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Percy Grainger: Beyond Country Gardens

If you know Percy Grainger at all, you know Country Gardens, that simple frolic every beginning pianist, every wind band, every school orchestra has assayed at one time or another. Percy Grainger knew that you would know that, and that’s why Percy Grainger grew to detest Country Gardens.
His life was a series of course corrections. That’s true of most of us, but he had the talent of switching from success to success. He enjoyed more success than most artists, but his weren’t always the kind he would have chosen, so he’d change directions. He was born and raised in Australia, then studied piano and composition in Germany, where he became friends with Frederick Delius and the composers in his circle. After concertizing in Europe, he relocated to London to teach and play.

He composed all this time—Hill-Song No. 1, one of his favorite works, is from this period—yet he felt he needed to establish his credentials as a pianist before engaging the world with his own music. He was also busy collecting the British folk songs that would figure so greatly in his art for the rest of his life. Even though the two Hill-Songs celebrate vistas from around the world, they’re overflowing with British sound.

Grainger composed The Warriors and dedicated it to Delius. It exists only because of an off-hand suggestion by the conductor Thomas Beecham for a ballet to which he, Sir Thomas, would write the story. Beecham never did, but Grainger wrote the music anyway, calling it “An Imaginary Ballet.” It’s unusual for a Grainger work in that it’s one long movement. In a series of dances, soldiers from all ages and places meet in the afterlife, and the music honors each vigorous culture in turn.

The suite In a Nutshell pulls together four separate works that are closer to the popularly known Grainger. It ends with “The ‘Gum-Suckers' March,” hailing the nickname for Australians from Grainger’s home state of Victoria, who would chew on eucalyptus leaves while hiking. The first movement’s title, “Arrival platform humlet,” looks like a typo, but how better to describe a little nonsense tune one hums while waiting on a train platform?

A “humlet,” then, is an example of an endearing Grainger idiosyncrasy, his use of language. He knew many, including many Scandinavian ones, but he felt that a person who spoke English should use it (and, as much as possible, Anglo-Saxon) in his scores. So, he called chamber music “room-music,” arrangements “dish-ups,” molto crescendo “louden lots,” and coined new tempo markings such as “Accompanyingly” and “Hammeringly.”

With a world war threatening, Grainger moved from London to America and spent the rest of his life there, serving in the U.S. Army and becoming a citizen. But he always seemed to be on the move. He was a prodigious pianist who wanted to compose, a composer who wanted to educate, an educator who wanted to innovate. The popularity of his “dish-ups” tends to overshadow how brilliant his scoring is. That gift is obvious in the thoroughly original works we hear today. Unfortunately for Grainger, perhaps, it’s also unmistakable in Country Gardens.

Brilliance of that kind doesn’t always explain something that’s popular, but it does explain something that lasts.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961): Hill-Song No. 1 (1902, rev. 1921/23)
Grainger: The Warriors (1916)
Grainger: In a Nutshell (1916)

From In a Nutshell, "Arrival platform humlet":


On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 11 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2. Look at an archive of all the shows here.