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Famous Like Me > Composer > G > Percy Grainger

Profile of Percy Grainger on Famous Like Me

Name: Percy Grainger  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 8th July 1882
Place of Birth: Brighton (Melbourne), Victoria, Australia
Profession: Composer
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia

Percy Aldridge Grainger (8 July 1882 – 20 February 1961) was an Australian-born pianist, composer, and champion of the saxophone.

Percy Grainger, 1915

He was born in Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. His architect father was an immigrant from London, England, and his mother, Rose, the daughter of hoteliers from Adelaide, South Australia, also of English immigrant stock. His father was an alcoholic, and when Grainger was aged 11, his parents separated after his mother contracted syphilis from his father who returned to London. His mother, a domineering and possessive although cultured figure who recognised his musical abilities, took him to Europe in 1895 to study at Dr. Hoch's conservatory in Frankfurt. There he displayed his talents as a musical experimenter, using irregular and unusual metres.

From 1901 to 1914 Grainger lived in London where he befriended and was influenced by Edvard Grieg, developing a particular interest in recording the folk songs of rural England. During this period, he also wrote and performed piano compositions that presaged the forthcoming popularization of the tone cluster by Leo Ornstein and Henry Cowell.

Percy Grainger moved to the United States at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. His 1916 piano composition In a Nutshell is the first by a classical music professional in the Western tradition to require direct, non-keyed sounding of the strings—in this case, with a mallet—which would come to be known as a "string piano" technique. When the United States entered the war in 1917, he enlisted as a United States Army bandsman, giving dozens of concerts in aid of War Bonds and Liberty Loans. In 1918, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. His piano solo Country Gardens became a smash hit, securing his reputation, although Grainger grew to detest the piece. With his newfound wealth, Grainger and his mother settled in the wealthy suburb of White Plains, New York after the war. Rose Grainger's health, however, both mental and physical, was in decline, and she committed suicide in 1922 by jumping from a tall building. This did serve to free Grainger from an over-intimate relationship which many had incorrectly assumed to be incestuous, although his mother's memory remained dear to him for the rest of his life.

In the same year, he traveled to Denmark, his first folk-music collecting trip to Scandinavia (although he had visited Grieg there in 1906), and the orchestration of the music of the region would shape much of his finest output.

In November 1926 Grainger met the Swedish artist and poet, Ella Viola Ström and, freed from his mother's domination, fell in love at first sight. Their wedding was one of the most remarkable on record. It took place on 9 August 1928 on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, following a concert before an audience of 20,000, with an orchestra of 126 musicians and an a cappella choir, which sang his new composition, To a Nordic Princess, dedicating it to his Ella.

In 1932 he became Dean of Music at New York University, and underscored his reputation as an experimenter by putting jazz on the syllabus and inviting Duke Ellington as a guest lecturer, although he found academic life difficult and soon abandoned it forever.

In 1940, the Graingers moved to Springfield, Missouri, from which base Grainger again toured to give a series of army concerts during the Second World War. However, after the war, poor health, declining ability as a pianist and the gradual decline in popularity of classical music hit his spirits hard.

In his last years, working in collaboration with Burnett Cross, Grainger invented the "Free Music Machine" which was the forerunner of the electric synthesizer.

Percy Grainger died in New York City and he was buried in Adelaide, Australia. His personal files and records have been preserved at The Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, the design and construction of which he oversaw.

His music aside, he remains controversial on two accounts. Firstly, Grainger was an enthusiastic sado-masochist, a pastime perhaps picked up from his mother, a frequent beater of both his father and himself. Secondly, he was a cheerful believer in the racial superiority of blond-haired and blue-eyed northern Europeans. This led to attempts, in his letters and musical manuscripts, to use only what he called "blue-eyed English" (akin to Anglish and the 'Pure English' of Dorset poet William Barnes) which expunged all foreign (i.e. non-Germanic) influences.

This racial thinking (with its concomitant overtones of xenophobia and antisemitism) was, however, inconsistently and eccentrically applied: he was friends with and an admirer of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. He eagerly collected folk music tunes, forms, and instruments from around the world (from Ireland to Bali) and incorporated them into his own work. Furthermore, alongside his love for Scandinavia was a deep distaste for German academic music theory; he almost always shunned such standard (and ubiquitous) musical structures as sonata form, calling them "German" impositions. He was ready to extend his admiration for the wild, free life of the ancient Vikings to other groups around the world which in his view shared their way of life, such as the ancient Greece of the Homeric epics.


  • Passion: The Story of Percy Grainger - 1999 movie directed by Peter Duncan with Richard Roxburgh as Percy Grainger

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This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Percy Grainger