Percy Aldridge Grainger is the most famous composer/pianist ever to emerge from the Australian continent - an enigmatic, complicated man whose amazing talents produced far-reaching effects on the musical world, and yet who remains vastly unknown today, even in his native land. He was born on July 8, 1882 in Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne, to John and Rose Grainger. Although originally christened George Percy Grainger, he began to use the name Percy Aldridge Grainger, somewhere around 1912, in tribute to his mother's family. One can only speculate as to his feelings toward his father at that point. John Grainger was an engineer/architect of considerable ability, most noted for his design of the Princes Bridge in Melbourne.
Percy was primarily raised by his mother Rose, a strong, intelligent woman possessed of musical ability whose family hailed from Adelaide, and who had visions of her son as a gifted musician even before his birth. From the ages of five to ten, she painstakingly tutored him on the piano, instilling a deep and abiding love of music in the boy which never flagged during his lifetime. His only formal education was a brief stint of a few months at the Misses Turner's Preparatory School for Boys in South Yarra, a time during which he "ran home madly as soon as school was out, to avoid fights with other boys", sometime about 1894-95. Other than that, Rose handled his general education. Even as a child, Percy was fascinated by the sounds of nature, and had many happy memories of the time spent at his beloved Albert Park in Melbourne, watching and listening to the waves of the Albert Park Lake, which in time led to his interest in and development of his Free Music...
By 1890, John Grainger had moved out of the family home, never to return. Rose turned Percy's musical education after the age of ten over to Dr. Louis Pabst, feeling that she had taken her son as far as she could, and on July 9, 1894, Percy made his public debut at Melbourne's Masonic Hall to excellent reviews.
The next year, after a hugely successful farewell Benefit Concert in The Melbourne Town Hall, Rose Grainger moved the two of them to Germany, so that Percy could have better study opportunities with the finest teachers in Europe. There he formed some of the friendships which were to last throughout most of his life among his fellow students - Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner, Cyril Scott, and Norman O'Neill. This group of young composers, along with Percy, became known as the Frankfurt Five. They called him Perks, encouraged one another in their compositional ambitions. Here Percy also met another lifelong friend, Danish cellist Herman Sandby, who saw great things in the music of this wild-haired young Australian.
At this time, Rose Grainger's health was not the best. Known only to her young son, she suffered from syphilis, which she had contracted from her alcoholic, womanizing husband, and which at that time was incurable. The disease would flare up from time to time and she would find herself unable to make a living for herself and her son. On top of that, she had an accident in which she slipped on some ice, coupled with a nervous collapse, which left Percy as sole provider for the family.
He performed at recitals, accompanied singers and gave private piano lessons, while Rose was forced to recuperate for months, nursed chiefly by her son. In 1901, Rose and Percy bade farewell to Germany and set their sights on making their way in London. The thirteen years that they were to spend there saw Percy firmly establish his reputation as a world-class pianist. He gave many recitals, frequently in the homes of the well-to-do. He was not fond of doing this, much preferring to compose rather than put himself on display for what he considered to be the idle rich. But it was what he had to do to keep himself and Rose, as well as his ailing father.
He made many useful contacts in this way, and met fellow composers who became his friends - Grieg, Delius, Vaughan Williams, among others. Cyril Scott had come to London before Percy and they happily resumed their friendship, although Rose kept a firm hand on Percy's time and energies, controlling every facet of his life, including his love life. Percy had a patroness, Lilith Lowrey, a fortyish married member of society, who insisted that he become her lover if he wanted to continue to receive the benefit of her patronage, and he had no choice but to obey, losing his virginity to her at the age of twenty.
Percy loved his mother very much, and was a very dutiful son. He had taken on the responsibility of caring for her since the departure of his architect father, and was determined to put Rose above everything else. Through his friend Sandby, he met and fell in love with a young Danish woman, Karen Holten, and they continued a close relationship for eight years, primarily via correspondence, and vacations taken together about once a year. Percy realized, however, that he could not marry Karen or any other woman at that time, for no woman would consent to take a back seat to his mother, and he could not abrogate the responsibility which he had taken upon himself. So reluctantly he let Karen go and she married another, although they maintained a friendship until her death in 1953. He composed a piece of music on the occasion of her marriage, Bridal Lullaby.
It was during his time in England that he developed an interest in folksong collecting, an enthusiasm also shared by his friend Cecil Sharp. He spent much time going about the English countryside, particularly in Lincolnshire, gathering the songs of the folk singers and recording them on cylinders, a practice not much used before. One of his arrangements of the song Country Gardens eventually became the best known of his works, overshadowing his other compositions, and it brought in a comfortable income until he died. This was to his chagrin, for he was dismayed that people would remember him for such a light piece, and never get to know the other more important things that he had done.
In 1914, with the war in Europe breaking out, Percy and Rose decided that it was not safe for them to remain there any longer, and feared an untimely end to Percy's budding musical career if he should have to fight in the army. A pacifist by nature, he did not believe in the unsportsmanlike, unmanly way in which modern wars had come to be conducted, and wanted no part of them. So he and Rose left the country, coming to America, which had been of interest to him for some time. There, he was embraced by the American public and his career took off.
He took as an agent Antonia Sawyer, who became a good friend as well. In 1917, amid the jeers of people back in England who called him a coward, he decided to enlist in the army, bought a soprano saxophone and marched off to Fort Totten. He enlisted under the name of PA Grainger, and was immediately transferred to Fort Hamilton, South Brooklyn, as a member of the 15th Band of the Coast Artillery Corps under band leader Rocco Resta. Because there was a surplus of saxophones, Percy was given an oboe to play and contentedly played in anonymity until at one of the band's concerts, he was recognized by a reporter and flushed out for who he really was. He spent the war years giving concerts and helping to raise funds for such organizations as the Red Cross, for which he made a lifelong commitment of assistance.
Percy's stint in the army led to his interest in composing for wind bands, and he was one of the first composers to realize their potential. He wrote a beautiful suite, Lincolnshire Posy, based on several songs he had collected. Besides Country Gardens, some of his other successful compositions included Molly on the Shore, Shepherd's Hey and Irish Tune From County Derry (Danny Boy).
In 1921, Percy purchased a home in White Plains, New York, for himself and Rose, whose health was deteriorating. His next door neighbors were Tonie and Frederick Morse (Tonie was Antonia Sawyer's niece, and eventually became Percy's manager, while Frederick acted as secretary and wrestling partner). Percy and Rose had never been separated for more than three weeks at a time throughout his life, even while he was on tour, but in early 1922, she was unable to accompany him on a two-month tour of the Pacific coast and Canada. Perhaps Rose felt that her control of Percy was slipping, perhaps she agonized over his need for a wife versus her need to be the most important person in his life, or perhaps her syphilis had become too overwhelming for her to handle any longer. There were also rumours of an incestuous relationship existing between her and Percy, the result of a bitter ex-girlfriend who blamed Rose for the breakup of her relationship with Percy. Whatever the reason, on April 30, 1922, she plunged from the eighteenth floor of the Aeolian Building in New York, where Antonia Sawyer had her office. Percy was conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time. When he reached his dressing room, a telegram awaited him stating that his mother had died. It was only on the train trip back to New York that a distraught Percy learned the details of her death.
Rose's death was a blow from which Percy never fully recovered. He traveled and went on tours, collecting folk songs in Denmark with Evald Tang Kristensen. In Norway, he saw Frederick Delius again for the first time in many years, and was saddened at the state of his friend's deteriorating health (Delius also suffered from syphilis). In 1924 Percy became a vegetarian (he referred to it as meat-shunment, part of his blue-eyed English - a quixotic attempt to expunge the English language of all words of Latin and Greek derivation).
In 1926, while returning to America from Australia aboard the RMMS Aorangi, he met and fell in love with a Swedish poet/courtesan - Ella Viola Ström. It was love at first sight for the heartsick Percy, but he did not immediately win over the girl of his dreams. He courted her assiduously, visiting with her at her home in Pevensey Bay, England, while she communicated with her Japanese lover, Iyemasa Tokugawa, as to ending their relationship and marrying Percy. Apparently he gave his consent, for they were wed at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles on August 9, 1928, before a crowd of some 20,000 who had attended Percy's concert there. For the occasion, he wrote a piece of music for his bride - To A Nordic Princess. They remained married until Percy's death in 1961. This marriage produced no offspring.
Some of Percy's more ambitious compositions include The Warriors (Music for an Imaginary Ballet), Random Round, In A Nutshell, The Jungle Book among others. He was one of the foremost pianists of his era, and his skill is still evident in the CDs which are available of his works, which were originally recorded on cylinders and on Duo-Art Recording Piano rolls He spent many years working on his concept of free music, building machines which would eliminate the need for a performer, and he developed the forerunner of the modern synthesizer. He also developed the idea of beatless music and in 1908 came up with a prototype of the modern sports bra, so his lover could comfortably run with him.
He remained very outspoken in his views, and often contradicted his words with his actions. He championed composer Henry Cowell when others turned their backs on him for what was at that time viewed as moral turpitude, kept in touch with him while Cowell was in prison and allowed him to be released to his guardianship, where he employed him at the Graingers' White Plains home. He was very publicity conscious, and this too coloured the things that he did. Viewed by some as a racist, he actually liked all people, and worked assiduously to introduce the public to types of music not commonly heard - claiming that music was dominated by the Germans and Russians, to the detriment of other nations - Polynesians, Africans, Asians, to name a few.
He was a champion of physical fitness, and stayed in top form throughout his life. He designed clothing from colourfully patterned towel material, as well as beaded necklaces. He loved Kipling, and spent over fifty years on his musical studies of the Jungle Book, which contain some of the most beautiful choral music ever written. He had an affinity for writing startlingly compelling chromatic harmonies which is equaled by few composers.
He began building a museum for himself in Melbourne in 1932, in order not just to collect the pieces of his life, but to help to understand the influences that came to bear in making him the person that he was. A prolific archivist, his correspondence is simply amazing to behold, and is currently in the process of being catalogued. Also in the Grainger Museum are many of his instruments and memorabilia from the people in his life, including life-sized dummies wearing their original clothes (which he requested from his friends, as well as copies of all correspondence).
Percy Aldridge Grainger was a man ahead of his time in many ways. If he had been born at a later time, today he would probably be a cultural phenomenon, gracing the pages of supermarket tabloids worldwide with his striking Adonis looks, his immense talent for the keyboard as well as his talent for being controversial, and for his antics both on stage and off - including his various athletic leaps upon the stage, being mistakenly arrested for vagrancy (more than once), moving pianos on stage, his espousal of blue-eyed English, his relationship with his mother and his proclivity toward the use of whips in his sex-life. Percy Grainger was indeed one of a kind.