PERCY GRAINGER By John Bird
Oxford University Press 1999 (Third Edition). Hardback 376 pages
ISBN 0-19-816652-4 £25
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'
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
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
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