appropriate plot.

What can I say? Henrik Ibsen wrote the play, and, just having seen a production of his Ghosts, I can say, he remains true to form in the second half of Peer Gynt.

I paid special attention to the scene in the hall of the mountain king. Our “hero,” Peer, is a typical instantiation of that to which an older generation refers as a rascal. When he is not busying being one-sided a scamp, with whatever girl is currently under his nose, he takes the time to round out his personality as a loafer. He sometimes puts his mother on the roof of their house. After he absconds with a woman recently married to an allergenic burgher, he quickly looses interest and wanders deeper into the forest with vengeful villagers in pursuit.

I expected the goblins to be the demons of his fancy, or rather, the furies of his conscience, but, far from tormenting him, the monsters amuse him. Only after he entertains their offer to crown him their prince does he flee in terror, but he flees more from the qualms regarding commitment, I would wager, than from any fear of deformation.

“In the Hall of the Mountain King” is the most memorable part of Peer Gynt, much like the anvil chorus in Il Trovatore. The tune captures to perfection, in melody and rhythm, a concept: the escalating self-absorption of something low and crooked that takes sumptuous delight in its own grotesqueness.

A concept fit for fairy tales, a fairy tale, like perhaps every fairy tale, fit for ballet–just as opera is curiously fit for the expansion of every romantic and tragic feeling.

If only there were stage-fights in ballet!

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