Percy Grainger

Percy Aldridge Grainer (born George Percy Grainer) was an Australian-born American pianist and composer was born to a father who was an emigrated architect from London, England, and a mother who was the daughter of hoteliers from South Australia, also of English immigrant stock.

When Grainger was 11, his parents separated. His father returned to London, and would never live with his wife and child again. His mother was very domineering and possessive, although cultured. She recognized his musical abilities, and took him to Europe in 1895 to study at Dr. Hoch’s conservatory in Frankfurt. It was at the conservatory where he began to display his talents as a musical experimenter, using irregular and unusual meters.

Grainger lived in London from 1901 until 1914. It was there that he befriended and was influenced by composer Edvard Grieg. Grieg had a passionate, longtime interest in the folk songs of his native Norway, and Grainger began to develop a particular interest in recording the folk songs of rural England. During this time period, he also wrote and performed piano compositions that preceded the forthcoming popularization of the “tone cluster” by Leo Ornstein and Henry Cowell.

Grainger moved to the United States at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. His 1916 piano composition In a Nutshell is the first piece by a classical music professional in the Western tradition to require direct, non-keyed sounding of the strings (in this case, with a mallet) which would come to be known as a “string piano” technique. When the USA entered the war in 1917, he enlisted into a United States Army band playing the oboe and soprano saxophone. He spent the duration of the war giving dozens of concerts in aid of War Bonds and Liberty Loans. In 1918, he became a naturalized citizen of the USA.

Though he grew to detest the piece as time went on, it was his piano solo Country Gardens that solidified his reputation and became an instant hit. With his newfound wealth and fame, Grainger and his mother settled in the suburb of White Plains, New York after the war. Rose Grainger’s health, both mental and physical, was in a downward spiral and she committed suicide in 1922 by jumping from the building where her son’s manager had her office. This “freed” Grainger from an over-intimate relationship with her (which many had incorrectly assumed to be incestuous) though his mother’s memory remained dear to him for the rest of his life. That same year, he traveled to Denmark, his first folk-music collecting trip to Scandinavia (though he had been there once before to visit Grieg) and the orchestration of the music of the region would shape much of his finest output.

In November 1926, Grainger (in the absence of his mother’s domination) met the Swedish artist and poet Ella Strom and fell in love at first sight. Their August 1828 wedding was lavish and excessive, taking place on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, following a concert before an audience of 20,000, and including an orchestra of 126 members and an acapella choir, who sang his new composition “To a Nordic Princess,” dedicated to Ella.

Grainger established himself again as a musical innovator in 1929 with a new style of orchestration that he called “Elastic Scoring”. This concept involves making extra and/or interchangeable musical parts which provide substitutions for more or less musicians (depending on what is required for an individual performance.) The technique also allows for works to be played in smaller communities where the required instruments may not be accessible. He explicated these ideas in an essay he titled, “To Conductors, and those forming, or in charge of, Amateur Orchestra, High School, College and Music School Orchestras and Chamber-Music Bodies.” In 1932 he was appointed Dean of Music at New York University, and further added to his reputation of being an experimenter by including jazz on the syllabus and inviting Duke Ellington as a guest lecturer. After a short period of time, he discovered academic life to be extremely difficult and abandoned it forever.

In 1940, the Graingers moved to Springfield, Missouri. Percy again began touring, giving a series of army concerts during World War II. However, after the war, his spirits were hit hard with a combination of many things, including: poor health, a decline in his ability as a pianist, and a decrease in the popularity of classical music. In 1960, he made his last appearance at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. In his last years he worked in collaboration with Burnett Cross, and created the “Free Music Machine”, a forerunning contemporary of the electric synthesizer. He died in White Plains, New York from cancer and was buried in Adelaide, Australia. His personal files and records have been preserved at The Grainger Museum in the grounds of the University of Melbourne. (Grainger himself helped design and oversaw construction of the museum.) The headquarters of the International Percy Grainger Society can be found at the Grainger house in White Plains, where many of his instruments and scores remain, under the care of archivist Stuart Manville. Manville wed Percy's widow Ella in 1972 and became a widower on her death in 1979.

Aside from his music, Grainger was an individual with many controversial beliefs. Notably, he was a believer in the racial superiority of blond-haired and blue-eyed Northern Europeans. In letters and manuscripts, he recounts his detailed attempts to use only what he called “blue-eyed English”. This language eliminated all foreign influences, hence why many Grainger scores use words such as “louden,” “soften,” and “holding back” instead of the standard Italian musical terms “crescendo,” “diminuendo,” and “meno mosso. This racial thinking was inconsistently and eccentrically applied, as he was friends with both Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.

Throughout his lifetime, Grainger was widely recognized as a virtuoso pianist and arranger of popular English folk song. His primary contribution to music, however, lies in his prolific output as a composer of expert and highly original works. Throughout his life, he actively collected folk music tunes and instruments from around the world, including Ireland and Bali, and eagerly incorporated these findings into his own musical works. In his quest to assimilate as much unique musical culture as possible, Grainger inadvertently became one of the first ethnomusicologists to use the wax cylinder phonograph in the collection and transcription of indigenous music.

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