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Book Review

Percy Grainger

Percy Grainger
John Bird
Prefactory note by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears
Appreciation by Leopold Stokowski
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. 379 pp
ISBN 0198166524
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On the dust-jacket cover of this excellent book, the composer Percy Aldridge Grainger looks out like a child with a naughty secret he hopes you share, so intently that the air between you and the portrait seems to vibrate. Few composers lead outward lives especially interesting. Most don't go exploring in remote corners of the world, break up spy rings, or achieve worldly power. Whatever interest we have in them usually centers on their inner lives. Although Grainger's "inner weather" seemed to mix a boy's playroom with the Hellfire Club, his outward eccentricities and his adventures as concert pianist and brilliant inventor mark him as one of the few exceptions to the general rule.

I would say by almost any measure, Grainger was a genius, or at least a polymath. With only three months of formal schooling, he managed to master composition, the piano, electronics, and several languages. Many of his friends remarked that whatever the topic of conversation, Grainger could talk not only knowledgeably, but brilliantly. Yet, to his death, he remained intellectually a precocious adolescent. He believed the most incredible nonsense: that the greatest composers all had blue eyes (he photographed Vaughan Williams' eyes not once, but twice), that there really was a white man's burden, Nordic folk were God's chosen, Jews couldn't be trusted, among other things. He transferred his prostate-cancer operation from the Mayo Clinic to Denmark because he didn't want to risk drawing a Jewish doctor. On the other hand, he was not actively vicious in this regard. He admired Gershwin's music tremendously, going so far as to arrange songs and parts of Porgy and Bess for solo piano, and championed Duke Ellington. He inherited his attitudes from his parents, most particularly from his mother, Rose.

Grainger not only received his attitudes from Rose, but also his elfin good looks and most of his sense of himself. Rose adored him to the point of dominating his life. She kept him to her idea of what his daily schedule should be, to the point of cutting him off from his friends. She procured his mistresses. Significantly, he didn't marry until after his mother's death. Grainger took the name we know him by – Percy Aldridge Grainger – at least in part as a reminder of his mother: Aldridge was her maiden name. Percy knew he was a genius, mainly because Rose had told him so.

Both of Grainger's parents, odd themselves (although Percy had little to do with his father, who moved out and away early in the marriage), produced an odd offspring. Rose died probably insane. Strong evidence suggests that she jumped from a high window. Grainger's father led an erratic life and appears to have lost himself in a world of machismo fantasy. Grainger, his genius aside, was also more than just a little nuts. The stories of his eccentricities are legion. A brilliant concert pianist, he hated the piano. He called it the "box of hammers" and wrote practically no original solo music for it. Almost all his solo works are dazzling reworkings of his chamber and orchestral stuff, undertaken mainly at the insistence of his publishers. He possessed unbelievable stores of energy and needed little sleep. On tour of Australia and Africa, he insisted on running to the next tour stop while the rest of the company took the train. He would throw a ball over the roof of a house, run through the house to the back, and catch the ball on the other side. He descended stairs landings at a time. Bird includes all the stories I know and many more besides. Grainger practiced flagellation (both whipper and whippee), made nude photographs of himself after various sessions, and left an explanatory document with his lawyer in case his wife or he himself were found dead in strange circumstances. He was also a fellow in remarkably close touch with his id. He confessed his darkest fantasies to acquaintances: for example, he wanted to have sex with his own children. Now Grainger never had children and never really wanted them. The fantasy was just that, and fortunately Grainger made the distinction. Peel the lid off just about anybody, and you'll find Mr. Hyde. Grainger differs from the rest of us in that Hyde lived remarkably close to the surface and yet seemed content to remain beneath the surface, if not entirely hidden. Bird discusses Grainger's psychology fairly extensively. In fact, it's probably at least one of the reasons for the brief "Prefatory Note" by Britten and Pears, themselves quondam keepers of secrets.

Nevertheless, none of this would make much difference except to side-show gawkers, had Grainger not accomplished something extraordinary. According to the testimony of great musicians like Grieg and Stokowski, he ranks as one of the leading pianists of the twentieth century, despite his dislike for the piano and for touring. Both Ernest Newman and Grieg himself considered Grainger the greatest exponent of Grieg's music, especially of the piano concerto. According to Bird, the recording, originally from Vanguard (who withdrew it after releasing only a few hundred pressings), was made well after Grainger's physical decline. Unfortunately, Grainger, years earlier at the tail end of his prime, could not interest any recording company to commit his account to disc. Besides the concerto, Grainger programmed obscure Grieg, particularly from the Norwegian's final period – the Slatter, the Peasant Dances, and the Norwegian Folk-Songs. Interestingly enough, Grieg knew some of Grainger's music and thought so highly of it, he sent him an autographed picture, with dedication. When Grieg visited England, he wanted to meet Grainger (Grainger preferred to worship his heroes from afar), and the two were brought together. Grainger's fluent Norwegian (among other languages) helped foster a particularly close friendship.

Grainger also pioneered electronic music, which he wanted to lead to what he called "free" music. In part, this stemmed from his almost life-long desire to turn the rolling-hill landscape of Australia into sound. Ideally, he wanted a composer to compose as fluently as a painter sketched (he was also a superb sketcher and draftsman), to create music practically without intermediary. Most present-day electronic instruments owe something to Grainger's basic work. He solved a large number of the technical problems, although a cheap Casio keyboard and a sequencing program would blow away his results. Still, pros and weekend toilers in the MIDI vineyards amount to at least his spiritual nieces and nephews.

Nevertheless, people will likely remember Grainger primarily as a composer – indeed, one of the most remarkable musical minds in the history of music. Although considered a master by such colleagues as Britten and Stravinsky, the general public still thinks of him as a composer of "light" music and therefore metaphorically pats him on the head. Bird writes a splendidly warm polemic at the beginning of the book. I agree with every word, probably because I have said the same myself for years. To those for whom masterpieces must be classically-based, long, and Significant (with a capital S), Grainger will never make the cut. Nevertheless, to Bird (and to me) the criteria are both limiting and spurious. Only in music criticism could someone assert these standards with a straight face. Grainger fought against them during his life, but they hang on like weeds. If one thinks of any other art, one immediately sees them as easily explodable. A poem about a jabberwocky may be better than a three-volume novel on humankind's place in the universe. A bad symphony in a minor key and a choral finale (and, no, I don't mean Beethoven's Ninth) may not come up to a great tune like "Shenandoah" or a delectable four minutes like Mozart's overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Anyway, that's the thrust of the argument. For details, I refer you to the book itself.

Bird provides a discography as an appendix, as well as some of Grainger's own very interesting writings on orchestration. As one who's compiled discographies himself, I can say that Bird's was likely out of date by the time Oxford University Press printed the galleys. You can get fresher information from the Internet. Grainger's thoughts on orchestration, however, don't really date. His own orchestrations are, like the man himself, simultaneously brilliant and a bit goofy, or at least idiosyncratic. He explored percussion instruments as thoroughly as Varèse. He exploited non-symphonic instruments (eg, ukeleles, mandolins, harmonicas, and solovoxes) to stunning effect. Many in a good position to judge – bandsmen Richard Franko Goldman and Frederic Fennell, for example – consider his works for wind ensemble among the best of the century.

I hope that this book gives Grainger's music a good push into general consciousness. So far the composer's personal quirks have overshadowed the works. It would be a shame for pieces like "Shallow Brown" and "Lincolnshire Posy" to remain hidden beneath S&M paraphernalia.

Copyright © 1999 by Steve Schwartz