The Dark Side of Percy Grainger

With the first complete recording of Percy Grainger’s ‘The Jungle Book’, a weird collection of compositions after Kipling’s poetry, Michael Oliver looks at the dark and sinister reality behind the eccentric old English jam-and-bread façade.

Percy Grainger was mad. Not my opinion, but the view of his most sympathetic biographer John Bird, and indeed of Grainger’s mother. Mad? Well, I’d say peculiar, at the least. Endearingly peculiar in many ways: his habit of wearing clothes made entirely of towelling, his diet (for much of his life he lived largely on rice, tinned peaches and bread and jam: he was particularly fond of stale bread) and his vast energy: on concert tours he would run from one city to the next, with his dress clothes and a loaf of stale bread and some cheese in a rucksack; on a sea journey he insisted on helping to stoke the ship’s boilers. And he was a great advocate of what he called ‘Blue-eyed English’, English from which all words with Latin or French origins had been expunged, and replaced with Anglo-Saxon equivalents of his own devising. Thus ‘middle fiddle’ for viola, ‘tone-wright’ for composer, ‘louden’ for crescendo; even ‘keyed-hammer-string-player’ for pianist.

Music is not to entertain but to agonise
His obsession with blue eyes, however, wasn’t entirely endearing. He was a racist, regarding Jews, blacks, Latins, indeed almost anything except the Nordic races as foreign. He wanted to write ‘Blue-eyed music’, too. More disturbing still, due to his intensely close but violent childhood relationship with his mother (she whipped him regularly) he grew up both a sadist and masochist, whose greatest pleasure lay in receiving and inflicting intense pain. He wanted to have children (he had none, fortunately) so that he could beat them. He said of his music that its object was ‘not to entertain, but to agonise’. But there’s nothing agonising, surely, in the charming and witty miniatures for which he’s best known, Country Gardens, Handel in the Strand, Shepherd’s Hey and the like?

No, they represent the wildly energetic, exuberant side of him; in many ways he was a child who never grew up, and a clever, funny and lovable one. Grainger’s admirers, though, have always told us that the best of him lies elsewhere. And looking beyond those miniatures at the vast quantity of his other compositions we come across another difficulty. I have a catalogue of them in front of me. It runs to 250 pages or so, but many of those pages don’t contain a single original work by Grainger himself: folksong arrangements (Country Gardens and Shepherd’s Hey are both based on folk tunes) and transcriptions of music by other composers far outnumber his own compositions. And when you do come across a piece of Grainger’s own it may well exist in as many as seven or eight different versions.

One of his most haunting pieces, My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone (based on an Elizabethan melody, maybe of folk origin), is available in versions for piano, for piano trio, for nine solo instruments or for small orchestra with solo voice. None are often played, perhaps because people are confused about which of them is the ‘authentic’ version. And anyhow, was a man who spent so much more time arranging than composing really a composer at all?

Yet that piece is haunting, and for two reasons. One is the fact that it doesn’t use the whole of the tune it’s based on, just its first four bars. This gives the melody a poignant, unfinished-yet-yearning-to-be-finished feeling. The other haunting quality is Grainger’s harmony, which is rich, expressive and constantly surprising. This, of course, earns him no credit with those who quite rightly point out that most folk song needs harmonising like roses need gilding. But Grainger accurately referred to his folksong arrangements as ‘settings’, and he set chorales by Bach, plainsong melodies, popular songs by Gershwin and Stephen Foster and pieces by composers as diverse as Debussy, Josquin des Prez and Richard Addinsell (the Warsaw Concerto) in exactly the same spirit. A melody he loved or was moved by was placed in the most beautiful setting he could devise to set it off to best effect. In his hands arranging is as creative as composing: he treats the chosen melody with loving respect, but sets it with outstandingly vivid imagination.

An illicit love affair which ends in death
I’ve already used the word ‘poignant’ (which literally means squeezing or gripping in the fist) to describe one of these pieces. Similar words spring to mind to describe the violent emotions expressed in his The Bride’s Tragedy, or the horrid mixture of grim realism and gallows humour in his setting of Kipling’s Danny Deever (both of these are original compositions, but the melodies are in folk-like style) or the aching sense of desolation in perhaps the finest of all his folksong arrangements, Shallow Brown. There is indeed something ‘agonising’ about all these pieces. The words of My Robin are lost but the melody, especially as Grainger sets it, suggests Robin will not return from the greenwood. The Bride’s Tragedy is about an illicit love affair which ends in death, and Grainger said he wrote it because ‘a man cannot be manly unless his sex-life is selfish, brutal, wilful, unbridled’. Danny Deever is about the hanging of a murderer. Shallow Brown is the song of a woman reproaching her lover for abandoning her. Knowing what we know of Percy Grainger we might assume that these pieces are some sort of expression in music of his sado-masochism, and turn away from them repelled.

Grainger once said in an interview: ‘People like me ought to be burned at the stake.’ He wrote that his music would never be understood unless it was approached ‘as a pilgrimage of sorrow’, which is a great deal to ask of any listener. But just as his wild energy and irrepressible gaiety produced Country Gardens (and if you enjoy that piece, what pleasure awaits you in Scotch Strathspey and Reel, or his English Dance, or Green Bushes), so he distilled great beauty out of his obsession with pain: ‘out of this world of violence, war, cruelhood (and must he not have meant his own ‘cruelhood’ too?) ‘and tragedy, my longing to compose arose.’

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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