Percy Grainger – Sado-Masochistic Musical Maverick

Day 62 of Colourisation Project – July 8

Born this day, July 8 in 1882, Percy Aldridge Grainger was an Australian composer, arranger and pianist who played a prominent role in the revival of British folk music in the early years of the 20th century.

Born in Melbourne suburb of Brighton, Grainger was a prolific a composer with well over 1200 works and arrangements produced. He also made many adaptations of other composers’ works. Grainger was a pioneer in what he termed “free music”. Although much of his work was experimental and unusual, the piece he is  best remembered for is his piano arrangement of the traditional air, In an English Country Garden. However as its popularity grew so too did his disdain for the tune.

Percy Grainger

Photographer – Frederick Morse – Percy Grainger 1901 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Grainger left Australia at the age of 13 to attend the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Between 1901 and 1914 he was based in London, where he established himself first as a society pianist and later as a concert performer, composer and collector of original folk melodies. In 1914, Grainger moved to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life, taking up US citizenship in 1918.

Grainger has been described as a loose cannon whose personal eccentricities threatened to overshadow his achievement. In 1945 he devised his own composer-rating system and ranked himself ninth, below Delius but above Mozart and Tchaikovsky. He placed Bach the top of the list because “if he were living today, I feel Bach would include ragtime, Schonbergism, musical comedy, Strauss and all the grades in between.”[1]

Undeniably a narcissistic eccentric, Percy Grainger set up the Grainger Museum on the grounds of the University of Melbourne, in 1938 as a monument to his life and works and as an archive for future research. It is the only purpose-built autobiographical museum in Australia and still operates today. Grainger who made little secret of his sado-masochistic proclivities even entrusted the museum with what he referred to as his ‘Lust Branch’, a large collection of whips, pornography and blood-stained shirts: “Music is the art of agony,” he noted. “It derives, after all, from screaming.[2]

For all of his musical genius, there is a darker side to Grainger’s personality that can not be ignored. He was in no uncertain terms a supercilious racist. Grainger regarded Scandinavia as the wellspring of racial purity. He believed in the superiority of blue-eyed Nordic races and scorned other ethnic groups —‘the hostile world of rough, harsh dark-eyed people’–increasing in reverse proportion to degrees of latitude. A 1954 article entitled ‘The Things I Dislike’ began ‘Almost everything. First of all foreigners, which means: all Europeans except the British, the Scandinavians & the Dutch.’” [3]

Ill health slowed him down in his older age but he continued to give concerts and to rearrange his own compositions. He gave his last concert in 1960, less than a year before his death.

Grainger left instructions that his bones be preserved, and possibly displayed, within his Grainger Museum and that he be buried alongside his mother in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery.  His first request was declined upon his death in 1961 and he was duly buried in Adelaide.

____________________________________________________________

“A typical English country garden is more likely to be a vegetable plot than used to grow flowers, so you can think of turnips as I play it.” Percy Grainger

1. Percy Aldridge Grainger A Study, D.C.Parker – G Schirmer New York – Boston
2. Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger, Edited by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear & Mark Carroll 2006
3. Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger, Edited by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear & Mark Carroll 2006

NOTE: My eyes are not blue and after researching and writing today’s post, I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to In an English Country Garden again with the same appreciation I once had for it.

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5 Responses to Percy Grainger – Sado-Masochistic Musical Maverick

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. A talented but deeply conflicted man. Regards Thom.

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  2. Grainger’s racism is a rather tricky area as he was so often contradictory is his own writing. He did say many of those things in old age (however, in that particular quote qualifying his definition of foreigners as “white men who gesticulate, shrug shoulders, who add ‘expression’ to their speech” which could be practically anyone!) but he was also a great supporter of black American music and musicians (in an era when this was not at all the done thing) and very interested in documentation and preservation of the music of indigenous Australian, NZ and Pacific Islanders – one of the goals of his museum! He was actually super progressive in that sense and it makes me sad to see him sometimes written off as a supercilious racist.
    (Sorry, Grainger’s one of my big research areas – nice photo, by the way!!)

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    • Loredana Isabella Crupi says:

      Thanks for your input, Sarah into discussion about someone who is undoubtedly a complex character. I could never do him justice here in this limited blog. I did come across some info about his support of black American music but I guess this was overshadowed by his outrageous claims about the superiority of one race over another. It has certainly made me want to explore him further and I think a visit to the Grainger Museum in my home town, Melbourne is in order.

      Glad you like the colourised photo!

      Cheers
      Lori 🙂

      Like

      • Oh wow, I’m from Melbourne too! Definitely have a look at the museum – it may seem like a narcissistic idea initially, but he really intended it to preserve Australian music in general, not just for himself. (and the whole autobiographical museum thing isn’t that weird globally, just look at John Soane in London!) There’s also a fantastic collection of music by female composers of the era (Again, something not generally approved of at the time and another one of my super-nerdy-research-interests)

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