Grainger, Percy

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Percy Grainger

Australian-born pianist and composer Percy Grainger (1882–1961) is best remembered for his use of folk song idioms in his works, but he was also a well-known experimenter with modern musical forms. As early as 1937, he experimented with electronic music and in the 1950s he worked on producing Free Music machines that are, in some ways, precursors of the modern electronic synthesizers.

Percy Grainger was a piano prodigy who began his career as a concert musician when he was only twelve. His father, John Grainger, was a famous Australian architect and civil engineer, chief architect in the Western Australian Department of Public Works, who designed buildings and public works throughout Australia and New Zealand. He was also a music enthusiast and amateur conductor. His mother, Rose Aldridge, was an accomplished pianist in her own right and served as her son's first teacher and coach. In 1895 Rose took Percy to Europe for further study. For four years he studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main. In 1901 he made his debut in London, and then toured the Europe and the British empire, playing concerts in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In the years between 1901 and the outbreak of World War I Grainger lived with his mother in London. He also began collecting English folk music–an interest that would heavily influence his own compositions. Musical acquaintances, including Edvard Grieg, Herman Sandby, Frederick Delius, Cyril Scott, and Balfour Gardiner, helped him pursue this interest. "Grieg, the great Norwegian composer and pianist, charmed by his playing, invited Grainger to stay at his home in Norway," wrote a contributor to the Melbourne periodical The Age in 1937. "Grainger accepted the invitation, and the two became firm friends. During 1906 and 1907 Grainger spent a great deal of time with Grieg, and afterwards was acknowledge to be the best interpreter of the Norwegian composer's music." In 1905 Grainger joined the English Folk Song Society and became an ardent collector of folk songs, using phonographs to make field recordings. He used the recordings to produce arrangements of these traditional folk songs, many of which are still performed today.

Relocated to United States

In 1914 Grainger moved to the United States, making his U.S. concert debut to an enthusiastic New York audience on February 11, 1915. He lived in the United States for the rest of his life, even serving as an oboist in the U.S. Army Band for two years during World War I. At the end of the war he was naturalized as an American citizen. It was at this time that he composed his most famous piano work, Country Gardens.

These years were also marked by personal tragedy for Grainger. His father, who had been estranged from Rose and Percy since 1890, died in 1917 following a long illness. In 1922 Rose Grainger died from complication of syphilis, which she had contracted from her husband before their marriage collapsed. She had suffered from neuralgia and severe depression for over twenty years, a condition made worse by the stresses of managing her son's career and the constant threat of poverty. The collapse of both parents' health placed the burden of caring and providing for the family squarely on Percy Grainger's shoulders.

Most of Grainger's later career was spent touring, performing, and composing, but he did hold several part-time academic appointments, including teaching piano at the Chicago Musical College between 1919 and 1928, and serving as chairman of the music department at New York University from 1932 to 1933. On August 9, 1928 Grainger was finally married, to the Swedish poet and artist Ella Viola Strom. In a manner befitting a man of Grainger's expansive personality, the wedding ceremony was a huge production. Part concert and part civil ceremony, it was staged at the Hollywood Bowl before 20,000 paying guests. The composer opened the celebration by conducting the piece he had written in honor of his fiancee, To a Nordic Princess.

Opened the Grainger Museum

In 1934-35 Grainger made another tour of his native Australia. Although he had returned to his birth country several times before relocating to the United States, it was during this visit that he began planning and organizing the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne to serve as a home for his manuscripts and personal effects. He also hoped that the Grainger Museum would house an ethnomusicological research facility and serve as a center for the collection, organization, and appreciation of musical styles from around the globe. The Grainger Museum was dedicated by the composer in 1938.

Grainger's career as a concert pianist, composer, and lecturer continued through World War II. During the war he made numerous concert appearances for the Allied cause. After the end of the war, however, he retired to a home in White Plains, New York. "Towards the end of his life he worked on means for producing Free Music; music not limited by time or pitch intervals," wrote the author of the Percy Grainger biography found on the Grainger Museum website. "The Free Music machines he created in association with the scientist Burnett Cross may be regarded as the crude forerunners of the modern electronic synthesisers."

Although respect for his talents as a pianist and teacher remained high, Percy Grainger ended his career in bitterness, believing that his true contribution to music had never been fully appreciated. His most valuable research, he firmly believed, lay not in his early compositions (which he regarded with some disdain), but in his collections of folk music and his avant garde experiments with Free Music. Even his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1950 did not change his opinion that his life's work was underappreciated. He died in February of 1961, requesting that his skeleton be placed on display at the Grainger Museum. Although the request was denied, his body was removed to his native country and he is buried with other members of his family in Adelaide, South Australia.

Film Recounted Remarkable Life

Percy Grainger has been remembered as much for his personal eccentricities as for his music, both the experimental, futuristic pieces and the popular pieces. In addition to being a highly talented performer, musicologist, and composer, Grainger became obsessively interested in alternative sexual behaviors. In 1998 Passion, a film based on Grainger's early life and career directed by Australian director Peter Duncan, was released. Starring Richard Roxburgh as Percy and Barbara Hershey as Rose Grainger, the film was widely reviewed. Critics universally appreciated the effective use of Grainger's music in the soundtrack, but it was Passion's concentration on the Graingers' personal life that attracted most of their attention.

Passion is set during Grainger's last years in London before moving to the United States. At the peak of his performing career, he is caught in a turbulent relationship, caught between his feelings for his mother Rose and his then-girlfriend, the Danish musician Karin Holten. "As much as he loves his work and the woman in his life, it becomes increasingly apparent that the real . . . passion of Percy's tortured life is his mother," wrote a reviewer for Channel 4. "Rose had been a hard taskmaster on Percy," stated Margaret Pomeranz, writing about the film for Australian television's Special Broadcasting Service's "The Movie Show," "and her discipline of her precociously talented son in his early years had led to its own obsessions."

Yet the film is not simply out to shock audiences with outrageous practices. Grainger emerges from the story as a complex character whose sexuality is just one part of his genius. Australian actor Richard Roxburgh took lessons in masochistic practices while preparing for his starring role as Grainger. "He kept shocking (and) horrifying me for a long time during research," Roxburgh was quoted as saying in a Variety article written by Mark Woods. "[B]ut in his music there's everything, there's all the contradictions and the violence, and now I'm not shocked by him." The film, concluded Dalya Alberge in the London Times, depicts Grainger's personal lifestyle as "just one aspect of a colourful genius: he was a charismatic man to whom women were drawn, a brilliant pianist, an innovative composer and an intellectual."


Almanac of Famous People, 8th ed. Gale Group, 2003.

Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial edition, Schirmer, 2001.

Bird, John, Percy Grainger, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Contemporary American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary, 2nd edition, G. K. Hall, 1982.

Mellers, Wilfrid, Percy Grainger, Oxford University Press, 1992.


Age (Melbourne, Australia), December 4, 1937.

Times (London, England), April 11, 1998; May 15, 1998.

Variety, April 27, 1998.


Grainger Museum, (December 27, 2004).

Percy Grainger - A Brief Biographical Background, (December 27, 2004).

Pomeranz, Margaret, review of Passion, Special Broadcasting Service: The Movie Show, (December 27, 2004).

Review of Passion, Channel 4 Film, (December 27, 2004).