Percy Grainger (1882-1961)



Donald Macleod focuses on Grainger's upbringing in Melbourne and study in Frankfurt.

This week, Donald Macleod explores the unconventional life and music of Percy Grainger.

In today's programme, he eavesdrops on Grainger's hot-house upbringing in Melbourne, where he was home-schooled by his obsessive mother, Rose; his years of musical study in Frankfurt, where he teamed up with a group of English composers, Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner, Cyril Scott and Norman O'Neill; and his move to London, where he embarked on a career as a concert pianist, struck up a close friendship with Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and made an energetic contribution to the burgeoning English folksong movement.


Donald Macleod focuses on how Grainger established himself as a pianist.

In today's programme, Grainger finds himself in demand as a concert pianist, and with the backing of his old friend Balfour Gardiner has his first taste of success as a composer too.

At first, London must have seemed the perfect base for his activities, but when war was declared in August 1914, he and his mother Rose decided to up sticks and head out of harm's way - to the Big Apple - on the not unreasonable grounds that a war casualty could not become Australia's first significant composer.

In New York, Grainger quickly established himself as a pianist, becoming known as "the Siegfried of the piano" for his dashing good looks.

He found himself a publisher and commissions started to follow - one of the earliest resulted in one of his best-known compositions, the orchestral suite In a Nutshell.

A promised ballet commission from the conductor Thomas Beecham failed to materialize, but Grainger wrote the work anyway; it became his "imaginary ballet", The Warriors, one of his most original and inventive scores.


Donald Macleod focuses on Grainger's adoption of US citizenship and his marriage.

At the start of today's programme, Grainger - a pacifist - joins the US army, as Bandsman, 2nd Class.

Soon after, he was to plant still deeper roots on that side of the pond by becoming an American citizen and buying a house for himself and his mother Rose, about an hour's journey from New York - a faintly Oedipal domestic idyll which would be rudely shattered the following year, when Rose committed suicide by throwing herself from the 14th storey of Grainger's management office.

Grainger's reaction was to throw himself into his work - a music festival, a teaching commitment and a protracted European tour.

By this time, his arrangement of 'Country Gardens' was flying off the shelves of music shops everywhere at a phenomenal rate, making trips to his native Australia affordable.

It was on the return journey from one such trip that he met his "Nordic princess", Ella Viola Ström, who approached him in the ship's music room for a banjulele lesson and ended up with a husband.

Their wedding ceremony - and indeed their marriage - was as unconventional as Grainger himself.


Donald Macleod focuses on Grainger's founding a museum of himself.

In today's programme, Grainger turns adversity to advantage in 'The Immovable Do' - a charming short composition built around a stuck key on his harmonium.

Around the same time, he came up with the mildly eccentric idea of founding, in effect, a museum of Himself - the Grainger Museum - in his home town of Melbourne, Australia.

It's a little as if Elvis had opened Graceland as a visitor attraction while he was still alive! The Grainger Museum may sound like a monstrously self-regarding enterprise, but in fact, with its display of first editions of his music, it came to represent to Grainger "a measure of his artistic defeat" rather than a celebration of his achievements; as he noted in an introduction to the proposed display, most of his music was no longer being played - and, as he put it, "music that isn't heard isn't alive." Another example of Grainger's unusual slant on reality was his concept of 'blue-eyed English' - an attempt to turn back the linguistic clock and expunge all traces of post-Norman-Conquest verbiage from the English language.

Accordingly, concerts were 'tone-shows', quartets became 'foursomes' and vegetarians mutated into 'meat-shunners'.

Grainger even went so far as to collaborate on a blue-eyed English dictionary, whose Newspeakish goal was to eliminate all alien admixtures from the language.

Grainger carried on presenting his own 'tone-shows' - as an internationally celebrated concert pianist.

But here too he acquired a reputation for eccentric behaviour - not many performers fulfil their touring commitments by jogging from one engagement to the next, with their concert clothes in a rucksack on their back; but Grainger did, even becoming known as 'the jogging pianist'.

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Donald Macleod focuses on Graingers's Jungle Book Cycle and his 'greatest hits'.

The main work in today's programme is Grainger's Jungle Book cycle, which he worked on, on and off, for nearly 50 years.

It's the culmination of his boyhood love of Rudyard Kipling, instilled in him in his teens by his father, who wanted to "tickle up the British lion in him" during his years at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt.

Shortly before Grainger completed his Kipling cycle, he had performed the Grieg Piano Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl under the baton of Leopold Stokowksi.

The two men enjoyed working together, and a couple of years later, Stokowksi, a master-arranger himself, wrote to Grainger asking if he would make fresh arrangements for a new recording of his 'greatest hits' - Molly on the Shore, Irish Tune from County Derry, Early One Morning, Handel in the Strand, Mock Morris and Country Gardens.

Grainger was evidently very pleased with the resultant recordings, but remained deeply ambivalent about his own achievements as a composer: "I am not very fond of my own music.

If there is anything I hate it is listening to my own silly music and having to sit there like a fool while I see how much others also dislike it.".