Most people have probably heard the tune popularly known as ‘In an English Country Garden’, but equally probably most people do not know its composer. More probably still, most people if asked would guess that this tune’s creator was an Englishman – a reasonable supposition. Therefore, it is certain that most people would express some surprise to learn that the composer of ‘Country Gardens’ was in fact the Australian-born Percy Aldridge Grainger (I can only hope that most TLM readers already knew the correct answer). However, whether you can identify Percy Grainger or not, he is worth knowing about both for his music and for the peculiar characteristics from which it arose. His is perhaps the strangest story of artistry in the twentieth century, and makes one wonder about creativity in general. All can be explored in Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger (ed. Malcolm Gillies, OUP, 2006), a collection of his writings from the latter part of his life. Nonetheless, his music stands on its own merits, and can be enjoyed without any fretting over its maker.
George Percy Grainger was born in 1882 near Melbourne at a time when that city was entering a period of prosperity. During its hitherto undistinguished history, its cultural life was all European imports with no native inspiration. Grainger’s biographer John Bird notes, however, that the 1880s saw the emergence of a new breed of Australian artists who preferred to go their own way, and while Grainger was unquestionably European-influenced, he could be considered one, since he identified as an Australian all his life despite taking American citizenship and performing around the world. His father John, a distinguished architect who had organized the first string quartet in Adelaide, was more an example of a culturally European Australian, since he was an immigrant from England. He was overall a cultivated man with talents like drawing, and must certainly have encouraged creativity in his son.
But it was his mother Rose Aldridge with whom Percy Grainger would identify all his life, taking her maiden name as his second one in 1911. Like the rest of her family, she was blonde and blue, and had some hesitation about marrying John because he was dark-haired and -eyed. Worse still, John was a heavy drinker and womanizer with an illegitimate child back in England, and he gave Rose syphilis. Rose largely transferred her devotion to their son, raising him while her husband was away on his architectural work, and her devotion was steadfastly returned. Grainger wrote after her death that they had been seldom apart for more than a week, and that from childhood he had thought she ‘was really God’. She had strong artistic opinions, and Grainger described her as a ‘law-unworshipping’ woman who rebuked him whenever he spoke to her in the wrong way. In fact, she would even slap his face right up until he was nearly forty years old. Reflecting on her 1922 suicide, Grainger concluded that his mother was ‘undoubtedly … a Nietzschean’, and admitted that he had ‘never known anyone to successfully oppose her. I never could’. This, however, made him glad.
It was the domineering Rose who homeschooled young Percy, hiring tutors for special subjects, including music. He was taught by Louis Pabst, Melbourne’s foremost piano tutor, and his first composition, completed in 1893, was dedicated to his mother. The following year he gave his first concert, and other successes led Rose to enrol him in the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where she took him in 1895. Here, Percy had Clara Schumann as his piano teacher, and soon he was considered a prodigy. It was also at Hoch that he formed the Frankfurt Group with British students to rescue north European music from central European influences, and he also began composing arrangements for Kipling’s poetry. 1900 was the year of his first Frankfurt concert, and the next year he and Rose moved to London, where he was a society pianist until 1914, becoming friends with Frederick Delius and Edvard Grieg. With the outbreak of the Great War, he fled with Rose to America, for which he received much criticism. He took American citizenship, and in 1917 became a US Army musician. Rose took it as well, and the two of them eventually settled in White Plains, New York, where they were based the rest of their lives. Grainger was buried there when he died in 1961.
If we only pay attention to the public aspect of Grainger’s life, it would seem he was a perfect though eccentric genius in music and many other things. A fitness enthusiast well before it was fashionable, he used to jog from one concert venue to another wearing a rucksack, and he spoke eleven languages, including Icelandic and Russian. A Youtube clip of him playing ‘McGuire’s Kick’ on piano shows his wildly dynamic style, and he performed more than 3,000 concerts across America and around the world in an energetic career. By the mid-1920s, he was earning $5,000 per week from his appearances, an astonishing sum. In America, he was friends with George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, and was considered among the best composer-performers of his century. What made him tick?
The main answer is surprisingly politically incorrect, and contradicts today’s view that creative people are unprejudiced and tolerant. For from his childhood, Grainger was an ardent Nordicist. He himself had aquiline Nordic features, topped by white-blond hair like Australian lamb’s wool, and he described himself as ‘a composer whose whole musical output is based on patriotism and racial consciousness’. He also wrote that his ‘art duties’ were to ‘mind-birth tone-works to the glory of my birth-land & of my blue-eyed race’. Grainger began learning Danish aboard a ship bound for Australia for his first concert tour in 1903, and his first visit to Scandanavia came four years later. He also met the Swedish poet Ella Strom aboard a ship after his mother died, and thought she was a ‘Nordic princess’ in her blond beauty. In fact, he considered ‘beauty … the test of race-some greatness & … the most Nordic races have the most flawless beauty and with it the most utter greatness’. In 1928, he and Ella were married before 20,000 people in the Hollywood Bowl.
Grainger’s marriage leads to the subject of his sadomasochistic sexuality, on which there are numerous passages in his writings. Many of these are in Danish, since he thought they required ‘the more grown-up attitude of Scandanavian readers’. For example, he wrote that at ‘16 or 17 I was already sex-crazy [in Danish from here] (although not engaging in sexual acts – on the contrary. On the other hand, I burned my flesh against hot stove tiles; I stuck needles through my penis; in my imagination I exercised far-fetched cruelties on the female body.) [In English from here.] A bad situation, one might say? Not at all!’ He also described his teen fantasy of sticking fishhooks on pulleys into a woman’s breasts and pulling her up so that the hooks ripped through her flesh. Indeed, the composer of ‘Country Gardens’ declared that
To have power has no point for me unless I can use it brutally, cruelly & unjustly. I admit that such a nature as mine is low & nasty. But I will not easily admit that it is perverse or unnatural. It seems to be natural in most boys to be cruel & nasty. And I have simply remained like a boy, instead of growing up to be that tiresome thing ‘a proper man.’
These urges were realized in Grainger’s sexual relations with Ella. When they first began to make love, they did so conventionally, but he recalled how seeing her ‘loveliness beneath me was neverfailingly being enhanced by mind picturements of tormenting & wastelaying that tender loveliness – whipping it, burning it, biting it’. Later, when he introduced her to his inclinations, he lauded how ‘my wife, with her deeply womanly nature … does not resent my sadistic love – for she is one of those angel-women to whom sex-satisfaction is as attractive as sex-frustration is repellent’. Interestingly, the museum that Grainger founded for himself at the University of Melbourne has a section displaying his sex life and porn collection; its centrepiece is a black and white photo, evidently taken by Ella, of Grainger bending over naked to show whip marks on his posterior – apparently he liked to receive as well as give. John Bird speculates that the impact of Rose’s discipline was to some degree responsible for her son’s sexual proclivities, and he himself attributed them to her; while she was alive, he even ran around their White Plains house naked, and her reaction was to praise her ‘Greek-looking son’. In any event, Grainger concluded, ‘so for me – an artist (one who uses the things of life decoratively and playfully) – the whip … became merely a source of fun, delight, enticement – a desirable horror, a bewitching fear.’
The twin cylinders of racialism and sadism – which must themselves have been interrelated–that fired Grainger’s productive output lead to a consideration of his music, most of which was gentle and melodious like his ‘Country Gardens’ signature tune. Indeed, many of his key works, such as ‘Lincolnshire Posy’ and ‘Shepherd’s Hey’, were inspired by the smiling English countryside, and like Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom he knew, Grainger began collecting and recording old English folk songs in the early 1900s. Most of Grainger’s output was for wind band or light orchestra, with a sound that recalled the late nineteenth century but was still modern. A fine example of this is ‘Handel in the Strand’, another of his delightful English tunes.
However, he also liked inspiration from Ireland, and this is apparent in compositions such as ‘Molly on the Shore’ and ‘Irish Folk Tune from County Derry’, the latter his take on ‘Danny Boy’; he claimed Vaughan Williams told him it was ‘as good as Bach’. Nor did Grainger ignore his American home, continuing to identify as Australian though he did. His “In Dahomey ‘Cakewalk Smasher’” sounds like ragtime played on a nickelodeon, and is of clearly American origin. So is ‘Fantasy on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess’. As for his native land, ‘Colonial Song’ stands out from the rest as more grave and dramatic, but is at once moving and relaxing in typical Grainger style.
Another thing most of Grainger’s compositions have in common is that they are under ten minutes long, and he excused his failure to produce large-scale works by claiming his whole career led up to his ‘Free Music’ pieces, which he regarded as his real innovation. Declaring that he had desired tonal freedom based on random sounds heard out of nature since he was a boy, the object of Free Music was ‘to provide wailing sounds of subtlety, magnitude and refinement hitherto unknown in music’. While he envisioned a new kind of orchestra employing unorthodox instruments like the banjo and marimba, Grainger believed that Free Music ‘demands a non-human performance … it is an emotional, not a cerebral, product’ which the composer must convey ‘by way of delicately controlled musical machines’. This was why he wrote his Free Music for theremins, the instrument consisting of two metal rods generating electromagnetic fields into which the musician moves his hands to create sound. The International Percy Grainger Society’s website has a photograph of one of his music machines, or ‘tone-tools’, and claims that they were forerunners of today’s synthesizers. It is intriguing that someone with Grainger’s racial and sexual attitudes was such an artistic pioneer. At the same time, his desire to eliminate the imperfect human ‘middle-man’ performer is perhaps a little chilling.
In the end, Percy Aldridge Grainger’s writings about himself reveal the paradoxes of many an artist. He was at once self-confident and self-critical, considering himself superior to most other composers but at the same time feeling he had not lived up to the promise he felt he had when young. His racial attitudes are now long completely unacceptable in polite society, and his sexual practices are still rather disturbing even in our liberated times. That someone like him created such gentle music seems contradictory – or is it? After all, artists need some kind of cultural identity, positive or negative, to produce anything, and Grainger was raised at a time when blue-eyed world supremacy was increasingly threatened. At any rate, it worked for him, and whatever its origins his music has fans on Youtube. People can keep on enjoying ‘Country Gardens’ without knowing the man who wrote it.