Percy Aldridge Grainger (July 8, 1882–February 20, 1961) was an Australian-born American composer, arranger and pianist. His father, John Grainger (1854–1917), was a British-born architect who emigrated to Australia in 1877. In October 1880 he married Rose Annie Aldridge, daughter of Adelaide hotelier George Aldridge; the couple settled in Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne, where their only son was born on July 8, 1882. His name was registered as George Percy Grainger, but from his earliest days his family called him Percy. When Grainger was age 11, his parents separated. Except for three months’ formal schooling as a 12-year-old, during which he was bullied and ridiculed by his classmates, Percy was educated at home. Rose supervised his music and literature studies and engaged other tutors for languages, art, and drama. From his earliest lessons Percy developed a lifelong fascination with Nordic culture. As well as showing precocious musical talents, he displayed considerable early gifts as an artist, to the extent that his tutors thought his future might lie in art rather than music. At the age of 10 he began studying piano under Louis Pabst, a German emigré then considered to be Melbourne’s leading piano teacher. Grainger’s first known composition, “A Birthday Gift to Mother”, is dated 1893. Pabst arranged Grainger’s first public concert appearances, at Melbourne’s Masonic Hall in July and September 1894. The boy played works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Scarlatti.
After Pabst returned to Europe in the autumn of 1894, Grainger’s new piano tutor, Adelaide Burkitt, arranged for his appearances in a series of concerts in October 1894, at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. The size of this enormous venue horrified the young pianist; nevertheless, his performance delighted the Melbourne critics who dubbed him “the flaxen-haired phenomenon who plays like a master.” This public acclaim helped Rose to decide that her son should continue his studies at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Mother and son, the latter age 13, left Australia for Europe on May 29, 1895. Although he never returned permanently to Australia, Grainger maintained considerable patriotic feelings for his native land, and was proud of his Australian heritage. At the Hoch Conservatory Grainger’s piano tutor was James Kwast, who developed his young pupil’s skills to the extent that, within a year, Grainger was being lauded as a prodigy. Grainger’s original composition teacher, Iwan Knorr, but he withdrew from Knorr’s classes to study composition privately with an amateur composer and folk-music enthusiast, Karl Klimsch.
Together with a group of slightly older British students – Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner, Cyril Scott and Norman O’Neill, all of whom became his friends – Grainger helped form the “Frankfurt Group”, whose long-term objective was to rescue British and Scandinavian music from what they considered the negative influences of central European music. Encouraged by Klimsch, Grainger developed a personal compositional style the originality and maturity of which quickly impressed and astonished his friends. At this time Grainger discovered the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and began setting it to music. His mother became ill and could not work, so to replace lost income Grainger began giving piano lessons and public performances; his first solo recital was in Frankfurt on December 6, 1900. Meanwhile he continued his studies with Kwast, and increased his repertoire until he was confident he could maintain himself and his mother as a concert pianist. Having chosen London as his future base, in May 1901 Grainger abandoned his studies and, with Rose, left Frankfurt for England. In London, Grainger’s charm, good looks, and talent, with some assistance from the local Australian community, ensured that he was quickly taken up as a pianist by wealthy patrons, and was soon performing in concerts in private homes.
In London, when he found time he continued to compos. A letter dated July 21, 1901, indicates that he was working on his Marching Song of Democracy (a Walt Whitman setting), and had made good progress with the experimental works Train Music and Charging Irishrey. In his early London years he also composed Hill Song Number 1 (1902), an instrumental piece much admired by Busoni.[ In February 1902 Grainger made his first appearance as a piano soloist with an orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with the Bath Pump Room Orchestra. In October of that year he toured Britain in a concert party with Adelina Patti, the Italian-born opera singer. The following year he met the German-Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni and spent part of the 1903 summer in Berlin as Busoni’s pupil. Grainger returned to London in July 1903; almost immediately he departed with Rose on a 10-month tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as a member of a party organized by the Australian contralto Ada Crossley. In 1905, inspired by a lecture given by the pioneer folksong historian Lucy Broadwood, Grainger began to collect original folksongs. Starting at Brigg in Lincolnshire, over the next five years he gathered and transcribed more than 300 songs from all over the country, including much material that had never been written down before.
Grainger first met Edvard Grieg in May 1906. As a student Grainger had learned to appreciate the Norwegian’s harmonic originality, and by 1906 had several Grieg pieces in his concert repertoire, including the piano concerto. Grieg was greatly impressed with Grainger’s playing, and this culminated in Grainger’s ten-day visit in July 1907 to the composer’s Norwegian home, “Troldhaugen” near Bergen. After fulfilling a hectic schedule of concert engagements in Britain and continental Europe, in August 1908 Grainger accompanied Ada Crossley on a second Australasian tour. Some of his most successful and most characteristic pieces, such as “Mock Morris”, “Handel in the Strand”, “Shepherd’s Hey” and “Molly on the Shore” date from this period. In 1908 he obtained the tune of “Country Gardens” from the folk music specialist Cecil Sharp, though he did not fashion it into a performable piece for another ten years.
In 1911 Grainger finally felt confident enough of his standing as a pianist to begin large-scale publishing of his compositions. At the same time, he adopted the professional name of Percy Aldridge Grainger for his published compositions and concert appearances.
In April 1914 Grainger gave his first performance of Frederick Delius’s piano concerto, at a music festival in Torquay. Grainger’s first American tour began on February 11, 1915, with a recital at New York’s Aeolian Hall. In July 1915 Grainger formally registered his intention to apply for US citizenship. His 1916 piano composition In a Nutshell is the first 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. On June 9, 1917, after America’s entry into World War I, he enlisted as a bandsman in the Coast Artillery Corps of the US Army. On June 3, 1918 he became a naturalized American citizen. After leaving the army in January 1919, Grainger refused an offer to become conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and resumed his career as a concert pianist. In the summer of 1919 he led a course in piano technique at Chicago Musical College, the first of many such educational duties he would undertake in later years. Amid his concert and teaching duties, Grainger found time to rescore many of his works, a habit he continued throughout his life, and also to compose new pieces. His Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away, and the orchestral version of The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart both originated in this period.
In April 1921 Grainger moved with his mother to a large house in White Plains, New York. This was his home for the remainder of his life. From the beginning of 1922 Rose’s health deteriorated sharply, and she died on April 30, while Grainger was touring on the West Coast. After Rose’s funeral, Grainger sought solace in a return to work. In autumn 1922 he left for a year-long trip to Europe, where he collected and recorded Danish folksongs before a concert tour that took him to Norway, Holland, Germany and England. Grainger made further trips to Europe in 1925 and 1927, collecting more Danish folk music; this work formed the basis of the Suite on Danish Folksongs of 1928–30. He also visited Australia and New Zealand, in 1924 and again in 1926. In November 1926, while returning to America, he met Ella Viola Ström, a Swedish-born artist and poet with whom he developed a close friendship. In October 1927 the couple agreed to marry and did so on August 9, 1928 at the Hollywood Bowl. Ella had a daughter, Elsie, who had been born in 1909. Grainger always acknowledged her as a family member, and developed a warm personal relationship with her. In December, 1929 Grainger established himself as a musical innovator with a style of orchestration or arranging that he called “Elastic Scoring.”
From the late 1920s and early 1930s Grainger became involved increasingly with educational work in schools and colleges, and in late 1931 accepted a year’s appointment for 1932–33 as professor of music at New York University (NYU). The idea of establishing a Grainger Museum in Australia first occurred to Grainger in 1932. In September 1933 he and Ella went to Australia to begin supervising the building work. While the building of the museum proceeded, the Graingers visited England for several months in 1936, during which Grainger made his first BBC broadcast. In this, he conducted “Love Verses from The Song of Solomon” in which the tenor soloist was the then unknown Peter Pears. After spending 1937 in America, Grainger returned to Melbourne in 1938 for the official opening of the Museum. In the late 1930s Grainger spent much time arranging his works in settings for wind bands. He wrote A Lincolnshire Posy for the March 1937 convention of the American Band Masters’ Association in Milwaukee, and in 1939, on his last visit to England before the Second World War, he composed “The Duke of Marlborough’s Fanfare”, giving it the subtitle “British War Mood Grows.”
The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 curtailed Grainger’s overseas travelling. In the autumn of 1940, alarmed that the war might precipitate an invasion of the United States eastern seaboard, he and Ella moved temporarily to Springfield, Missouri, in the center of the country. From 1940 Grainger played regularly in charity concerts, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war in December 1941. In 1942 a collection of his Kipling settings, the Jungle Book cycle, was performed in eight cities by the choir of the Gustavus Adolphus College from St. Peter, Minnesota. Exhausted from his wartime concerts routine, Grainger spent much of 1946 on holiday in Europe. In 1947 he refused the Chair of Music at Adelaide University. On August 10, 1948, Grainger appeared at the London Proms, playing the piano part in his Suite on Danish Folksongs with the London Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron. In October 1953 Grainger was operated on for abdominal cancer; his fight against this disease would last for the rest of his life. He continued to appear at concerts, often in church halls and educational establishments rather than major concert venues. In 1954, he made his last Carnegie Hall appearance. During the 1950s Grainger virtually ceased to compose.
In September 1955 Grainger made his final visit to Australia, where he spent nine months organizing and arranging exhibits for the Grainger Museum. By 1957 his physical health had markedly declined, as had his powers of concentration. Nevertheless, he continued to visit Britain regularly; and in May of that year he made his only television appearance, in a BBC “Concert Hour” program when he played “Handel in the Strand” on the piano. Back home, after further surgery he recovered sufficiently to undertake a modest winter concerts season. On his 1958 visit to England he met Benjamin Britten, the two having previously maintained a mutually complimentary correspondence. He agreed to visit Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival in 1959, but was prevented by illness. Through the winter of 1959–60 Grainger continued to perform his own music, often covering long distances by bus or train. On April 29,1960, he gave his last public concert, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Subsequently confined to his home, he continued to revise his music and arrange that of others. His last letters, written from hospital in December 1960 and January 1961, record attempts to work, despite failing eyesight and hallucinations. Grainger died in the White Plains hospital on February 20, 1961, at the age of 78/.
The following works by Grainger are included in my collection:
Colonial Song (Sentimental No. 1).
Green Bushes, passacaglia on an English folksong (1906).
Irish Tune from County Derry (1913).
My Robin Is to the Greenwood Gone.
Shepherd’s Hey (1908).
Suite on Danish Folk Songs (or Danish Folk-Song Suite, 1927).
To a Nordic Princess (Bridal Song, 1928).
Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon, or The Caledonian Hunt’s Delight.
—material taken, adapted, and edited from several different sources