Percy Grainger – Pianist and Champion of Folk Music May 14 2021
Australian-born pianist and composer Percy Grainger is often credited with helping to revive interest in British folk music in the early 20th century. His work and his personal life were colorful, leaving behind a legacy that people continue to discuss. Explore the life of Percy Grainger to gain more insight into this unique composer.
Percy Grainger Was a Piano Prodigy
Percy Grainger was born on July 8, 1882 in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.
His father was John Harry Grainger (1854-1917), an English immigrant who arrived in Australia in 1877 and an accomplished architect and civil engineer. His mother, Rose, was a self-taught expert on many topics and chose to supervise Percy’s education at home.
The family was relatively well off and lived a comfortable lifestyle. However, Percy’s father was also a womanizer that had fathered a child with another woman before departing for Australia.
The parents stayed together until 1890 when Percy’s father left for medical treatment in Australia. This allowed Rose to devote even more of her attention to Percy’s studies, including literature and music.
From an early age, Percy Grainger was fascinated with the Nordic culture. He was also a talented artist and pianist. Some of his early tutors believed he was destined for a career in the arts instead of music. However, the piano was his focus.
At the age of 10, his mother arranged for the leading piano teacher in Melbourne, Louis Pabst, to provide piano lessons, improve his piano technique. A year later, Grainger composed his first song, “A Birthday Gift to Mother.”
In 1894, Grainger performed his first public concert at Melbourne’s Masonic Hall. Pabst departed for Germany that same year and was replaced by Adelaide Burkitt.
Burkitt arranged additional appearances at larger venues. The size of the halls initially scared young Percy. He was only 12 years old when he played at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. Despite his nerves, he received a positive response from critics.
Grainger Travels to Germany to Study Piano
After Grainger’s early success, his mother decided he would benefit from additional piano studies in Germany. On May 29, 1895, mother and son moved to Frankfurt so Percy could study at Hoch Conservatory.
Grainger’s mother, Rose, started working as an English teacher. Grainger’s father remained in Australia but sent money to help support Rose and Percy.
Grainger adapted well to the new school, other than some difficulties with his first composition teacher. He dropped out of the composition classes and studied privately with an amateur composer named Karl Klimsch.
Klimsch was a folk-music composer and a major influence on Grainger’s composition style. He also encouraged Grainger to form the Frankfurt Group with several fellow students. The group aimed to preserve British and Scandinavian folk music and protect them from modern European influences.
Grainger soon transitioned away from replicating the styles of Mozart and Handel. He began developing unique orchestral pieces, including several original compositions designed to accompany the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.
Grainger spent a little over five years at Hoch Conservatory, honing his craft until he believed he could financially support himself and Rose. He decided he would start his professional career in London and moved to the UK in 1901.
Grainger Quickly Establishes Himself in London
It did not take long for Percy Grainger to start making a living in London. He was a charming young man and talented pianist, allowing him to find work as a pianist playing private concerts in the homes of wealthy patrons.
As Grainger made the rounds of high society, he became acquainted with Lilith Lowrey. Lowrey was a London socialite and about two decades older than Grainger. However, the two soon established an intimate relationship and Lowrey supplied Grainger with access to more wealthy contacts.
The year of 1902 was a busy year for Grainger. He performed his first concert with an orchestra as a piano soloist and toured Britain with opera singer Adelina Patti and her accompanying orchestra.
Preserving Original Folk Songs
In 1905, Percy Grainger began pursuing a longtime ambition of preserving folk music. His renewed interest in collecting songs came after attending a lecture given by folk-song historian Lucy Broadwood. He spent five years gathering and transcribing original music carried down through the generations.
Grainger eventually collected over 300 songs during his travels. Along with transcribing the music, he started recording it. Grainger was one of the first music collectors to capture live music using a phonograph. He recorded 200 phonograph cylinders of performances from native folk musicians.
World War Leads Grainger to Another Country
By 1911, Grainger had spent about a decade as a professional pianist. He was happy with his stature in the music world and ready to start publishing his original compositions. He also adopted the professional name – “Percy Aldridge Grainger.”
The following year, he performed a series of concerts to showcase his original compositions. Grainger’s performance at London’s Queen’s Hall in March 1912 included a band of 30 guitarists and mandolin players.
Everything was going great for Percy Grainger until the start of World War I. As Britain prepared to enter the war, Grainger moved across the seas to the United States. Grainger’s contemporaries and critics considered him a coward for leaving.
At the time, Grainger told the press that he wanted to leave for America to give his mother a change of scenery. He later admitted that he left to avoid the possibility of being killed during the war, which would keep him from reaching his goal of becoming Australia’s first noteworthy composer.
Despite leaving England to avoid the war, he eventually enlisted as a bandsman in the United States Army. He played the saxophone in the band but also had frequently played the piano at Red Cross concerts. As an encore, he played “Country Gardens.” The piece quickly became a best-seller in the sheet music industry.
On June 3, 1918, Grainger became a naturalized American
citizen. The following year, he left the Army. He was immediately offered a job as the conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Grainger preferred the freedom of working as a concert pianist and refused the offer.
Grainger performed over 100 concerts a year for the next several years. He also took the time to occasionally teach a music course, including a course on piano techniques that he taught at the Chicago Musical College.
Tragedy Leads Grainger Back to Europe
In April of 1921, Grainger and his mother moved into a house in White Plains, New York. The house became known as the “Percy Grainger Home and Studio” and would serve as Grainger’s home for the rest of his life.
After moving to White Plains, Rose Grainger’s health gradually deteriorated. The situation grew dire in 1922. She was experiencing delusions and worried that her health may impact her son’s professional career.
Rose also worried about rumors of an incestuous relationship with her son. Lotta Hough, a friend of Rose’s, confronted her over this issue during a final correspondence posted on April 29, 1922.
The following day, Rose wrote a short letter to Percy, asking if he had discussed an “improper love” with Lotta Hough. Shortly after writing the letter, Rose jumped from the 18th floor of an office building in New York City.
Percy Grainger was traumatized by Rose’s death. After his mother’s funeral, Grainger left for Europe. He hoped that returning to work would distract him from his grief.
Grainger traveled through Europe collecting and recording Danish folk music, forging friendship with important composers such as Frederick Delius and Edvard Grieg. By the end of the year, he began a concert tour that included stops in England, Germany, Australia, Norway, and the Netherlands.
Grainger Gets Married and Becomes a Professor
During his travels back and forth between America, Europe, and Australia, Grainger met a Swedish-born artist named Ella Strom. The two grew close over the next several years and married on August 9, 1928. The wedding was held following one of Grainger’s concerts, which ended with the bridal song “To a Nordic Princess.”
Married life may have led Grainger to settle down a little. Instead of constantly touring, he became more involved in education. He began teaching at various schools and colleges.
In 1931, Grainger accepted a position as Professor of Music at New York University. He disliked the structure of working at the university and devoted his free time to establishing a museum in Melbourne, Australia.
Grainger and his wife, Ella, traveled to Australia in 1933 to supervise the construction of the Grainger Museum. Around this time, Grainger also began sharing his “free-music” theories.
Grainger had come to believe that scales, rhythms, and traditional musical rules were too constrictive. He also believed that free music would work best without humans, leading him to spend countless hours working on a machine to produce nonhuman music.
World War II and Declining Health
At the start of World War II, Grainger and Ella moved to Springfield, Missouri out of fear of an invasion on the east coast. Grainger spent his time playing charity concerts, making a total of 274 appearances during the war.
When the war came to a close, Grainger was exhausted and began to believe that his career was a failure. By 1950, Grainger had stopped composing, rarely performed, and focused on building free-music machines.
His final years were spent sporadically performing his own music at select performances in the United States. He died in a hospital in his adopted hometown of White Plains on February 20, 1961. He was 78 years old and left a legacy as a major factor in the revival of folk music in Britain.
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