MUSIC - GRAINGER ESSAYS - REVIEW
Malcolm Gillies and Bruce Clunies Ross (eds),
Oxford University Press, 1999, $100.
years after Percy Grainger’s death in 1961, his musical concerns
remain avant-garde though his
popular reputation is still associated with what he called his
‘touristic’ tunes, notoriously,
English Country Gardens. Grainger never distanced himself from such
pieces. Indeed, he championed the melodic as the fount of music-making
and promoted amateur performance as desirable in itself and as capable
of achievements denied to specialists.
continuing scholarly interest in Grainger, however, depends on music
with which few of us are familiar. Chandos is relieving that problem
with its complete recordings. Throughout
January, on ABC-FM, Vincent Plush, another Australian composer resident
in the United States, will present four programs of Grainger’s work
there. (Details on page 00).
to Grainger’s writings is also aiding the reevaluation of his music by
helping us to know what he wanted us to hear. Editing a volume of
forty-six of his essays, Malcolm Gillies and Bruce Clunies Ross have
provided corrigenda to Grainger’s faulty memory for dates and
quotations. In making their selection, they might have pared back a few
pieces where Grainger went over the same ground. The book includes a
catalogue of all of Grainger’s essaying, whether previously published
or in manuscript. In some countries, a complete edition of such writings
would be a national priority. In today’s Australia, one wonders how
long the Grainger Museum can survive if it does not turn a profit for
the University of Melbourne.
the selection is arranged chronologically, this review proceeds
thematically through Grainger’s interest in early music, performance,
folk, world music, jazz and free music
aspect of Grainger’s writings is more alarming to conventional taste
than his disparagement of Eighteenth and Nineteenth European music. His
whip-lust is less shocking to right-thinking people than is his
flagellation of the first Viennese School:
love of noise and coarse, violent effects, the craving for brilliance at
all costs, disfigure all, or almost all, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
scores. Think of the terrible tub-thumping of the kettle drums (which
destroys all chord clarity) and the blatant hammering of the open notes
of horns and trumpets in all their tuttis – barbarism never practised
before or since in art music!
back beyond the Classical quartet repertoire, Grainger lauded Fantasias
by William Lawes (1602-45), who was ‘grander and deeper’ than Bach.
imposition of nineteenth-century orchestration on the pre-1700 scores
also offended Grainger’s ears. Again, contemporary practice has caught
up with his demands for authentic tonal balances and with his admiration
for the recreation of period instruments by Arnold Dolmetsch. In the
1930s, Grainger proposed a capella choirs, supplemented by a dozen or so instrumentalists, as
the vehicle for acquainting audiences with forgotten or vandalised
someone who made his living as a pianist, Grainger penned ferocious
judgements and sage advice on concert practices. High on his list of
hates were the show-offs who performed without sheet-music. Their
nervousness led to poor playing and hence to an impoverished
understanding by the audience. He considered that he knew a piece by
heart only when he could play it while reading a book. The demands of
keyboard memorising, he observed, had driven many famous pianists into
the laziness of the conducting podium where all they had to do was ‘to
listen to the orchestra, follow along with it, and look inspired’.
matter how much he disparaged ‘skill-worshipping’, Grainger’s
advice to players was as practical as it could be intimidating.
Mediocrities played their fffs as ffs, and blurred their speeds towards
a medium. By contrast, accomplished players escaped the loudness of the
whole chord by giving each finger its just weight.
arrangements of folk material have compounded the confusion about his
aims and achievements. Their
popularity was possible only after he had simplified them for ears so
over-refined by art music that they were incapable of catching the
complex rhythms, dynamics and scales of the raw state. He had to replay
his recordings hundreds of time to get their notation right.
recent trend anticipated by Grainger is now called World Music. He knew
too much about the narrowness of taste to give credence to pieties about
the universal appeal of any particular style of music. Chinese and
Javanese were indistinguishable to London auditors.
Grainger, native Australian music meant more than colonial folk song.
During his 1907 concert tour, he became aware of Central Australian
materials which proved ‘more melodious’ than he had been led to
concern with the music of Asia and the Pacific surprises those who know
only of his adoration of the Nordic, as embodied in Edvard Grieg. This
musical preference paralleled Grainger’s attempt to write in
‘blue-eyed English”. These attitudes, combined with his emphasis on
the national basis of composition, have left him open to charges of
racism, or worse. Colour prejudice played little part in his schema. If
he hated any ethnic group it was the Normans whose conquest had given
the English their ‘vicious, vulgar, slovenly, slavish habits’.
a self-consciously White Australian, Grainger was alert to the physical
characteristics associated with so-called racial differences, noting,
for instance, that sailors were fair while stewards were swarthy.
Grainger had never claimed that his definition of Nordic to be
‘scientific’ and relaxed its criteria the more Aryanism came into
conflict with his pacifism. Hence,
he opened his 1945 memoir of Grieg with anecdotes about the
Norwegian’s support for a Jew, Alfred Dreyfus.
by Nazism, Grainger made his explanation of the Nordic even more
idiosyncratic until he found its origins in Mongolia. Another naïve
connection between his childhood influences and the mature musician
reveals how much of the infantile remained in Grainger’s make-up when
he convinced himself that his preference for Chinese and Japanese music
had been instilled in Melbourne in the 1880s as he wandered around
Little Bourke street and visited a model Japanese Village at the
defending Jazz, Grainger praised its multiple voices as superior to all
previous dance music but accepted that the division between the best
popular music and classical music would always be equivalent to the
distinction ‘between a perfect farmhouse and a perfect cathedral’.
pitched his involvement with folk, jazz, early, contemporary and
non-European music into a single purpose, namely, the creation of
‘Free Music’, which he considered to be his only genuinely original
contribution. He wanted us to know
all these various approaches in order to be ‘generous toward
the future’ of composition, believing that ‘the only road to music
is through music, all of it and in every way possible’.
access to the music of all ages and cultures, however, has not brought
the majority closer to the art music of our own era. Indeed, the
recording industry has allowed us to retreat to distant times and
places, away from today’s composers who, in turn, justify their
slipping further into obscurantism by the disappearance of a mass
musicians have been more aware of these social contexts for music-making
than Grainger. Moreover, he linked rhythm, melody and harmony to his
social values which were more progressive than his promotion of a racial
basis to creativity suggests. For him, rhythm was the least attractive
aspect of music- making. He acknowledged that its ‘energising sway’
delivered practical benefits for the ‘lower types of mankind (the
tyrants; the greedy ones; the business-minded people)’. He feared that
its ‘regularity and repetitiveness’ encouraged a ‘slave-driving,
soul-stultifying’ impulse under which young men were marched to war.
He also despised the ‘platitudinousness and inventive torpor’ that
standard rhythms had brought to music, and so looked forward to more
irregular rhythms, such as those in Stravinsky.
was the peak of music for Grainger. The human voice, unfettered by
words, offered the
‘blissful agony of rapturous, compassionate sound awareness’ that
was leading the human race to ‘angelicness’. Moreover, the
combination of voices foreshadowed democracy in personal relations,
which was even more difficult to secure than in public affairs.
atheism heightened Grainger’s commitment to the mysteries and emotions
of art. In a contrast redolent with his personal concerns, he separated
the father-like vitality of inventiveness from a ‘mother-like vitality
which watches tenderly and protectingly over young intellectual stars
and does not lose interest in them or patience with them until they have
matured’. Although Grainger’s autobiographical essays have been
reserved for a forthcoming volume, his comments on music are rich with
insights into his character.
yet another of those contraries that Grainger’s beloved Walt Whitman
had praised as the fount of creativity, Grainger’s loathing of
urbanisation did not extend to a rejection of science, or even to
technology. Indeed, he believed that his ‘Free Music’ - that
compositional expression of his anarchism - could not be written until
after the invention of machines which escaped the imperfection of the
human performer. By 1902, he had invented a ‘Beatless-Notation
Machine’ which would keep a band in exact unison with the
printed score, like mass production lines. How this device would allow
for the expressiveness that he identified as the purpose of performance
was not discussed.
liveliness of Grainger’s prose and his stimulus to thinking about all
manner of music are reasons enough to read this selection. The bonus is
that his essays achieved his aim of making me return to Henry Purcell
and Frederick Delius, and to pursue the rarities that Grainger
commended, such as the American Arthur Finkenscher. The oddities in
Grainger’s ideas that came with his autodidactic enthusiasms are
overwhelmed by the generosity that flowed from his rejection of
expertise in favour of all-roundedness.
McQueen is a freelance historian based in Canberra.