Programming Note: I’ve added a lovely piece from Mary Grigolia about her song I Know This Rose Will Open, from an email exchange we had, about the origins and meaning of that song. After you read this, go to that entry and check it out!
There are days in this practice when the little chalice next to a name at the bottom of the page sends me down a rabbit hole. Like today, where I saw a chalice next to the name Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian composer who arranged this folk melody for hymn singing.
Grieg was a Unitarian?
A few bio sites revealed few clues, although one references his leaving the Lutheran ministry after a series of tragedies and a sense of his musical creativity being strangled. But it took our own resource, the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biographies, to unearth the Unitarian connection:
Charles Harding, vice-president of the Birmingham [England] Festival, and his wife, Ada, members of the Unitarian Old Meeting Church in Birmingham, introduced Grieg to other Unitarians there, including members of the Kenrick family. Shortly before he died Grieg wrote, “During a visit to England in 1888 I was attracted to Unitarian views, and in the nineteen years that have passed since then I have held to them. All the sectarian forms of religion that I have been exposed to since have not succeeded in making any impression on me.”
Like most Unitarians of his time Grieg believed in God, the goodness of God, and the power of Jesus as an example—”Christ was filled by God as no one else known to me, living or dead, in the family of man.” He disbelieved in original sin. “Why should innocent people suffer for the sins of their forefathers?” he asked. “I think that the moral pain of the soul, which results from our bad deeds, as well as from the good we neglected to do, makes a Hell as effective as I can possibly imagine.”
In 1889 the Griegs were impressed by the ex-Anglican Stopford Brooke, who preached at Unitarian pulpits in London. “What a man! [his wife] Nina says, and it is true,” Edvard wrote. “A big, splendid, sparkling personality full of fire and power. We talked about this and that: about Unitarianism and socialism . . . and I daresay he felt just as I do.” Grieg thought some Unitarians were “some of the noblest people I know.” Like them he believed in separation of church and state and in a tolerant attitude towards others—”for what we don’t know, we don’t know.”
Grieg’s religious attitude is reflected in the independence of musical thought that led him, as Liszt advised, to “hold to your course.” Broad in musical appreciation as well as in religious scope, he admired the music of composers, such as Brahms, whose styles were quite different from his own, and valued the musical inheritance from peasant culture, considering it not primitive, but advanced. He stood against conservatism in both religion and musical culture. Sickly from his youth, brooding on the passing of his baby daughter and of his parents, Grieg worked out his peace with death through his Unitarian faith, by connecting himself with the Norwegian people and their mountainous landscape, by putting his faith in nature as a whole, and through the life-affirming exuberance of his music.
I had no idea. I’ve always loved his music – beyond the all-too-familiar “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt – and into some of his other settings. Until today I had not heard this song, Den Store Hvide Flok, and it does not disappoint.
Nor do the lyrics, the first verse of the poem “Auguries of Innocence” by English poet William Blake:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wildflower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.
It’s a song I’d use as an introit, or as a sung response to the right sermon. In fact, I can think back to a dozen services where this would have been perfect…. and I may have to write another one just to use it.
Image found at Deviant Art, by user Devil-Grades.