The Grieg Hall – from grand design to concert-hall
On 1 November 1894 Edvard Grieg wrote a letter from the Grand Hotel in Kristiania (now Oslo) to his distant cousin, consul Joachim Grieg. Named as partners in his endeavour to build a wooden concert hall at Engen were Conrad Mohr, Klaus Hanssen, C. Sundt and Didrik Smit; he also names the architect Sverre, “who has built various things in the wooden style for the German Emperor”. The idea was to finance the concert hall by subscription of shares, and that Klaus Hanssen and Edvard Grieg should be co-promoters.
The city that housed one of Europe’s oldest music societies was naturally always very concerned to give the orchestra good working conditions. With his experience of the great musical metropolises, Edvard Grieg worked zealously to provide his birthplace with a suitable concert hall. In 1894 he was working on plans to build a concert hall at Engen out of wood. At the same time, however, the mighty Christian Michelsen was agitating for a new theatre, and the thespian faction snatched the site from under Grieg’s nose. So that was that, at least for Grieg’s lifetime.
The idea of a suitable concert hall did, however, survive, and throughout his chairmanship of the “Harmonien” music society/orchestra company Fridtjof Sundt remained the warmest proponent of the project. His main problem was finding a suitable site. The great fire of 1916 demanded extensive rezoning in the city centre; might it not also open the door to a concert hall?
In 1917 the Directors of “Harmonien” asked the city fathers for a site of suitable size, so that Bergen could build a first-class concert hall. The subsequent years saw many suggestions for siting; one of the proposals was where the Telegraph building now stands. None of them received the necessary support; perhaps the time was simply not ripe for such a great enterprise? One thing that was clarified at an early date, however, was that when it was finally completed, it was to be named for Edvard Grieg. Nothing could be a better flagpole for such a cause than the most famous name in the history of Norwegian music.
The year is now 1934 and the Directors of “Harmonien” have just realised that there are only nine years to go before the Edvard Grieg centenary. A committee is appointed, with shipping magnate Haakon B. Wallem as the driving force. They decide on Lars Hillesgate 3a as the most suitable site for a concert hall, and in 1938 they ask the City of Bergen, its owner, to make a present of it to “Harmonien”. The orchestra company would then lead the work of building the Edvard Grieg Hall. Not until the Mayor’s resolution of 1941 was the application granted. The Nazi “Ministry of Culture” saw the potential for a magnificent propaganda coup if they could get the hall finished for the centenary in June 1943, but the regime soon found itself distracted by weightier matters and the project was shelved.
When normality returned, the wartime decision was deemed illegal and was reversed; the Grieg Hall site was caught in the undertow and the City repossessed it. This caused such a wailing and gnashing of teeth that in 1947 the City Council found it necessary to reverse the reversal. The site was thus earmarked in accordance with previous provisions. Not until a meeting with the city fathers, at which Haakon B. Wallem agreed to collect the necessary funds to build the hall, was the conveyance signed. Wallem himself was generous enough to put a million of his own money on the table; this was a very good start, but not enough. Wallem also commissioned architect Fredrik Konow Lund to produce the first sketches for the exploitation of the site in Lars Hillesgate, which was priced at NOK 7.8 million. However, the bottom fell out of the enterprise when Haakon B. Wallem sickened and died in 1952.
The Grieg Hall site, March 1968
A passage in d minor
As the Fifties progressed, many comprehensive construction projects were carried out in and around Bergen, but no Grieg Hall. It is true that “Harmonien” managed to create a broad-based Grieg Hall Committee with representatives from a number of organisations. This might have achieved something, but was never convened and therefore never started work. The music society’s big 200th anniversary was now approaching, and in 1959 the Chairman of “Harmonien”’s board of directors Fredrik Skancke Andersen promised that a pure concert hall seating 2000 people would be finished in time for the celebrations in 1965. Konow Lund was still working on the architectural side, and he warned both orally and in writing that the Lars Hillesgate 3a site was too narrow and not suitable for a concert hall. His latest sketch, in 1961, was poorly received, and an architectural competition demanded. After little or nothing had been done by the orchestra company, the city’s Aldermen intervened with a demand that an architectural competition be advertised by 1 March 1962.
“Harmonien” now appointed a Nordic jury to consider new sites, of which a great number gradually appeared. Whereas the leadership of “Harmonien” was letting the years go by without rolling their sleeves up, the wider public began to take an interest in a solution. The architects’ community was particularly active, and so it seemed no one could eventually prevent the hall from moving forward, at least on a conceptual level.
For another year site after site was dragged into the debate and presented as more suitable than the former railway sidings in Lars Hillesgate. Of progress there was none.
The whole thing was hanging by a thread when chartered engineer David Lie Eide fired off a newspaper broadside called “But nothing came of the Grieg Hall” (Bergens Tidende 6 November 1963). With the aid of solid documentation, he proved that nothing of significance had happened for many years. The lesson to be drawn was that “from now on the work has to be organised in quite another manner if this large and difficult problem is to be solved at all”. As a rational expedient, he suggested forming the Grieg Hall as an independent business undertaking with its own board of directors and a broadly-based consultative council.
As a member of “Harmonien”’s shareholder committee, Lie Eide had several times attempted to get things moving, but in vain. The proposal he now launched in public meant belatedly taking the matter out of the hands of the music society’s general management; between the lines was an offer to be of service himself. That David Lie Eide possessed technical and financial acumen he had proved previously, but few realised that he also possessed the iron will to ram through a construction project on this scale. For “Harmonien”’s leadership, the newspaper article was an ultimatum; the effect was spontaneous, the Grieg Hall Committee was convened for the first time in eleven years and Lie Edie was elected chairman. He also chaired its first effective working instrument, a troika consisting of himself, and the equally talented Bergen Festival director Gunnar Arne Jensen and programme editor Frank M. Falch. Their professional report formed the basis for all future work.
The Committee defined the objectives for the Grieg Hall; their primary goal was to acquire a pure concert hall, since good working conditions for the city’s symphony orchestra and enough room for its audiences were absolute requirements. But wider horizons were also aspired to; the Hall was to be the headquarters of both “Harmonien” and the Bergen Festival, make room for the increasing activity of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s regional office, and house the formal ceremonies of the University.
The troika was not short of ambition: the Grieg Hall “should create the conditions for varied cultural activity and become the core of a Western Norwegian cultural powerhouse”.
The Committee also discovered that the original and rather amorphous, hardly 1.5 acre, site in Lars Hillesgate needed to be extended by almost another half-acre towards Nygård School. The city council now wanted to see the Hall completed by 1970, Bergen’s 900th anniversary, and saw to the liberation of the necessary acreage. With this conveyance, the City Council regarded itself as discharged of all further responsibility for the project.
A Dane designs Bergen’s new cultural monument
Borne up on this wave of optimism, the committee announced a Nordic architects’ competition with a deadline of 1 February 1965. After three weeks’ contemplation of 70 different proposals, the jury nominated the 28-year-old Danish architect Knud Munk for first prize; he had succeeded in uniting the divergent elements that the building was to house in a clear architectural unity, they said. Knud Munk came to Bergen to accept the prize for a building that was to dominate the downtown of a city that the architect had never seen before. He was surprised that the site’s neighbours were such high buildings, he had not imagined them that way.
Now the enthusiasts began major campaigns to drum up construction capital. The Cultural Council of Norway promised NOK 6 million, central government contributed NOK 2.5 million in return for the use of the hall for university ceremonies. Wallem’s initial gift had by now appreciated to NOK 1.5 million.
The limited company Grieghallen AS was formed in 1968. Its owners were the “holy trinity” of Bergen’s artistic life: “Harmonien” subscribed for 20 shares, the theatre company DNS and the Festival for 15 each. Lie Eide was now chairman of the limited company’s Board as well as of the working party, and would soon chair the building committee too. As his right-hand man he acquired Baard Sæverud, business manager from 1964 until the completion.
Their first fund-raising drive was held under the motto, “Grieg Hall in 1970 or your money back”. The idea was to tempt people to donate NOK 200 per year for five years, a manageable amount for many, but not all. The action as a whole brought in NOK 1.2 million. “Harmonien” was always giving benefit concerts and the theatre company contributed the widow’s mite as well: the dress rehearsal for “Hallo Dolly” became a formidable event with performances by local entertainers as well as the troupe itself. Of the ticket price of NOK 50, only one went to the theatre’s own piggy-bank, the rest disappeared down the ravening maw of the Grieg Hall project. The memorial foundation Edvard Griegs Minnefond was established for tax reasons, and even acquired an American branch, but was a fiasco –disappointingly few contributions were received from the USA. “Grieg Hall in 1970 or your money back” was the biggest individual fund-raising drive ever directed at the man in the Bergen street. Among the many contributions from small savers were some big fat donations; banks and shipping magnates al contributed millions, and insurance companies and industrial concerns followed in the footsteps of the great Maecenases of the past. The public sector was challenged to finish the job and make up the final shortfall. November 1967 saw the first ground broken.
King Olav V laid the foundation stone on the opening day of the Bergen Festival in May 1968; a copper chest with the architect’s blueprints, the day’s newspapers and Norwegian coins was cemented into the concrete wall of the orchestra pit, accompanied by the royal words, “May this hall be raised and completed according to plan, and I am certain that it will then serve its purpose as a disseminator of culture and delight for Bergen and the people of Bergen and for Norwegians far outside the city limits. May its name inspire to a high standard of culture and creativity!”
In December 1970 there was a party in the shell of the commercial part of the building; the Board of the company lavished sandwiches and beer on their colleagues and supporters. The message to the public was that they had kept their promise – the Grieg Hall had indeed been raised before the end of 1970. That was accepted, even if many people had probably expected that this meant the hall would be open. At any rate, no donors demanded their money back. In the course of 1971 the tenants moved into the commercial sector: the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), the “Harmonien” and Bergen Festival administrations, the State Liquor Monopoly, a bank, a shipping company and a doctor’s surgery.
The piano lid comes down on the fingers
But now the problems began to mount up again. NOK 37 million had been spent on the project and the cupboard was bare. Construction work, which had been intended to run continuously, ground to a halt, and the stoppage lasted five whole years. In these years the planners feel the rough side of the infamous Bergen tongue.
What did I tell you? Was not the Grieg Hall standing there as a monumental disgrace for the irresponsible citizens who started work before they had enough money? This horrible building, a rusty scrap-heap that was discolouring the flagstones and staining the overcoats of decent folk. They had polluted the city centre with “a concrete monstrosity, a gigantic bunker”. Voices from the capital joined the local infernal chorus; the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet proclaimed the hall to be the very symbol of the characteristic Bergen vice of megalomania.
While the brickbats flew, the champions of the Grieg Hall worked desperately for a solution to the financial problems. After a lot of back and forth, with broken promises from two governments, and demoralisation in the working party, the “Harmonien” chairman Njaal Sæveraas asked the shipping magnate Per Grieg, “Might you consider taking a seat on our board?” “Yes,” said Grieg, “provided that I can represent ‘Harmonien’ on the board of the Grieg Hall.” He had long been contemplating the empty shell, and like other Bergen residents, was oppressed by the melancholy of lost opportunities. Per Grieg now took over the responsibility for the finance, and discharged it with spectacular results. A private fund-raising drive created the bedrock for the new financing plan; Finance Minister Per Kleppe was talked into granting a government-backed bond loan at low interest, so cheap as to be almost a gift. The state support triggered a new loan from Bergen Bank, guaranteed by the City.
Construction work finally got going again, and in the most hectic phase the reasoning was probably that, “If we can only get the building finished, no one can take it away from us.” Get the Hall completed first, deal with the problems later. It had to be admitted that they had lost their grip here and there in the extremely complex building works, but it was hard to foresee that the ceiling of the hall, budgeted at NOK 2 million, would finally cost NOK 6 million, not to mention an overtime bill of NOK 11 million. Normally the schedule for a building project gets adjusted two or three times in the course of the construction period, but for the Grieg Hall it was totally revamped over twenty times; this provides an indication of how difficult and demanding the building of the Grieg Hall actually was.
On 12 May 1978 the coloured smoke-bombs detonated and pistol-shots resounded. Clouds billow beneath the red ceiling, clearing to reveal the first appearance of the “Harmonien” orchestra on the stage of the Grieg Hall. Karsten Andersen is conducting Grieg’s “Norwegian dances” and the notes are manna from heaven. Finally!
Had we ever imagined such a wonderful clear and stringent sound in a Bergen concert hall? That is how we heard “Harmonien” when the orchestra was rescued from Konsertpalæet (now the cinema), whose dry wall surfaces had distorted the timbre for decades. That evening was dominated by the nervous excitement of a first experience; but we could agree that the hall functioned as it ought and that the acoustics were marvellous. Everyone understood that they were part of something unique. The acoustics of the Grieg Hall were spot-on, something that is by no means vouchsafed to all concert halls.
Eleven days later came the official opening, in the presence of the King almost ten years to the day from the laying of the foundation stone. The hall was dedicated with the aid of Harald Sæverud’s “Overtura Monumentale”, a new work commissioned by the music society.
David Lie Eide permitted himself a small sigh, a variant of the merchant Herwitz’ words, “Now it’s done, but my goodness, it was a hard pull”. The previous day Lie Eide had been awarded the Knight Cross of the Order of Saint Olav for his contribution to building the hall. On that occasion Per Grieg had told him, “You stuck your neck out in a cause that has animated the city for half a century and more. It is true that you had help, but no one can deny you this honour, that it was your spirit that has been the guiding light and brought us safely into harbour. The Grieg Hall is a monument not only to our great composer, but also to the civic spirit of Bergen.”
The final bill came to NOK 93 million.