The stranger side of Grainger

The All-Round Man
October 20, 1995

The Australian composer Percy Grainger, known mainly for his English folk-song arrangements such as the popular Country Gardens and as a pianist, was an eccentric creative personality in words as well as music. The 76 letters selected in this volume span the period of Grainger's maturity, 1914-61, spent in the United States. They are stimulating "rambles" to close colleagues, such as composers of the "Frankfurt school" Roger Quilter, Cyril Scott and Balfour Gardiner, and to close family and friends, notably the three most important women in Grainger's life, his mother Rose, his wife Ella, and his stepdaughter Elsie Bristow. The editors' valuable critical introduction provides a necessary context in which to appreciate Grainger's ideas, some of which, they stress, are "hard to stomach".

Grainger's character emerges as a self-contradictory blend of universalism with overt bigotry. His "round-letters" about travels to the Far East are literary delights, vivid in imagery. More personal letters are full of prejudice and perversion. Such a remarkable glimpse behind Grainger's public persona raises a more general question as to how far such contradictions are necessary to the artistic mind.

For instance, in a "self-portrait" letter Grainger surprisingly ob-serves that he is "not specially fond of folk music", though his Country Gardens and Hillsongs were bestselling works in the United States. Grainger explained that he became an arranger "thru a sense of esthetic duty", to preserve Nordic folksong, "a record of the creative genius I of our race", and to make "British inborn musicality more widely realised internationally". If in the same letter he was "the only composer known to me who loves every kind of music", his overt racism led him to criticise colleagues who performed non-Nordic music, to complain of intermarriage, to recommend the theories of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, ideologue of the Nazi party, and to express overt anti-Semitism, hypocritically asserting that he had "nothing against Jews". Certainly he was also against Christianity, but as a virulent anti-Semite, as the editors stress, he is not "to be excused simply as an unwitting victim of the widespread supremacist racial views of his day". He actively refused to help the plight of suffering Jews in the second world war, and his prejudices were of an intensity comparable to those of Wagner.

Grainger's obsession with the regeneration of "blue-eyed" Nordic purity led him to invent Nordic English based on Nordic, rather than Latin, roots. Words such as tone-art (music), tone-feasts (concerts), call-to-mindment (memory), tone-bill-of-fare (programme), overworth (value) colour his prose with an idiosyncratic flair. Also remarkable was Grainger's sado-masochism described, in Nordic English, to his Scandinavian wife Ella. In this letter, like those to and about his mother, whom he held in obsessive adoration, Grainger emerges as self-aware yet unself-controlled, prepared to indulge rather than merely contemplate his fantasies.

These letters show a connection between Grainger the "all-round man" and his music: he himself connected his "wildness" with that of his folk arrangements, and the more attractive, and lighthearted aspects of the letters certainly may be found embodied in his works. Yet whether his personality as a whole is found in the music is questionable. Measured by his works, Grainger's expressed self-image as Australia's first great composer emerges as one more self-delusion.

Nevertheless the understanding of Grainger's significance in the history of the English folk-song revival, and of British and American music in the first half of the 20th century is here greatly illuminated.

Malcolm Miller is a lecturer in musical theory and on Beethoven, Open University.

The All-Round Man: Selected Letters of Percy Grainger 1914-1961

Editor - Malcolm Gillies and David Pear
ISBN - 0 19 816377 0
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 301

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