Grainger on Music
Malcolm Gillies and Bruce Clunies Ross (eds),
Oxford University Press, 1999, $100.

Forty 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. 

The 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).

Access 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.

Whereas the selection is arranged chronologically, this review proceeds thematically through Grainger’s interest in early music, performance, folk, world music, jazz and free music

No 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:

The 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!

Reaching back beyond the Classical quartet repertoire, Grainger lauded Fantasias by William Lawes (1602-45), who was ‘grander and deeper’ than Bach.

The 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 masterworks.

As 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’.

No 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.

Grainger’s 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.

Another 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.

For 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 believe.

Grainger’s 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’.

As 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.

Pressed 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 Centennial Exhibition.

In 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’.

Grainger 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’.

Our 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 audience.

Few 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.

Melody 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.

Lifelong 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.

In yet another of those contraries that Grainger’s beloved Walt Whitman had praised as the fount of creativity, Grainger’s loathing of militarised,  profit-seeking 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.

The 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.

Humphrey McQueen is a freelance historian based in Canberra.