Percy Grainger

1882 1961

Percy Grainger

Composer

Biography

Percy Grainger was an Australian-American composer, best known for his collections and settings of British folksongs. As well as his folksong collecting, he also composed his own music that was original and innovative in its own right. He was also a highly esteemed pianist and educator.

Percy Grainger was born in Brighton in Victoria, Australia and spent most of the first 13 years of his life living in Melbourne. He was home-schooled by his mother Rose and he also took piano lessons with Louis Pabst, showing great skill from the outset. He made his Melbourne debut as a pianist in 1894, aged 12. Soon after, he was sent to study piano in Frankfurt with James Kwast and composition and theory with Iwan Knorr. During his formative years, he was highly influenced by the writings of Walt Whitman and Rudyard Kipling.

In 1901, Grainger moved to London, where he made a name for himself as a concert pianist and gave private piano lessons. Although Grainger briefly studied in Berlin with Feruccio Busoni and made a concert tour with the contralto Ada Crossley, London remained his base between 1901 and 1914. This was the period in which he first collected, transcribed and arranged English folk songs, for which he would become renowned. Schott publishers made his works available in 1911 and the first concert dedicated entirely to Grainger’s works took place a year later. The most popular of his collected works from this period wereShepherd’s Hey, Molly on the Shore and Handel in the Strand.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Grainger moved to the United States of America, where his reputation as a London-based artist aided his assimilation into the New York musical life. He had a lucrative career there and had a contract with Columbia Records for creating gramophone recordings and with the Duo-Art company for making pianola (also known as player-piano) rolls. He also started a contract with the Schirmer publishers, leading to his compositions and folksong collections being widely distributed across the USA. Grainger’s first American tour began at New York’s Aeolian Hall, where he performed piano works byBach, Brahms, Handel and Schumann and his own compositionsColonial Song and Mock Morris.

From 1917 to 1919, Grainger served in the US army where he played the oboe and saxophone in the army band and later became the band instructor. During his time in the war, he composed his piano pieceCountry Gardens, which was a setting of an English Morris dance tune, which was published in 1919 and became one of Grainger’s most popular piano works of the time.

From the 1920s, Grainger made frequent visits to Europe, particularly to England and Scandinavia, being a Nordic language enthusiast. He also made a conscious effort to visit his native Australia to keep old friendships and family relationships alive, following the traumatic suicide of his mother, who had thrown herself off a New York skyscraper in 1922. On his frequent trips to Denmark, he collaborated with the ethnologist Evald Tang Kristensen in collecting folksongs. Grainger dedicated hisDanish Folk Music Suite (1928) to Kristensen. On one of his many ship voyages across the Atlantic, he met and fell in love with Ella Ström from Sweden, whom he married in 1928 at a Hollywood Bowl concert featuring the premiere of hisTo a Nordic Princess.

During the 1930s Grainger became more active as an educator and was chair of the music department of New York University from 1932 to 1933. He presented a series of lectures entitled ‘The Manifold Nature of Music’ and subsequently made 12 Australian radio lectures called ‘Music: A Common-sense View of All Types’. These titles give a good insight into Grainger’s approach to music – he had an ‘all-rounder’ outlook. He strived for a music free of snobbish classifications, a music that is part of the ‘fearless all-embracingness of science’, much like how music had been regarded in classical Greece.

As an educator, he became interested in working with amateurs and saw the vital importance of music in the community and in schools and colleges. Inspired by his time spent working with community bands, he completed his Lincolnshire Posy in 1937, which he referred to as ‘a bunch of musical wildflowers’. Grainger gave his last ever American tour as a concert pianist in 1948 and thereafter he continued to lecture as well as giving performances in schools and colleges. In 1957, he made his only television appearance: he performed his piano pieceHandel in the Strand on BBC’s ‘Concert Hour’. The following year he metBenjamin Britten but illness prevented him from attending Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival.  In his final years, he suffered from cancer and died in White Plains hospital, New York, aged 78. His body was flown to his native Australia where he was buried beside his mother.

Grainger stated: ‘My music expresses certain sides, in any event, and I almost think that my emotional life and the life of my thoughts have more to say than my artistic life, and will, in the future, be regarded as being of the same, or greater, significance'.

While Grainger did not develop a particular Australian national style, the fact that Grainger was from Australia was in itself refreshing to the generation of Australian composers that cropped up from the 1960s onwards. His skill at arranging folksongs was of huge value to British composers for decades after, from Benjamin Britten’s time onwards. Grainger’s educational legacy was particularly strong and his influence was held in high regard during his 40-year contribution to music education in Britain and the USA.