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CD Review

Percy Grainger

Danny Boy - Songs & Dancing Ballads

  • I'm Seventeen Come Sunday
  • Brigg Fair
  • Love Verses from The Song of Solomon *
  • The Merry Wedding *
  • Shallow Brown
  • Father and Daughter *
  • Mo Nighean Dubh
  • The Bride's Tragedy *
  • Irish Tune from County Derry
  • Scotch Strathspey and Reel
  • The Lost Lady Found
  • The Three Ravens
  • Danny Deever *
  • Tribute to Foster
Monteverdi Choir & Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner
* World première recording
Philips 446657-2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Eye-opening.

For years, Percy Grainger could have laid claim to the title of the Rodney Dangerfield of composers. Popular in the early part of the century for his charming mega-hit "Country Gardens," he came to be stuck with it, and even his genuine musical charm got used against him as a synonym for "inconsequential." His works for band – the masterpiece Lincolnshire Posy and the two Hill-Songs – kept his reputation flickering and strongly hinted at a very interesting musical mind indeed. Premier bandsman Frederic Fennell not only performed Grainger in his classic British band series for Mercury, but also took the Eastman "Pops" Orchestra through an entire Grainger program – a program that unfortunately codified Grainger's recorded catalogue for a long time. The turn in Grainger's reputation, however, dates from the late 1960s, with a spectacular English Decca release (at one time available on London 425159-2) conducted by Benjamin Britten, probably at the peak of his career. People actually began to take notice, but Grainger's reputation flared and dimmed. After roughly thirty years later, a more lasting appreciation of his work seems to have begun. Why has it taken so long?

I suspect Grainger confounds the usual criteria for musical greatness. He wrote no symphony or opera. Very few works last longer than five minutes. He varies, mainly his orchestration, but he doesn't really develop a musical argument, like Beethoven or Brahms. In this regard, he shows marked similarities to Duke Ellington, whose music he helped champion. Most of his melodies aren't even his own. The question remains why we tie ourselves to these criteria. We apparently have inherited our attitudes from the great Austro-German musical tradition. It is indeed great, full of masterpieces, but our acceptance of its ideals has, I believe, gotten us into aesthetic trouble. Let's look at the rap against Grainger in light of the assumptions we make about masterpieces.

Sustainable length shows a powerful musical mind. It does. Because I'm talking about "sustainable" length, we don't have to consider the long pieces that drag themselves out unnecessarily. However, let's consider the mind that can concentrate effect in a short space, that can make every note tell – the mark of the miniaturist. Webern is just about the only one treated with any respect, usually with the disclaimer "he's not really a miniaturist." I suppose it means that Webern doesn't write the salon or parlor miniature, but it also implies that the miniature represents the easy way out. Yet a miniaturist seems to me to require as much of his skill as a symphonist does; the skills simply differ. Wagner couldn't write a miniature to save his life, if we can judge by the pitifully weak examples he left behind. In fact, very few symphonists seem to have had much success in smaller forms. I can think of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Elgar, and Stravinsky off the top of my head. Others seem to need the length they take.

Development marks the great composition. It certainly marks a lot of them, but it may not be necessary and sufficient. When we say "development," we mean mainly symphonic development, à la Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, but this just hides the larger issue of coherence. In our own century, composers have generally moved to principles of organization other than the German symphony. Yet, critics continue to write as if that's the only place the bus stops. We can all think of pieces that cohere but don't develop in that way. My own list includes just about every Verdi opera, Stravinsky's ballet scores up to, but not including Agon, Gershwin's An American in Paris, and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. In all these works, development is not merely beside the point of the work's effect, but it's largely absent. We should really be looking at the different ways pieces cohere, and, since we're talking about music after all – we should refer our analysis ultimately to our ear, rather than to our eye.

For Grainger the composer, music comes down finally to melody. Australian-born and trained in Germany, he quickly became caught up in the English folk-song revival – one of the first to go out "into the fields" with a phonograph and blanks to record the singer as well as the tune. Many of his works set the songs he and others found. Britten considered him the greatest arranger of British folk song. Grainger himself admired Grieg's folk-song arrangements and seems to have modeled himself largely on the example of that composer. On his part, Grieg (another severely undervalued artist) considered Grainger the finest player of his works, and for years most judged Grainger the greatest exponent of Grieg's piano concerto. Grainger's works generally abound in wonderful tunes, some collected or arranged, others his own, often in the style of folk-song. If that was all there was to him, he'd be wonderful, but there's more. A questing mind joined his melodic gift. He helped pioneer electronic music and musique concrête and by the end of his life advocated a "free music" – in which a composer wrote as spontaneously as a painter painted and which seemed to anticipate certain trends of the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly, any composer slogging away at a MIDI sequencer and sound card owes something to Grainger's vision. The vision shows itself in the humblest Grainger work. Other hands have arranged "Country Gardens" to a fare-thee-well, but you ought to hear Grainger's own – loopy glissandi in the original piano version, orchestral razzberries in the version he did for Stokowski. Like the folk singer who never does a song the same way twice, Grainger continually reworked his compositions, apparently with the goal of writing something that could be played by any combination of handy instruments. He explored the percussion orchestra as individually and as thoroughly as Varèse. You can cut yourself a slice of just about any instant in a Grainger work and find something really interesting going on – his mind hums like a hive of bees – a counter-melody unexpected and brilliantly right, a unique combination of instruments, sudden menacing outbursts from the orchestra's lower depths during a generally sunny piece, and so on. Above all, Grainger's music comes over as either a songful intensity or a fierce energy that gets the arms swinging and fills the body with animal spirits.

The problem of repeating the same works on CD after CD has plagued Grainger, but the only really objectionable repeat here is the "Irish Tune from County Derry," a.k.a. "Danny Boy." a great arrangement of a wonderful tune, nevertheless it has had more than its share of recordings while lots of Grainger still goes unheard. I would have preferred one of these. "I'm Seventeen Come Sunday," "Shallow Brown," "Scotch Strathspey and Reel," and "The Lost Lady Found" turned up on the Britten album, but it's good to have them back. No one can accuse anyone of doing them to death. All in all, a very nice program, including a few commercial-recording and CD premières.

If Britten emphasized the startling originality of the composer's mind, Gardiner stresses the sensuality and vigor of the music. In "I'm Seventeen Come Sunday," chorus and orchestra fling themselves about, affecting a rough, "rustic" accent and building up to the tremendous release of a powerful new melody, about a minute from the end. "Brigg Fair" for solo tenor and mixed choir is one of Grainger's most sheerly beautiful folk-song settings. Delius, hearing Grainger's setting, stirred himself to make from the tune one of his finest rhapsodies. In the Grainger, the beauty seems to rise from the loss of "the days that are no more." The most affecting version of this I've heard comes from an LP of the Elizabethan Singers, conducted by Louis Halsey and with the wonderful Ian Partridge as the solo, as far as I know, never transferred to CD. Gardiner's performance is quite fine, but Partridge makes the difference.

"Love Verses from the Song of Solomon" (1899-1900) represent a kind of sport in Grainger's output. He wrote it while a music student in Frankfurt. Although the Bible was a book Grainger disliked, he comes up with something both characteristically individual and beautiful. Here we see Grainger's roots in late nineteenth-century chromaticism, to a large extent disguised by his folk-song material and his mature approach to harmony. It's very similar to Delius, in fact, although the two would not meet until 1907. Grainger's music is astonishingly assured (he's, at most, 18), and the scoring shows even at this early date his mature affinity for novel instrumental combinations (including the harmonium, found a lot in Grainger scores) and clear textures – much more transparent than is usual in Delius. Even the verses don't come from the stock usually set by composers. Grainger's lean orchestration shows up even more in "The Merry Wedding." Throughout much of the work, only voices and perhaps one instrumental section sound, even though Grainger uses 9 soloists, chorus, brass, percussion, strings, and organ. He strives for changing colors, rather than mass (except at the end).

"Shallow Brown" (pronounced "shallah" or "shaller") immediately hits the ear as one of the most remarkable sounds in Western music. The orchestra seems to consist of a giant guitar and brass. I have no idea how Grainger brings this off, other than a genius for orchestration and a penchant to avoid standard combinations. "The Three Ravens" forces, for example, consist of baritone solo, mixed choir, and five clarinets. At any rate, "Shallow Brown" makes much of little, two calls-and-responses repeated over and over – one of Grainger's masterpieces. Gardiner has the edge on Britten in terms of orchestral clarity, but Britten's soloist, John Shirley-Quirk, scores over Gardiner's Lynette Alcantara.

"Father and Daughter" pits a male chorus against a full choir, with Grainger's usual discreet accompaniment. The two choirs seem to ignore each other throughout most of the piece, in something close to Ivesian independence of forces, reflecting the "duality" of the text – a father questioning his daughter on her secret lover, her lies, and the father's murder of the lover, all – like the ballad "Lord Rendall" – in the form of question-and-answer and refrain. The accompaniment becomes increasingly grotesque, turning the near-nursery quality of the work to something frighteningly cheerful, as the choirs combine at the point of the murder.

At slightly over nine minutes, "The Bride's Tragedy," to a poem by Swinburne, qualifies as one of Grainger's longer works. Swinburne tries to capture the dark wildness of the Scottish border ballad. Interestingly enough, Grainger doesn't try for a particularly "folky" or even strophic setting. Even though Grainger doesn't do his normal orchestral-variation technique, he doesn't resort to sonata-allegro either. I think he comes fairly close to the Tudor fantasia (or, as he might have put it, a "free ramble"), and the piece comes off as extremely tight and focused. The themes' odd shapes pose problems for performers, none of which seem to bother the ones here. The harmonies and modulations dare much, and Grainger's music beats fiercely. Gardiner, orchestra, and chorus, give perhaps their best performance on the disc, eagerly – even impatiently – jumping into the next phrase.

One normally hears Grainger's "Irish Tune" in its string arrangement. Gardiner uses the alternate for a cappella choir. One interesting feature of the writing is that each part is itself a valid melody – one never gets the feeling that a part hits a note just to fill in a chord – and yet, paradoxically, the resultant harmonies fit the tune like a glove. I find Gardiner a bit heavy here, compared to a radio broadcast from Louis Halsey about twenty years ago, but he does add to the piquancy of the work by occasionally bringing out one of the supporting lines at the expense of the tune.

"Scotch Strathspey and Reel" delivers far more than it promises – an ever-bubbling pot of reels, fiddle-, and piper-tunes, all accompanying the familiar "What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor." Gardiner errs a bit, I believe, with a slightly too-fast tempo. It generates Grainger's customary rhythmic energy, but it slights the clarity of the individual lines. Britten takes about a minute longer, and the more deliberate pace makes all the difference. In "The Lost Lady Found," the choir once again becomes a group of rough rustics, singing in broad dialect. However, they sit too far back in the texture. Britten's choir sounds far more effective, without the dramatics, and his orchestra shows more muscle.

With "Danny Deever," we come to one of the most remarkable and forceful pieces in Grainger's catalogue – about as far from the genial "Country Gardens" as one can possibly get. As it played, I wondered, "Is it Modern? Is it Post-Romantic? Post-Impressionist?" The music strikes one so forcibly as the work of a particular individual that it makes such questions ultimately irrelevant. Stravinsky once wondered what would have happened to the course of Western music had Gesualdo exerted a greater influence. "Danny Deever" inspires the same sort of speculation.

John Bird, Grainger's chief modern biographer (Percy Grainger, London: Faber and Faber, 1982), concluded that Grainger was probably clinically insane (the life makes fascinating – and disturbing – reading indeed) as well as a genius. Certainly, Grainger's music abounds in striking moments – powerful, achingly beautiful, and even a bit daffy. All of it shows up in "Tribute to Foster," an extended work based on Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races," which Grainger remembered his mother singing to him. Grainger even added stanzas of his own device in the style of the original. I think it a great tune, but all of Foster's "minstrel" songs give me a slightly creepy feeling. I've lived in the South for nearly twenty years and haven't yet heard anybody say the word "gwine." Of course, Foster never got further south than Cincinnati and succumbed to the prejudices of his times. The latter, at least, can also be said of Grainger. Standing uncomfortably close to the charming idiosyncrasy of Grainger's fondness for "blue-eyed races" and "blue-eyed English" lies something pretty dangerous. I don't believe Grainger had a mean-spirited bone in his body. As I say, he championed Ellington as well as Gershwin, backing his vocal advocacy with practical measures – bringing Ellington to his first university gig and arranging Gershwin works for solo piano and piano duet. Nevertheless, the tribute to Foster at best comes across to me as slightly higher-toned than the use of the tune in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz