Percy Grainger 1882 – 1961
- Percy Grainger 1882 – 1961
Percy Grainger 1882 – 1961
George Percy Grainger was born in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton on 8 July 1882.
After initial keyboard studies with his mother, from 1892 Grainger learnt with Louis Pabst and later Adelaide Burkitt.
Grainger gave his first solo ‘adult’ concert in Frankfurt in December 1900.
In their Preface to John Bird’s biography of Percy Grainger, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten wrote: ‘To have met Percy Grainger even as an old man is a cherished memory. His warmth, his originality, his charm, were unforgettable, and his genial energy had already become a myth. The masterly folksong arrangements with their acutely beautiful feeling for sound were our first musical introduction, and later the preparation of a record of his music was an exciting and revealing experience. Repeated performances strengthened our respect for his work, and our few meetings confirmed our affection and admiration for the man.’
George Percy Grainger was born in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton on 8 July 1882. His father, John Grainger, a British-born architect, virtually abandoned his family when his son was eight, so it was the boy’s adoring mother, the former Rose Aldridge, who raised him. She also educated him: he had only three months’ formal schooling, when he was about 10. A talented pianist, Rose recognised her son’s precocious talents in music and painting. From 1890 until her death in 1922, she devoted herself to nurturing his genius. She was his intimate companion, sharing his life, his friends, his travels and his interests.
After initial keyboard studies with his mother, from 1892 Grainger learnt with Louis Pabst and later Adelaide Burkitt. His first composition, in 1893, was a birthday gift for his mother. Grainger made his concert debut at the Masonic Hall, Melbourne, on 9 July 1894. He later played in promenade concerts at Melbourne’s Exhibition Building. In 1895, following a benefit concert in the Melbourne Town Hall under the direction of G.W.L. Marshall-Hall, Grainger left with his mother to further his musical studies in Germany, at Dr Hoch’s Conservatorium in Frankfurt-am-Main. Over the next four and a half years he studied piano and composition with several noted teachers, and had lessons in painting and drawing as well. His earliest settings of Kipling poems date from this period.
Grainger gave his first solo ‘adult’ concert in Frankfurt in December 1900 – the start of his long and gruelling concert career. From 1901 to 1914 he lived in London with his mother. In 1902 he toured the provinces with the great soprano Adelina Patti. In 1903 he studied with the legendary pianist Ferruccio Busoni and made the first of many concert tours of his homeland. For this visit J.C. Williamson teamed him with the Australian contralto Ada Crossley (‘the Croajingalong Nightingale’). They made a similar tour in 1908.
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.
Grainger’s later years were dogged by illness. Nevertheless he continued to give concerts, thoughless frequently, and commenced experimenting with what he called ‘free music’. As early as 1900 he had written that ‘the future of music lay in machines’. Now he had time to concentrate on attempting to release the composer from the straightjacket of fixed pitch and regular metre. In this he was years ahead of his time, and his clumsy, homemade contraptions were forerunners of the synthesisers that only electronics later made possible.
While Grainger’s lighter compositions, such as ‘Country Gardens’, ‘Shepherd’s Hey’, ‘Handel in the Strand’, ‘Molly on the Shore’, ‘Mock Morris’ and ‘Irish Tune from County Derry’ (‘Danny Boy’), retained their popularity, he was disappointed and frustrated by what he perceived as the indifference accorded to what he regarded as his more serious work.
He visited Australia for the last time in 1955-56. Soon his mind began to wander. On 29 April 1960 he gave his final public concert performance; his wife described the event as ‘a pathetic disaster’. Percy Aldridge Grainger died in White Plains on 20 February 1961. He left an estate valued in the United States at $208,293. He was buried with his mother in the West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide.
Grainger was survived by his wife, who had her own achievements as a poet, composer, and occasional percussionist in her husband’s concerts. In 1972 she married musicologist Stewart Manville. She died seven years later. Manville continues to live in the Grainger home at White Plains, caring for the memorabilia it contains.
Grainger’s legacy is enormous: more than 1000 published and unpublished compositions, hundreds of arrangements for anything from brass band to harmonium, chorus to marimba; hundreds of gramophone recordings and reproducing piano rolls; plus his collections in White Plains and, most notably in the extraordinary museum he built and endowed in Melbourne. The .museum contains everything from Grieg’s watch to Grainger’s old shopping lists. His mother’s clothes are there, as well as some of his ingenious ‘free music’ machines. And thousands of letters, photographs, manuscripts and minutiae. The museum also houses the memorabilia of several other significant local music organisations.
The Grainger Museum’s most controversial contents, however, relate aspects of its founder’srobust sexuality and his penchant for flagellation. This is believed to have stemmed from his reaction to his father’s frequent beatings of his mother. It was a practice that continued between Rose and her son and, later, Grainger and his wife. Grainger believed that his creativity was tied to his sexual drive, and that flagellation triggered them both.
His approach was somewhat clinical: he recorded his activities with notes and photographs, some of which were taken with strategically placed mirrors. He devised protective garments to avoid permanent physical damage and experimented with different kinds of whips. Among the 83 whips preserved in the Museum are some he made from recycled conductors’ batons!
The publication in 1976, 15 years after the composer’s death, of British musicologist John Bird’s Grainger biography sparked renewed international interest in this exceptional Australian. It was followed by many further books, several important exhibitions, two plays and a film. Thérèse Radic’s play A Whip Round for Percy Grainger was premiered by Playbox in Melbourne in 1982. That same year, Rob George’s Percy and Rose was produced for the Adelaide Festival, with Dennis Olsen as Grainger. John Bird’s book and George’s play were the basis for the 1999 film Passion with Richard Roxburgh as Grainger and Barbara Hershey as his mother.
Today, new generations are exploring and celebrating the life and work of Percy Grainger. His compositions are being programmed for concerts and broadcasts and his music is being recorded anew. The Grainger Museum’s collection is widely used but, sadly, the building that Grainger built to house it is far from ideal. It is on the Heritage Council of Victoria’s Register of Historic Buildings and the University of Melbourne is committed to its restoration and upgrading.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
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
Photograph taken by Morse courtesy National Library of Australia pic-an12401036