In the Hall of the Mountain King
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In the Hall of the Mountain King is a piece of orchestral music, Opus 23, composed by Edvard Grieg for Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, which premiered in Oslo on February 24, 1876. (It was later extracted as the final piece of Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1, Op. 46.) Although a performance of the full piece runs to only two and a half minutes, its easily recognizable theme has helped it attain iconic status in popular culture.
A fantasy play written in verse, Peer Gynt tells of the adventures of the eponymous Peer. The sequence illustrated by the music of In the Hall of the Mountain King is when Peer sneaks into the Mountain King's castle. The piece then describes Peer's attempts to escape from the King and his trolls.
The famous two-phrase theme, written in the key of B minor, runs thus:
The simple theme begins slowly and quietly in the lowest registers of the orchestra. It is played first by the cellos and bassoons, signifying Peer Gynt's slow, careful footsteps. After being recited, 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: these are the King's trolls.
The two groups of instruments then move in and out of different octaves until eventually "colliding" with each other at the same pitch; and the trolls, having spotted Peer, give chase. The tempo gradually speeds up to a prestissimo finale, and the music itself becomes increasingly louder and more melodic.
The Mountain King himself thunders onto the musical stage and runs into Peer, who quickly runs the other way; these actions are depicted with long strings of diatonic steps, interrupted by brief moments of stillness as the Mountain King looks for the hiding Peer. Peer's cover is at last blown, and the music reaches its loudest and fastest point as he runs out of the cave. A series of crashing cymbals and rapturous timpani rolls then burst forward and silence all the other instruments, with the mountain tumbling to the ground and presumably killing the trolls who had been chasing after the fleeing Peer. The piece concludes appropriately — in both musical and theatrical terms — with a return to the tonic, and ends on a final B minor chord, signifying Peer's successful escape.
A notable adaptation of the main theme was an obscure 78 from early 1938 on Brunswick by Joe Usifer & his Orchestra. It is a very sophisticated swing arrangement, in the style of Raymond Scott. This classic instrumental has been used for the autumn holiday Halloween.
Lyrics of the song in Peer Gynt
- (The troll-courtiers): Slagt ham! Kristenmands søn har dåret.
- Dovregubbens veneste mø!
- Slagt ham!
- Slagt ham!
- (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 chopper): Skal han steges på spid eller brunes i gryde?
- (the Old Man of the Dovre): Isvand i blodet!
- Slay him! The Christian's son has bewitched
- The Dovre King's fairest daughter!
- Slay him!
- Slay him!
- May I hack him on the fingers?
- May I tug him by the hair?
- Hu, hei, let me bite him in the haunches!
- Shall he be boiled into broth and bree?
- Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
- Ice to your blood, friends!