Percy Grainger

Percy Grainger

Photograph courtesy of the Australian Music Centre

Percy Aldridge Grainger was born at Brighton, near Melbourne, in 1882 and from an early age showed a precocious musical talent, making his first public appearance at the age of ten.

Following studies in Germany, he began a concert career in England and toured South Africa and Australia. In 1906 he met Grieg, who became enthusiastic about Grainger’s talent. He settled in the USA, giving a sensational debut in New York in 1915 and gave summer sessions in Chicago from 1919 to 1931.

At his marriage to Ella Viola Strom in 1928, a spectacular affair staged at the Hollywood Bowl, he conducted his work To a Nordic Princess. His wide-ranging musical output was influenced by his studies of folk music, and featured experimental combinations of traditional tonality with “gliding” intervals, the use of polyrhythm and unusual, even electronic, instruments.

As early as 1937, he wrote a quartet for electronic instruments, notating the pitch by zigzags and curves and rejected common Italian designations of tempi and dynamics. He founded a Museum in Melbourne to house his manuscripts, and instructed that his bones be preserved, and possibly displayed, within it (his request was declined and upon his death in 1961, he was buried in an ordinary manner). An energetic eccentric, Percy Grainger has gained a certain measure of affection and stature in the public mind as an Australian musical pioneer.

With every activity he touched he wished to involve himself to his fullest capacity, be it in studying the technical side of making piano rolls so that he could edit his own recordings, or dressing up as a South Sea islander to learn more of their culture, or constructing his own machines on which he could realise the flights of his musical fancy direct, free from conventional restrictions on rhythm and pitch. Such are the many talents of this fascinating man that it has taken the energies of many writers to begin to build up a total picture of his musical achievements.

Conscious of the way his name seemed always to be linked with folksong, Grainger was often at pains to emphasise what he regarded as his more important work: his original compositions using entirely his own ideas. For us who wish to perform and hear his music, this is too narrow a limitation, for Grainger is not just a composer, he is the door to a vast musical world suffused with his own vital influence. His scholarly attitude, his love of all kinds of music and his refreshing desire to become involved in all things has left us a legacy of music which includes experimental pieces, original works, folksettings and a considerable number of transcriptions and free arrangements of other composers that he imbued with his own special brand of musical magic.

(Reproduced with kind permission from the AMC website at www.australianmusiccentre.com.au)