Percy Grainger: Much more than folk

Percy Grainger circa 1920 Percy Grainger circa 1920 - © By permission of the Percy Grainger Estate
Posted: Tue Feb 8 2011

Best known for his folksong arrangements, Australian composer Percy Grainger had an intriguing diversity of styles, as Time Out discovers from festival curator Penelope Thwaites

'He lived in a democratic way - we are taking about a man who would have a fee for a concert, would sit up over night instead of taking a sleeper train and give the balance of the money to charity. The folksingers who gave him the tunes, he made sure they got their royalties. He lived a life of that kind of hard work. He knew he had his faults and his dark side, but that was confined to his personal life; the way he lived publicly and dealt with people was honourable, forward-looking and very democratic - and I find that inspiring! I'm afraid, if people dismiss Percy Grainger, I am very tempted to dismiss them.'

As Penelope Thwaites speaks about the Australian composer Percy Grainger in her own slight Antipodean twang, it is impossible not to inspired by her admiration and affection for the man. Grainger was born in Melbourne in 1882 and is best known for folk-song arrangements and for being something of an eccentric. It is less known that he was a man of boundless energy, a virtuoso concert pianist, a showman (who got married in front of 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl) and a composer of daring experimentation.

Many will be aware of his parlour favourites, such as 'Country Gardens' and 'Handel in the Strand', and his many folk settings, 'Shepherd's Hey' and 'Molly on the Shore', which he enlivened with fresh accompaniments. But to stop there would be to ignore a vast and diverse body of work. And this is Thwaites's mission at Kings Place - over eight concerts in three days, she hopes to encapsulate what Grainger was about, with the help of theremins, the Royal Artillery Band, various Guildhall School brass and wind ensembles, a pianola, a choir and, of course, pianos. All the arrangements are
the composer's - like Ferrabosco's 'Pavan' for saxophone and choir, and a six-hand piano reduction of his own symphonic epic 'The Warriors'.

As such a multi-dimensional figure, Grainger cannot be spoken of by Thwaites without the preface, 'I'm sorry to have to refer to the book again, but there is a very good chapter on…' The book in question is 'The New Percy Grainger Companion', which has been edited by Thwaites and published just in time for the concerts, followed by a day at the British Library on Feb 20 - exactly 50 years since he died.

Thwaites is herself a respected concert pianist and the leading authority on Grainger's music. She advises that it might be best to catch this eclectic celebration because 'I don't think it will happen again, because no one else will be stupid enough to go to all that trouble.'

How have you come to be the leading exponent of Grainger's music?
'I was captivated more than 30 years ago by a recording made by Benjamin Britten. It just had such life and a wonderful quality about it that I've been researching him ever since and recorded over 250 tracks of his music.'

How important are his folk settings?
'A vast element of his music is the wonderful folk-song settings. Britten, for instance, was a fan. He said, “In the art of setting folk tunes, Grainger is my master.” '

Did he like to push the boundaries?
'Exactly. He loved the theremin, for instance. One of his many original ideas, actually in tune with what developed later, was that he thought at the beginning of 1900s of “free music” - which would move freely and not be constrained by keys and regular rhythms, so it would move like the sounds of nature. He wanted to find ways of doing this and built machines with the help of a physicist. He also loved the sound of the saxophone - he was always experimenting with new instruments.'

And pianolas…
'The interesting thing about the pianola concert is you can actually hear Grainger himself playing on several of the piano rolls. And one of those pieces is an absolute riot. It is called “In Dahomey”, which he called “a cakewalk smasher”. He loved theatrical music; what he doesn't do on the piano is nobody's business. I have played that piece and it is one of the busiest five minutes I've ever spent at the keyboard; it is great fun'.

Is his music easy to play on piano?
'No, it is difficult. For example, you need to solve problems of very large stretches - tenths with notes in between, which he could manage.'

Where does Grainger rank among your favourite composers?
'I find him unique, he was just so different, although I still couldn't live without Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel and so many others. Vaughan Williams, for instance wrote a fantastic nine symphonies; Grainger's work is different, it is not on that scale. But if you think about the power of, say, the songs of Schubert and the emotional effect - there you have a comparison with Grainger. I discovered that his great-grandfather, Jacob, was an agricultural worker, carpenter and joiner in County Durham. So a lot of his family probably lived the same sort of lives as those folk-singers in Lincolnshire Grainger writes about with such affection.'

What is his greatest legacy?
'Apart from a wealth of wonderful music for a variety of forces, his greatest legacy is his provocative thinking, and that should spark and inspire others to think freshly.'

'Celebrating Grainger 2011' is at Kings Place Feb 17-19, 2011 (www.kingsplace.co.uk), concluding with a seminar day, 'Grainger for the 21st Century', at the British Library on Feb 20 (www.bl.co.uk). 'The New Percy Grainger Companion' is publshed by Boydell and Brewer at £45.