Percy Grainger: the ninth best composer ever
(Alfred Hickling, Guardian, 10 November 2011)
Fifty years after his death, it is hard to conceive how great a celebrity the Australian composer, pianist and folk-song collector once was. Widely acclaimed as one of the most gifted concert pianists of his generation, he earned the equivalent of £60,000 per week, befriended Grieg, Gershwin and Duke Ellington and got married on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of 20,000. Yet Grainger, born in Melbourne in 1882, never quite lost the taint of an outsider – a loose cannon whose personal eccentricities threatened to overshadow his achievement.
Grainger was, by any standard, unaccountably odd. He favoured garish, towelling outfits of his own design, was known to mount concert platforms at a running leap, and pushed his favourite piano stool round in a wheelbarrow. In 1945 he devised his own composer-rating system and ranked himself ninth, below Delius but above Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
Practically all of Grainger’s compositions are miniatures, between two and eight minutes in length, and often feature unconventional forces such as harmoniums, banjos, theremins and ukuleles. His disdain for classical form extended to a rejection of Italianate terms for tempo and dynamic markings – Grainger’s scores indicate “louden” rather than “crescendo”, or instruct the player to interpret a passage “with pioneering keeping on-ness”. His rejection of the symphony, sonata and concerto was deliberate, but contributed to the impression that he was merely a dilettante or a purveyor of light music.
Grainger was the first to use a phonograph to record folk songs, and held untutored musicians in high esteem. “These folk-singers were the kings and queens of song!” he declared. “No concert singer I ever heard, dull dogs that they are, approached these rural warblers in variety of tone quality, range of dynamics, rhythmic resourcefulness and individuality of style.” In 1912, he travelled to the Pacific islands to notate native songs whose random combination of musical elements anticipated John Cage’s experiments in “chance music” by some 40 years.
Though his music is rarely solemn, there is a darker side to Grainger’s personality that is difficult to ignore. His views on the superiority of blue-eyed Nordic races are not easy to accept, and he made little secret of a violently aberrant sexuality: in the 1930s, he endowed a museum in his birthplace of Melbourne, and entrusted it with a large collection of whips, pornography and blood-stained shirts: “Music is the art of agony,” he noted. “It derives, after all, from screaming.”
Grainger established the museum – which is still in operation – as part of his lifelong aim to become recognised as Australia’s first significant composer, though he left the continent as a teenager and spent the majority of his life in London and the small town of White Plains outside New York. He died of cancer in 1961, convinced his efforts had been in vain: “All my compositional life I have been a leader without followers … Where musical progress and compositional experiment are discussed, my name is never mentioned. Can a more complete aesthetic failure be imagined?”