No 2: A Slow Dance [4'33]
No 3: The Leprechaun's Dance [2'52]
No 4: A Reel [4'08]
Though he professed not to enjoy concert giving, Grainger was one of the greatest pianists of the earlier twentieth century and had an intimate understanding of the capabilities of the piano and how best to write for it. Though his compositional voice was unique he was therefore in many ways part of the great composer/pianist tradition stretching from Liszt to Busoni for whom the concert transcription was an essential part of their art.
This recording contains the majority of Grainger's concert transcriptions of music by other composers (his few Bach arrangements are performed by Piers Lane on). They range from the folk-inspired Irish Dances of Stanford, full of Grainger's characteristically extrovert piano writing, to the hyper-romantic lushness (and incredible pianistic sophistication) of his 'Ramble on Love' based on Richard Strauss's 'Rosenkavalier', all superbly played by Piers Lane who, like Grainger, certainly can't resist a 'good tune'!
Other recommended albums
In the art of the classical piano transcription, Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882–1961) ranks amongst an impressive roll-call of composer-pianists who were all attracted to the genre. Its foundation can be traced back to Liszt, the acknowledged father of the form. The transcriptions made by Busoni, Godowsky and Rachmaninov have all added further dimensions to their originals, and each in turn has added his own individual style to the pieces transcribed. Such is the case with Grainger’s foray into this field: his unmistakable sounds and highly developed understanding of the piano and its capabilities are here transformed into moments of sheer genius and beauty. Whilst it can be said that most of Grainger’s original piano works are transcriptions (the majority of his piano settings were made after their original instrumental or orchestral scores were composed), it is in the thirty or so transcriptions of other composers’ music that his originality as a composer for the piano shines forth.
By the age of nine, Grainger had already written pieces in a Handelian style, to be found as part of his ‘Birthday Gift’, an album dedicated to his mother, Rose. It was through her, from the age of five, that the young Percy was introduced to the piano music of Bach, Brahms, Grieg and Schumann among others. Their works would later be incorporated into Grainger’s concert repertoire. It was his unlimited and unabashed enthusiasm for melody, and his wish to acquaint his audiences with the music of these composers, that led Grainger to publish a series of eight transcriptions, made between 1920 and 1942, titled ‘Free Settings of Favourite Melodies’. He was also to write truncated versions of four piano concertos under the title ‘Concert Transcriptions of Favourite Concertos’. These were the Grieg and Schumann concertos, Tchaikovsky’s First and Rachmaninov’s Second. These, and the other transcriptions to a certain extent, had also the practical aim of popularizing works before the gramophone became a stock household item.
Grainger’s first venture into transcription, his Paraphrase on Tchaikovsky’s Flower Waltz received its first public performance at his debut solo recital in London’s Steinway Hall on 29 October 1901. The arrangement is dedicated to the French piano virtuoso and composer, Léon Delafosse, who popularized it in France and who was later to dedicate some of his own preludes to Grainger. The published edition appeared in 1904 after some revision, and is unique in incorporating Grainger’s first use of his idiosyncratic English instead of the usual Italian musical directions—a practice he was later to adopt in most of his scores. Within the structure of this exciting and flamboyant paraphrase, based on one of the most enduring of Tchaikovsky’s melodies, the element of original composition is manifest. From the outset we are propelled along on a tide of virtuosic passagework, culminating in a highly florid cadenza and a clattering apotheosis.
Grainger first met Cyril Scott (1879–1970) during his student years at Dr Hoch’s Conservatorium in Frankfurt, being introduced to him by a member of the Klimsch family. Their initial meeting was cool, but they soon warmed to each other and were to remain friends for nearly seven decades. Grainger was the younger of the two by three years, and welcomed Scott’s attention to his new compositions, often performing them in Scott’s rooms at the conservatory. The Handelian Rhapsody stems from an early one-movement Piano Sonata in D major, Op 17, that Scott had written for Grainger around 1901. The work appealed to Grainger owing to its clanging, bell-like sounds, but Scott felt it to be immature and had more or less discarded it when Grainger urged the composer to allow him to ‘take the knife to it’. He produced a new recension under Grainger’s editorship, which he later described as being not unlike a Brahms rhapsody. The title came about through Grainger’s contention that Handel had at times exercised a certain influence on Scott’s music. It is recorded here for the first time.
It was during Grainger’s London years that he came into contact with many artists, composers and musicians who were all to play some part in formulating his career as pianist and furthering his subsequent recognition as a composer. His numerous appearances in ‘at homes’ quickly established him in London society, and it was at such a gathering that he met the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924), who later hosted at least four similar functions at which Grainger performed. From 1904 onwards their friendship grew apace and they were to work closely with each other until Grainger’s departure for America in 1914. The Four Irish Dances had been transcribed from Stanford’s orchestral versions, Op 79, during the early years of their professional association, and Grainger would often include them in his solo recitals along with Stanford’s own Three Rhapsodies Op 92, written specially for him in the summer of 1904. The music of these dances is based on traditional Irish folk tunes which Stanford selected from his own edition of The Complete Petrie Collection of Ancient Irish Music. The first dance, A March-Jig (Maguire’s Kick) is based on two melodies, the main tune, ‘Maguire’s Kick’, being combined with a jig from County Leitrim. Irish rebels had used the primary tune as a marching air in 1798. The entire thematic material for A Slow Dance is taken from a long and varied tune named ‘Madame Cole’, described as ‘one of Carolan’s finest airs’. It was composed by the blind Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan (1670–1738) for the marriage in 1719 of John Cole of Florence Court, County Fermanagh, to Jane Saunderson of County Cavanagh. Grainger points out that this tune is more redolent of the art music of the seventeenth century than of the Irish countryside. In some parts of Ireland, country folk still believe in the existence of leprechauns, tiny fairies who wear tall hats and knee-breeches. The Leprechaun’s Dance is a delicate movement consisting of two tunes in 9/8 time, a ‘Jig’ and a ‘Hop Jig’. The final number of the set, A Reel, opens and closes with a section based on a rollicking Cork reel engagingly titled ‘Take her out and air her’. This is contrasted with a graceful middle episode built around the winsome melody ‘The cutting of the hay’.
Grainger’s Tribute to Foster, based on Stephen Foster’s Camptown Races, was composed between 1913 and 1916. The Lullaby section for piano solo was worked out in the summer of 1915. Two years later Grainger recorded an improvised hand-played performance for the Duo-Art Pianola Company. Thereby, all the rhythmic complexities and irregularities of the improvisation could be preserved, as it were, photographically. Soon afterwards, Grainger was to notate this work for publication, reversing the accepted compositional process by transcribing it on to paper from the piano roll. The resulting piece is a free paraphrase of the central section of the main composition, and is a study in ‘musical glasses’ effect, making extensive use of what Grainger termed ‘woggle’—a fluttering right-hand tremolo. The effect becomes hallucinatory, and the listener is soon mesmerized by the beauty of the resulting soundscape produced by the quick repetition of notes over the main tune, which grows in intensity as the work progresses. Grainger tells us that the ideas behind the ‘lullaby’ section were coloured by memories of his mother singing him to sleep with Foster’s tune during his childhood.
Grainger was a great admirer of the music of Richard Strauss, considering him to be a genius and ‘a humane soul whose music overflowed with the milk of human kindness’. Meetings between the two composers took place on various occasions during the early part of the twentieth century, and Strauss was on at least two occasions to conduct Grainger’s music in Germany. Work commenced on the Ramble on Love (‘Ramble on the love-duet in the opera “The Rose-Bearer” [Der Rosenkavalier] FSFM No 4’) before 1920. But it was his mother’s suicide in 1922 that drove Grainger to complete this most elaborate of all his piano paraphrases, with her name obliquely enshrined in the title. It is one of the most meticulously notated piano pieces in the repertoire, with copious use of the sostenuto (middle) pedal. An authentic interpretation requires the pianist to follow scrupulously Grainger’s numerous instructions. Thus the sumptuous sound world of Strauss is conjured up to dazzling effect in this transcription that marks the full range and summit of Grainger’s pianism.
In the same year as his mother’s death, the two first numbers of the ‘Free Settings of Favourite Melodies’ were written out on 28 July whilst Grainger was teaching at the Chicago Musical College. The Hornpipe from Handel’s Water Music, however, appears to have been thought out earlier than this. It is a straightforward treatment of the original melody, though technically more demanding than it sounds. The Brahms Cradle Song (Wiegenlied, Op 49 No 4), is a contemplative study characterized by much arpeggiation and the use of suspensions, with the first statement of the melody cast in the tenor range of the keyboard—a favoured treatment by Grainger. The third piece in the series is a transcription of the song Nell, Op 18 No 1, by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924). Grainger’s exquisite treatment of this entrancing melody was made in February of the year in which Fauré died. Fauré may be counted among Grainger’s musical heroes. He first met him in March 1908 at the home of Leo Schuster, Fauré’s host and patron in England. Here Grainger played to Fauré his own compositions, and was very taken with him. This in turn led to a deep sympathy and lifelong passion for his music. The transcription of one of Fauré’s most poignant love songs, Après un rêve, Op 7 No 1, followed in 1939, as number seven of the ‘Free Settings of Favourite Melodies’. Both pieces have a lucid quality in which Grainger subtly weaves the vocal line into the main texture of the piano writing, not unlike the treatment employed in some of his piano arrangements of folk songs. In the last years of his life, although frail, he would often be heard playing these two Fauré melodies.
Grainger first met Frederick Delius (1862–1934) in 1907, and this was to be a turning point in both men’s lives. They took to each other immediately and their paths were to cross many times. Delius had a great admiration for the young Australian, considering him to be ‘a genius—one of the greatest composers’, endowed with the gift of true originality. It was Delius who also encouraged Grainger to desist from withholding his works from public performance. The piano solo transcription of Delius’s Air and Dance dates from 1927 to 1930. The original manuscript of Grainger’s arrangement came into the possession of Bernard van Dieren, and was only discovered when a number of Delius manuscripts were put up for sale at Sotheby’s by van Dieren’s son in 1964. The original work, written in 1915 for string orchestra, is a comparatively simple-textured piece in one movement. Grainger’s piano arrangement makes full use of the harmonic language inherent in the original, and employs the sustaining pedal to clarify harmonic changes over static pedal notes. The piece is in one continuous movement with the Dance growing naturally out of the Air.
For numbers 5 and 6 in his series of Favourite Melodies, Grainger turned to an air by John Dowland (1563–1626). Now, oh now I needs must part inspired Grainger to make not only two piano versions (concert and easy) but also an extended ‘ramble’ for tenor solo and wind band, which he called Bell Piece. The concert version (FSFM No 5) recorded here dates from his Australian trip of 1935, and was written at ‘Claremont’, the home of his Aunt Clara in Adelaide. The easy version (FSFM No 6—containing no big stretches) was written out in Segeltorp, Sweden, the following year. In both piano settings the Dowland melody is heard twice: the first time with harmonies almost identical to the original lute accompaniment but adapted to pianistic technique, the second time with free harmonies and a tail-piece (coda) of Grainger’s own devising. The song was one that Grainger particularly liked to play and sing before retiring to bed.
The year 1935 also saw Grainger’s arrangement of an authentic Chinese tune that he had read about in A Theory of Evolving Tonality (1932) by the American musicologist, composer, organist and conductor, Joseph Yasser (1893–1981). It contained examples of tunes and authentic ways of harmonizing them. Grainger took the tune Beautiful Fresh Flower and harmonized it in the Kung Scale of the pentatonic series which Yasser provided in his book. The same melody, referring as it does to the jasmine, was also used by Puccini in Turandot.
Although there is no evidence that Grainger ever met George Gershwin, he included the latter’s Piano Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue in his concert repertoire, having publicly performed the concerto for the first time in 1944. Grainger considered Gershwin’s music to be rooted in the traditions of cosmopolitan classical music, and would fearlessly assert that his true originality lay in his songs. Two pieces were arranged to supply suitable encores, yet at the same time pay homage to music Grainger all but worshipped. Love walked in (1945) features another of Grainger’s ‘musical glasses’ effects in conjunction with the melody. The second is a concert arrangement of Gershwin’s own piano transcription of The man I love (1944). Grainger held that this was one of the greatest songs of all time and should take its place in immortality alongside the finest love-songs by Dowland, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Fauré, Duparc, Hatton, Maude Valérie White, Cyril Scott, Roger Quilter, Debussy and John Alden Carpenter. He went further by commenting that the opening phrase of Gershwin’s melody is indebted to a fragment from the slow movement of Grieg’s Violin Sonata in C minor, considering this as ‘a sign of genius in a composer to base his procedures upon an older, original composer.’
The Carman’s Whistle (Air and Variations) by William Byrd is a sequence of eight variations on a popular sixteenth-century tune. Grainger makes it the basis of his concert arrangement (omitting the first variation), filling out the texture with added octaves to the original composition for virginals, but leaving unchanged much of the original harmony and ornamentation. The ‘Carman’ of the title refers to the itinerant traders of the time known as ‘carmen’ or ‘carters’. Chappell, in his Old English Popular Music, states that the carmen of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were famous for their musical abilities, in particular for their ability to whistle tunes—especially effective, he remarks, in the management of horses. Byrd’s tune is also associated with several ballads which Chappell found ‘not suitable for publication’ in his book, owing to their salacious content.
Grainger’s music, whether it be original works or arrangements, is like a breath of spring air. The need to inform and educate, but also to enjoy, was the ideal behind much of what Grainger did throughout his life. Once, when asked why he made all his arrangements of other composers, he answered: ‘To know a world of beauty and not to be able to spread the knowledge of it is agonizing.’
Barry Peter Ould © 2002