Percy Grainger 1882-1961
He played several times before royalty, a 1907 solo recital enjoying the patronage of Queen Alexandra.
Grainger’s father had died in 1917; his mother suicided in 1922. Grainger visited Australia in 1924 to see his mother’s family, and again in 1926, when J. & N. Tait presented him in a concert tour designed to demonstrate the extraordinary range of his talents.
In 1934 Grainger toured Australia, again for J. & N. Tait.
Talented, charming and handsome, Grainger was the toast of London. He played several times before royalty, a 1907 solo recital enjoying the patronage of Queen Alexandra. Also that year he was selected by Grieg to play his piano concerto at the Leeds Festival. This cemented Grainger’s reputation as ‘the greatest living exponent’ of Grieg’s piano music. He also established a close personal and professional association with composer Frederick Delius. By 1912 he was calling himself ‘Percy Aldridge Grainger’ and was firmly established as a composer and conductor of his own music, which Schott & Company were publishing.
Grainger’s personal standing was damaged when he and his mother left hurriedly for the United States at the outbreak of the Great War. Nevertheless he enlisted in the US Army – as a bandsman. He became an American citizen in 1918. His best known composition, the immortal ‘Country Gardens’, was published by Schirmer’s the following year. In 1921 he purchased a home at White Plains, New York.
Grainger’s father had died in 1917; his mother suicided in 1922. Grainger visited Australia in 1924 to see his mother’s family, and again in 1926, when J. & N. Tait presented him in a concert tour designed to demonstrate the extraordinary range of his talents. Not only did he play and conduct his own compositions, he wrote the programme notes and opened his concerts with dissertations on Nordic music. It was during the sea voyage home that he met the beautiful Ella Viola Ström, a Swedish-born poet and painter. Grainger called her his Nordic Princess. On 9 August 1928 he conducted the premiere of his tone poem ‘To a Nordic Princess’ at the Hollywood Bowl; he concluded the concert by marrying Ella on stage, with the 20,000-strong audience cheering their congratulations. It was a remarkable liaison, with Ella providing the support and intimacy that Grainger had enjoyed with his mother.
In 1934 Grainger toured Australia, again for J. & N. Tait. He also gave a series of radio talks for the ABC – ‘A Commonsense View of all Music’ – and set about creating the remarkable ‘autobiographical’ Grainger Museum in the grounds of the University of Melbourne. These were examples of his mission to ‘educate’ Australians and to promote interest in folk music, medieval music, and the ‘Nordic School’. An avid collector of folk music, Grainger used it as the basis for many of his compositions. He also developed an intense interest in language. He was fluent in a dozen European languages, and sought to purge English of words of Latin and Greek origin, often replacing them with colourful self-devised alternatives: ‘museum’, for instance, became ‘past-hoard-house’, and ‘vegetarianism’ ‘meat-shun-ment’. He designed the covers of his sheet music and his own idiosyncratic clothing. A health fanatic, he introduced what today we call power walking. Grainger was back in Melbourne in 1938 for the opening of his museum.
Photograph taken by Morse courtesy National Library of Australia pic-an12401036
John Bird: Percy Grainger, Paul Elek, 1976
Eileen Dorum: Percy Grainger – The Man behind the Music, privately published, 1986
Kay Dreyfus: ‘George Percy Grainger’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 9, Melbourne University Press