“In the Hall of the Mountain King” (Norwegian: I Dovregubbens hall) is a piece of orchestral music composed by Edvard Grieg for the sixth scene of act 2 in Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play Peer Gynt. It was originally part of Opus 23 but was later extracted as the final piece of Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1, Op. 46. Its easily recognizable theme has helped it attain iconic status in popular culture, where it has been arranged by many artists.
The English translation of the name is not literal. Dovre is a highland place in Norway, and “gubbe” translates into (old) man or husband. “Gubbe” is used along with its female counterpart “kjerring” to differentiate male and female trolls, “trollgubbe” and “trollkjerring”. In the play, Dovregubben is a troll king that Peer Gynt invents in a fantasy.
The piece is played as the title character Peer Gynt, in a dream-like fantasy, enters “Dovregubben (the troll Mountain King)’s hall”. The scene’s introduction continues: “There is a great crowd of troll courtiers, gnomes and goblins. Dovregubben sits on his throne, with crown and sceptre, surrounded by his children and relatives. Peer Gynt stands before him. There is a tremendous uproar in the hall.” The lines sung are the first lines in the scene.
Grieg himself wrote, “For the Hall of the Mountain King I have written something that so reeks of cowpats, ultra-Norwegianism, and ‘to-thyself-be-enough-ness’ that I can’t bear to hear it, though I hope that the irony will make itself felt.” The theme of “to thyself be… enough” – avoiding the commitment implicit in the phrase “To thine own self be true” and just doing enough – is central to Peer Gynt’s satire, and the phrase is discussed by Peer and the mountain king in the scene which follows the piece.
The simple theme begins slowly and quietly in the lowest registers of the orchestra, played first by the cellos, double basses, and bassoons. After being stated, the main theme is then very slightly modified with a few different ascending notes, but transposed up a perfect fifth (to the key of F-sharp major, the dominant key, but with flattened sixth) and played on different instruments.
The two groups of instruments then move in and out of different octaves until they eventually “collide” with each other at the same pitch. The tempo gradually speeds up to a prestissimo finale, and the music itself becomes increasingly loud and frenetic.
Lyrics of the song in Peer Gynt
(The troll-courtiers): Slagt ham! Kristenmands søn har dåret
Dovregubbens veneste mø!
(a troll-imp): Må jeg skjære ham i fingeren?
(another troll-imp): Må jeg rive ham i håret?
(a troll-maiden): Hu, hej, lad mig bide ham i låret!
(a troll-witch with a ladle): Skal han lages til sod og sø?
(another troll-witch, with a butcher knife): Skal han steges på spid eller brunes i gryde?
(the Mountain King): Isvand i blodet!
The Christian’s son has bewitched
The Mountain King’s fairest daughter!
May I hack him on the fingers?
May I tug him by the hair?
Hu, hey, let me bite him in the haunches!
Shall he be boiled into broth and bree to me
Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
Ice to your blood, friends!
Edvard Hagerup Grieg (15 June 1843 – 4 September 1907) was a Norwegian composer and pianist. He is widely considered one of the leading Romantic era composers, and his music is part of the standard classical repertoire worldwide. His use and development of Norwegian folk music in his own compositions put the music of Norway in the international spectrum, as well as helping to develop a national identity, much as Jean Sibelius and Antonín Dvořák did in Finland and Bohemia, respectively.
image by ElkhanArt