Percy Grainger

percy grainger
Percy Grainger by Holman & Paget © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

Biography

Percy Grainger was an Australian concert pianist, composer and phonographer, who is recognised for collecting and setting folk music, as well as his experimental compositions and his early adoption of electronic instruments.

Who was Percy Grainger?

Percy Grainger (1882–1961) was an Australian concert pianist and composer, who is recognised for collecting and setting folk music (and particularly remembered for his piano arrangement of Country Gardens), as well as his experimental compositions and his early adoption of electronic instruments. He left Australia in 1895, living in Europe until 1914, before emigrating to the United States at the outbreak of World War One.  

What did Grainger do in his early years and what were his influences?

Born in Melbourne, Grainger was raised and educated almost solely by his mother, Rose, whose influence remained strong throughout his life. He showed considerable talent in languages and art, and his early years were marked by a fascination with Nordic culture, particularly the music of Edvard Grieg, and the Icelandic saga Grettir the Strong. Grainger’s earliest known compositions and public performances began at the age of 11, and he later attributed his rather brash piano technique to childhood fears that audiences in vast concert halls would not be able to hear him. His success as a pianist encouraged him to travel to Frankfurt to study. He attended the Hoch Conservatory between 1895 and 1901, where he met many British students including Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardiner and Roger Quilter. Moving to London in 1901, he formed significant friendships with Grieg, and later Frederick Delius, with whom he believed he shared a special compositional affinity.

What did Grainger write?

Despite composing throughout his life, Grainger was worried his unconventional techniques would scare audiences away, and did not promote himself as a composer until he had an established reputation as a pianist. In 1911 – only after encouragement from Delius – Grainger began to publish and perform his own works. A number of pieces including Mock Morris and Handel in the Strand achieved immediate acclaim. Other significant works include his largest, The Warriors: Music for an Imaginary Ballet, his In a Nutshell suite, and a song cycle based on Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Grainger was also one of the first to collect folksongs using a phonograph, travelling around Britain and Scandinavia (particularly in Denmark with the help of Evald Tang Kristensen), and later Polynesia, recording and transcribing songs sung by locals. Many of these would form the basis of later vocal, piano, and orchestral settings.

What was Grainger’s 'free music'?

As he aged, Grainger’s compositional practice developed with his desire to create a 'democratic' form of music, without any hierarchy of performers, instruments, or even formal structures such as pitch and rhythm. Influenced, he said, by the rippling of water on a lake he remembered from childhood, Grainger began to make experimental 'beatless' and 'free' music, using improvisation, aleatory (chance) techniques, and 'gliding' tones on string instruments and theremins. With the help of American physicist Burnett Cross he eventually constructed a number of ‘free music machines’ which removed the need for a human performer altogether.

When did Grainger die and what was his legacy?

Grainger died in New York in 1961, having fought cancer for nearly a decade. He was buried in Adelaide, Australia, despite his request to have his body preserved and put on display in the museum he had established for himself in the 1930s at the University of Melbourne. The Grainger Museum itself has become an important scholarly resource, conserving his music, writings and correspondence, and much material relating to his contemporaries. The archive documents all aspects of his personality, including his eccentric dress, athleticism, Nordicist racism, and sadomasochistic practices. Musically, Grainger’s folksong collections and approach to their settings are still regarded as deeply influential, his experimental music ahead of its time, and his brass band works considered among the best of the genre.

Further information about the life of Percy Grainger can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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