Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger
Edited by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear and Mark Carroll
Oxford University Press, $120, 284pp.

Percy Grainger’s maternal grandmother distended her bladder and distorted her bowel rather than let anyone see her enter a water closet. Percy, on the other hand, displayed a pathological frankness about his body, his racial prejudices and sexual predilections.

This difference in temperament across generations did not dissuade Grainger from his faith in racial inheritance. Reveling in the “incongruities of life”, he saw himself as one of “the ‘sports’ by which Darwinian nature effects its changes.”

By “race”, Grainger meant what we call ethnicity. Thus, he criticised Germans as fervently as he championed Scandinavians. Other lower races included the French and the Jews, all “ugly swine”. Yet he was not “blind to half-beauties” from them, as in Debussy. He preferred Siciliana to the Nordic scores of Sibelius and Neilsen. “I am no less fond of the bilge than of the wellsprings.”

He did not hate “natives (Negroes, Greenlanders, Filipinos, Japanese)” as much as foreigners. “But I might if I knew them better.” Skin colour influenced his attitudes but did not prevent his being “aroused” more by the haka “than any other music before or since.”

Grainger swung between extremism and temperance, from high policy to pettiness. The ugliness of Jews spoilt his “happiness” which was “the test of all things.” This petulance turned geo-political when he fantasised about removing European Jews to the best lands in the U.S. of A. to keep them out of his sight. That done, he proposed to “set our house in order - kill off the sick, the nasty, the ugly, the lazy.” Grainger wound down this blast by whining about “the same mass-sold jokes in the newspapers.”

These contraries do not redeem Grainger from being more racist than respectable opinion considered necessary. They show why it is bootless to approach him as a systematic thinker. He never retreated from a conviction that his “whole musical output is based on patriotism & racial consciousness.” Yet, social class recurred in his musings almost as often as did race: “Everything is class & nationality.” He linked those elements to his own career: “Our low-class Australian class-background enables Australians to succeed where English fail – in my case, to my lifelong wretchedness.”

Self-loathing was just below the surface of his opinions. After his mother jumped to her death in 1922, he wrote that she “had the quality of race purity more overwhelmingly than anyone I can think of.” The fifty-page extract on “Mother” in Self-Portrait is a model for examining one’s life. The prose is as affecting as it is free from artifice or foolery.

Six years later, Grainger met his wife, another Nordic Princess, who became his partner in “birch-worship”. Around this time, he found his prejudices about race underwritten by theorists. Scholars today are discomfited more by this racism than by his sexuality. Within the realm of the senses, his flagellation has distracted them from his assertion that sex was at the centre of his being. Sex-stir with his wife and the beatification of his mother dominated his thought processes. Grief and beatings were more influential than reading.

The cowardice he felt for having fled to the U.S. of A. to avoid military service in 1914 conflicted with his life-long fascination with hand-to-hand combat. Such thrills did not stop Grainger being a pacifist on principle. He acknowledged his urge to violence the better to limit its destructiveness, hoping that nudism might reduce warfare.

Only Grainger’s music makes his oddities and opinions matter enough to warrant attention. The complete works from Chandos are revealing whether his compositions were as original as his promoters have claimed.

The publication of Self-Portrait coincides with an exhibition, Facing Percy Grainger, at the National Library. The display is a representative selection from the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne, with a few additions. A quarter of the items show Percy’s face or body, and those of family members. They provide raw material for investigating his narcissism. In Canberra, they have been arranged as decor rather than an aid to understanding. The Library has delivered another cabinet of curiosities, where a lack of intellectual curiosity predominates. Will the expanding National Portrait Gallery be more exacting, or is it being bullied into blandness like the National Museum?

All-roundness was a virtue which Grainger prized above coherence. “All-round-ness” was also an instance of “blue-eyed English”, which he developed from the 1920s. He began by shocking arty types with Australian slang. He also dumped foreign musical terms, naming one composition “A lot of rot for cello and piano”. Adopting Maori words for sexual parts, he got his mouth around Whanganui for vagina. He wrote nonsense lyrics - a proto-Da-Da? These games cleared a path to a “blue-eyed” lexicon. That project teetered on absurdity when he used “North-pinkiness” for the Scandinavians who epitomised the “blue-eyed”.

Although writings about Grainger now take up a meter on library shelves, we lack all-round biographies. The materials in print are edging us closer to the questions over which their authors must stumble before deciding how much weight to give to Grainger’s injunction: “No. No. Never class me among the talents, … or among any folk whose heart is in the right place. I stand firmly for ‘sophistry’ … Appeals to my intelligence always make me furious. A man has a right to be as stupid as he likes.”