New Classical Tracks

Melissa Holm-Johansen reconnects with her Norwegian roots

Melissa Holm-Johansen and Stephen Swanson present a selection of Edvard Grieg songs in English.Norway House

New Classical Tracks: Melissa Holm-Johansen (extended)


March 03, 2021
New Classical Tracks: Melissa Holm-Johansen

New Classical Tracks: Melissa Holm-Johansen
by MPR

Melissa Holm-Johansen, soprano/Stephen Swanson, piano — Edvard Grieg: Songs From the Heart (Norway House)

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg wrote a treasure trove of songs, most of which are rarely heard. It wasn't until 1988 that a group of musicologists from Norway and Denmark commissioned William Halvorson, a Grieg scholar based in Minnesota, to create fresh English versions of most of these songs. Never before have these songs been professionally recorded, until now. Songs from the Heart is a historic new release featuring two Minnesota-based musicians, pianist Stephen Swanson and soprano Melissa Holm-Johansen.

Holm-Johansen's father is from Norway, and her mother is Minnesotan. She split the difference growing up in Norway, but then came to Minnesota to study music at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Her Norwegian heritage, and her ability to speak the language fluently, made her a perfect fit for this special project.

Out of 171 songs composed, this recording features 25. How was the repertoire chosen?

"You can think of these songs as being the most popular songs by Edvard Grieg. We've done a really good job representing most of the opuses that consist of his songs. I think it's also important to mention that a lot of the songs were Grieg's favorite songs. These were songs that he would travel around Europe and present quite often. So these are not just our choices, but also a lot of Grieg's choices."

What needed to be considered to create a work of beauty that fully represented the original language and idea in these songs?

"To have someone like William Halverson, one of our utmost scholars of Grieg's music here in this country and have him locally, that's been such a benefit because he understood how to take these poems and re-create them. In Norwegian, the word is "gjendiktning." So, you use the word "gjendiktning" and you re-create the poem. It's so much more involved than just a translation."

Can you give me an example of a really challenging translation?

"I think his piece 'Cow Call' was challenging because the tessitura of the song. It's hovering between the C-sharp and an F-sharp, and it's very exposed. Veslemoy or Haugtussa, the girl, is singing almost like she's improvising the song to the cows. I think the words have to be so carefully chosen there because of how exposed the music is."

Can you tell me about those two songs that are set with text by Christian Andersen? I know one was Greig's signature piece.

"Grieg wrote Opus 5 as an engagement present to Nina. Hans Andersen was the poet on these Opus 5 songs, and its the inspiration for these youthful and intimate pieces that Grieg wrote to Nina. So "To Brune Ojne" ("Two Brown Eyes") is just a refreshing short piece that is an exclamation of his love for Nina. And then "Yeg Elsker Dig" ("I Love But Thee") has become a signature piece. I think of that song as one of his anthems. Everyone knows the melody, and everyone can hum it for you and sing it for you in Norway."

Out of these 25 songs, which ones do you find yourself looking forward to singing the most and why?

"I think Opus 67. The Haugtussa cycle is one that I always feel drawn to. The reason for that is, it was the first song I learned when I was 17 in Norway. His fifth song in the cycle, which is 'Elsk' ('Love') was in fact the first song I learned as a young singer."

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Melissa Holm-Johansen/Stephen Swanson — Edvard Grieg: Songs From the Heart (Amazon)

Melissa Holm-Johansen/Stephen Swanson — Edvard Grieg: Songs From the Heart (Norway House)

Melissa Holm-Johansen (offical site)