Loretta Barnard

Country songs, designer clothes, bondage: Percy Grainger was one-of-a-kind

A man of great genius and eccentricity, Percy Grainger is our of our most oft-forgotten notable figures. Pay him his due…or he may whip you.

 

 

There’s a lovely piece of music called “Colonial Song”, originally composed in 1911 for solo piano but later also arranged for other combinations of instruments, including a version for a military band. The composition and subsequent arrangements were by Percy Grainger. Grainger said of the work, dedicated to his mother, that he wanted to “express feelings aroused by my thoughts of the scenery and people of my native land and also to voice a certain kind of emotion that seems to me not untypical of native-born colonials in general”.

This love of his native land stayed with Grainger his entire life, and perhaps that’s because he left Australia a few months before his 13th birthday and never returned here to live. But as many a migrant knows, you don’t have to live in the country of your birth to retain a sense of nationalistic pride and love of your homeland. Grainger’s Australianness was always in the back of his mind.

Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne in 1882, the son of architect John Grainger and Rose Aldridge. His parents separated in 1890, and for much of his life it was just Percy and Rose. She was a domineering, overly protective mother who had high artistic expectations of her only child, engaging private tutors to instruct him in music, art and literature. He showed a gift for languages and ultimately was able to speak eleven of them, including Icelandic, but music is where he excelled. He gave his first public recital in 1894 and was declared a prodigy, whereupon Rose decided he needed to study in Europe if his talent was to be nurtured properly. They left Melbourne in 1895 and travelled to Frankfurt where Percy continued his musical and compositional studies over the next five years.

In 1901, Percy and Rose moved to London where Grainger hit the musical scene with a bang. He quickly became known as a pianist of note and was openly admired by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg who in 1907 chose Grainger to perform his celebrated piano concerto with Grieg himself conducting. Unfortunately Grieg died before the concert, but Grainger’s stature as a leading concert pianist was cemented and he was soon in high demand across the European and Scandinavian concert circuits.

In London, Grainger also began composing. His compositions tend to be short, most not longer than about eight minutes. His longest work, The Warriors, is around twenty minutes, but there are no symphonies or the like in his oeuvre, which includes such popular pieces as Molly on the Shore, Handel in the Strand and Shepherd’s Hey. His compositional style tends to favour irregular metres, unconventional scorings and sometimes unusual instruments like the ukulele and the theremin. If you look at the sheet music for Grainger’s works, you won’t see any Italian terms; instead his unconventional musical instructions contain terms like “louden”, “more flowingly but very wayward”, “go ahead impulsively” and “slow off hugely”.

All his life he experimented with new sounds and advocated “free music”, music free from traditional constraints of regular tempos and established patterns. He even tried to build machines that would produce such music. He invented what he called “elastic scoring”, where the number of musicians performing a piece could be increased or decreased as desired, provided as he wrote in 1929 “a proper balance of tone is kept”.

Grainger also had an interest in electronic music and instruments – he had an innovative mind and was always on the lookout for something new and challenging. No sounds were off limits. He had an endless curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for new musical experiences.

In 1902, he began to collect original folksongs, many of which he transcribed for the first time. Using the phonograph, he also recorded extensively and over a number of years amassed quite a collection. His later arrangements of folk tunes – not just from Great Britain, but also from Australia, New Zealand, a number of Pacific Islands and later Denmark and the Faroe Islands – are skilful, sympathetic and inventive, while always maintaining the integrity of the original. One of the songs he collected and later arranged was Country Gardens, a melody so closely associated with Grainger that he was invariably asked to perform it as an encore at all his concerts. That piece also made him wealthy.

A separate article could be written on Grainger’s collection, recording and arrangements of traditional folk songs. Suffice to say for now that he had enormous respect for the oral musical tradition recognising and revelling in the unusual rhythms, the singular expression and the underlying human-ness that made these songs so special. Grainger has been credited with reviving interest in folk music scholarship.

Grainger and Rose moved to the United States in 1914 where he performed across the country, joined the US Army as a bandsman and in 1918 became an American citizen. He lived in America for the rest of his life, always working at a frenetic pace as a performer, composer and arranger. Widely admired and very well known, his friends included eminent people like Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.

Grainger and Rose had always been inseparable but Rose had lived with mental illness all her life and, suffering from syphilis compounded with her distress about the constant (and inaccurate) rumours that she and her son had an incestuous relationship, she took her own life in 1922. It was an enormous blow to Percy. Six years after Rose’s death, Grainger married Swedish poet Ella Ström. Such was Grainger’s fame that they were married on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl in front of some 20,000 people. Grainger called Ella his “Nordic princess”.

From a young age, Grainger had been fascinated with Nordic culture and as he aged his interest increased. Although he was open to all kinds of music, he firmly believed that Nordic music was superior to anything ever written by Beethoven, Mozart and other European musical giants. This fixation on fair-skinned, blue-eyed Nordic “ideals” meant he held some rather unpleasant racist views and he was openly antisemitic all his life. It’s probably fair to say he was an unashamed bigot.

He also had a number of unconventional personality traits: he had a decided eccentric streak. He liked to dress in clothing of his own design, much of which was made from multi-coloured terry towelling. At one stage he gave up eating meat but because he didn’t care for vegetables, his diet consisted of things like rice and fruit pies. He often liked to sleep naked underneath his piano.

More salaciously, he enjoyed bondage, deriving sexual pleasure from sadomasochistic activities, flagellation in particular. He even had Ella sign a document stating she accepted and consented to participating in these activities; in fact, so important was flagellation to his sense of self that in 1932 he wrote a letter to be opened only “if Ella Grainger or Percy Grainger are found dead covered with whip marks”.

His remains were buried alongside his mother in her family’s vault in Adelaide. Ever the eccentric, Grainger wanted his skeleton to be displayed at the museum he’d established, but not surprisingly, that request was politely turned down.

In the 1930s Grainger gave money to the University of Melbourne to create a museum about his life and work and among the items he donated are over 70 whips (at least one which was made from a conductor’s baton) and some bloodied shirts. Grainger famously said that “music is the art of agony” and he apparently regarded his liking for flagellation as inextricably linked to his creativity. There are, by the way, over 100,000 items in the Grainger Museum, including personal correspondence, photographs, sheet music, instruments, wax cylinder recordings and more.

The point has been made many times that Grainger’s personal life has often overshadowed his musical life and there’s certainly some truth in that. Many would only recognise Country Gardens, which is selling his musicianship short. As a pianist, his technique was breathtaking and full of joie de vivre. His varied works were well crafted and his arrangements were brilliant, expressive and innovative. Although he wanted to be known as a great Australian composer, Grainger perhaps cannot be classified as “great”. He had loads of talent and his compositions are delightful, but his biggest contribution to music was as an arranger. His folksong arrangements are outstanding and have guaranteed him a place in the musical pantheon.

Grainger toured Australia a number of times over his life, notably in 1926 and again in 1934-1935. That tour included a series of talks broadcast on the ABC in which he spoke of the universality of music. His final Australian tour was in 1955. He died of cancer in 1961 at the age of 78, and his remains were buried alongside his mother in her family’s vault in Adelaide. Ever the eccentric, Grainger wanted his skeleton to be displayed at the museum he’d established, but not surprisingly, that request was politely turned down.

Although Grainger became a US citizen his heart remained Australian. He was keen for the world to realise that Australia had been contributing to composition in its own right, rather than as an offshoot of the British Empire, since at least the 1880s. Australian composer Graeme Koehne says that Grainger’s music “represents a quest to go beyond parochial subservience to European ideals and prejudices of musical value”. You can’t get more Australian than wanting to prove a point to the rest of the world.

 

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Australia Explained.

 

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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