Classical Music classical CDs reviewed New CD reviews every day latest Classical CD releases Buy your CDs of the classics here

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Book Review

Oxford University Press 1999 (Third Edition). Hardback 376 pages
ISBN 0-19-816652-4 £25
 Amazon UK   Amazon USA

What an extraordinarily colourful character Percy Grainger was. He was boyishly good looking, articulate with a wide vocabulary, fluent in a number of languages and remarkably musically gifted, pioneering new forms and questioning established orthodoxy. He was generous to his friends, giving away vast amounts of money while he led an almost spartan existence. He was extremely athletic and fit. He ran great distances often to concert engagements, he would sleep naked on the top of a piano with a window wide open to winter blasts, and he would burn off excess energy, as a passenger on long voyages by stoking the ships' boilers.

On the other hand he was wildly inconsistent. He was anti-Semitic and obsessed with what he regarded as the purity of the Nordic races and the corruptness of all Latin influences. His sexual predilections were dark; he was interested in homosexuality, incest, sado-masochism -- self-inflicted whip flagellism (he often used to launder his shirts himself to remove the blood-stains) and paedophilia. Quirkily he wrote: "…love is the cruellest thing in human affairs. I like only those things that leave men and women perfectly free. The only kind of love I like is platonic love…" Yet as Bird says, "…despite the apparent inconsistencies of his thinking and the abnormality of his psychological make-up, he was nonetheless a man of total integrity."

Bird's coverage of the more distressing features of Grainger's make-up is tactful yet honest. He covers, in considerable depth, the relationship between Percy and his mother Rose. Opinions will be divided about her. Some may consider her to be almost heroic in her stoical acceptance of the syphilis that she caught from her husband and because of the sacrifices she made to further Percy's career. Others might think a deal less of her for her arrogant and dismissive behaviour towards her husband John Grainger that probably drove him to drink and other women. Her strictness and overbearing personality coupled with her extreme possessiveness practically emasculated him. She never allowed Percy to mix with other children; she so closely supervise his tutoring that his hapless pupils were dismissed the minute their allotted lessons were completed, and she interfered in all his love affairs often signalling their termination. Her gruesome descent into madness and her very public death, following smear rumours alleging an incestuous relationship between herself and Percy, makes harrowing reading.

Bird covers Percy's erratic love life including his first sexual affair, with socialite Mrs Mrs Frank Lowrey who threatened to withdraw her support of his blossoming career in London if he did not become her lover. Then there was the bizarre, smouldering, yet unconsummated ménage à trois involving Herman and Alfhild Sandby and himself; the love-by-letter affair with Karen Holten; and, after Rose's death, Percy's marriage to Ella Viola Ström, including the bizarre wedding ceremony conducted in front of thousands after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

The book covers the life and works of Grainger from his early life in Australia and his studies in Frankfurt, through to his early successes and folk song collecting activities in England to his later life in the USA as a naturalised American citizen (1918). The book covers and comments on his compositions and musical experimentations including his Free Music and the extraordinary mechanical instruments he was developing at the time of his death.

His friendships with his fellow composers that comprised the "Frankfurt gang" especially Cyril Scott and Roger Quilter as well as those with Delius and Grieg are also covered. Ernest Newman, a critic vilified by Grainger, reckoned that he had heard Grainger playing "the most brilliant and individual performance of the Grieg pianoforte concerto that I have ever heard."

As Bird points out, Percy Grainger's contribution to the history of recorded music is significant. "In 1925 the Columbia Gramophone Company issued its first complete instrumental sonata set of the electrical recording era. It was of Grainger playing the Chopin Sonata in B minor…This performance has stood the test of time and is the recording to which connoisseurs always turn when Grainger's greatness as a pianist is being discussed. It is played with a ferocity and wild abandon that is at times frightening, and despite the judicious cuts, the few wrong notes and characteristic double strike of the last chord (he did this in practically all his performances), it stands as one of the high points of recorded piano playing."

The book has: a Select Source List; a Catalogue of Grainger's Published Original Compositions and Arrangements; and an intriguing essay, demonstrating so much of Grainger's original musical thinking - "To Conductors and to Those Forming, or in Charge of, Amateur Orchestras, High School, College and Music School Orchestras and Chamber Music Bodies." It covers: elastic scoring, orchestral experimentation, orchestral use of keyboard players, abuses in the keyboard section, 'tuneful' percussion instruments, orchestral use of saxophones, 'How to achieve tonal balance in string sections' and 'Let our orchestras grow naturally." There is also a discography of performances by Grainger and a select discography of performances of Grainger's works by others.

This is the third edition of this acclaimed book. John Bird says that it has been considerably revised but does not amplify his claim by explaining what these revisions are and this reviewer, for one, had great difficulty in noticing anything earthshakingly new over previous editions. Bird rightly emphasises the disdain with which Grainger's compositions have been viewed by the "music intelligencia" who damn tunefulness and equate length and dryness with profundity and ignore the often great harmonic skill that underlies so many of Percy Grainger's miniatures. I do worry, however, that Bird, in his crusading zeal, tends to lay his Author's Preface arguments on with a trowel. In so doing he may be in danger of alienating the academics he is trying to convert.

Nevertheless, this is an invaluable document and an absorbing read

Ian Lace

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers : - The UK's Biggest Video Store

Concert and Show tickets


Musicians accessories

Click here to visit

Return to
CD reviews

Return to
Book Reviews