Jul 082020

Today is the birthday (1882) of Percy Aldridge Grainger (born George Percy Grainger), an Australian-born composer, arranger, and pianist who, in the course of a long and innovative career, played a prominent role in the revival of interest in English folk music in the early years of the 20th century. Although much of his work was experimental and unusual, the piece with which he is most generally associated is his piano arrangement of the morris dance tune “Country Gardens” (which was later set to words). Sales of “Country Gardens” music and recordings alone produced a lifetime income for Grainger.  Here he is playing one of his many versions:

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 tunes. As his reputation grew, he met many of the significant figures in European music, forming friendships with Frederick Delius and Edvard Grieg. He became a champion of Nordic music and culture, and this preoccupation with Nordic culture led him to develop a form of English which, he maintained, reflected the character of the language before the Norman conquest. He replaced words of Norman or Latin origin with supposedly Nordic word-forms, such as “blend-band” (orchestra), “forthspeaker” (lecturer) and “writ-piece” (article). He called this “blue-eyed” English. His convictions of Nordic superiority eventually led Grainger, in letters to friends, to express his views in crudely racial and anti-Semitic language. The music historian David Pear describes Grainger as, “at root, a racial bigot of no small order.”

Grainger had an “interesting” relationship with his mother, Rose – one that was often (falsely) seen as incestuous, yet was certainly strangling in many ways. For example, Rose savagely berated any woman who showed interest in Percy, and he made little effort at forming relationships until after her death. Indeed, she committed suicide in 1922 because of persistent rumors of incest. Rose raised Percy alone (because she separated from her philandering husband), taught him at home (as well as hiring private tutors), and traveled the world with him. Some music historians have suggested that he would have been more creative without her early influence, but such counter-factual speculations are worthless.

In 1914, Grainger moved to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life, though he traveled widely in Europe and Australia. His move was almost certainly triggered by a desire to avoid service in the trenches, although he claimed he was concerned about his mother’s health. Regardless, he was roundly condemned in the press for dodging service, but between 1917 and 1918 he served as a bandsman in the US army – playing saxophone and causing a certain amount of hilarity in music circles.
In 1918, Grainger took U.S. citizenship, and in 1921 moved to White Plains, where he lived for the rest of his life.

The music conservatory at my college, Purchase College, SUNY, which is near White Plains, had a small collection of his papers and unusual music machines, but by the 1980s, when I began as an assistant professor, Grainger had fallen from vogue, and there was little interest in celebrating him. Perhaps one day I will indulge in a major rant on how narcissistic and egocentric the academic music world is, and how it drifts constantly with the tide of ephemeral fads. I have yet to meet a professional performer, composer, theorist, or historian who is not utterly self-absorbed. [correction – I know one concert pianist who is a thoroughly decent human being]. Meanwhile, I feel a certain (distant) kindred with Grainger because of his interest in morris dance tunes, along with his Australian heritage, and his residence in White Plains. Inadvertently, I have followed him from Australia to England to New York.

Grainger used to provoke his vegetarian friend, composer Cyril Scott, by eating huge slices of roast beef in his presence. But in 1924, Percy gave up meat entirely and labelled himself a ‘meat-shunner.’ He did not like vegetables, however, and mostly ate fruit pies, boiled rice, ice cream, oranges, and cream cakes. Cream cakes can be made in all manner of ways, but one of the most standard is to make a sponge cake and then fill (and top) it generously with cream:

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