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Grainger & Grieg: At twilight & other choral works

Polyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor) Detailed performer information
Label: Helios
Recording details: October 1994
St John-at-Hackney, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Meurig Bowen
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 1995
Total duration: 73 minutes 11 seconds

Cover artwork: Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)


‘This is a disc which will take a long time to put back on the shelf’ (Choir & Organ)

‘This scalp-prickling, sometimes spine-chilling, disc should not be missed’ (The Musical Times)
A meeting in London in 1906 between a floppy-haired twenty-four-year-old Australian and a Norwegian Lloyd George lookalike in his mid-sixties does not apparently seem a good starting point for this recording. But when the young pianist and composer Percy Grainger was introduced to Norway’s most celebrated composer Edvard Grieg at the house of Sir Edgar and Lady Speyer, a remarkable friendship and artistic affinity was struck up. At this meeting Grainger played Grieg’s Norwegian Folksongs Op 66 and Peasant Dances Op 72, and Grieg was so impressed with his performance (‘this young Australian is the first to play them as they ought to be played’) that he asked Grainger to prepare his Piano Concerto for a projected performance in the 1907 Leeds Festival.

They spent much of the summer of 1907 together at Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen near Bergen, and in one of the last letters before his death on 4 September, Grieg wrote: ‘You have become a dear young friend to me, who has made rich for me the evening of my life.’ And clearly one of the strongest points of contact in this remarkable friendship was what Grieg described as the ‘true folk-song poetry’ inherent in the young Australian. In the same letter he wrote: ‘I have again immersed myself in your folk-song settings, and I see more and more clearly what genius there is in them. In them you have thrown a clear light upon how the English folk-song (to my mind so different from the Scotch and Irish) is worthy of the privilege of being lifted up into the “niveau” of Art; thereby to create an independent English music.’

Ultimately, Grainger may not have been proud of this testimony, writing in 1933 that he was ‘not specially fond of folk-music, resenting the strong rhythmic basis underlying this form of art’, and that it was simply through ‘a sense of esthetic [sic] duty’ that he became such an ardent collector and arranger in his twenties. But despite this rather tantalizing remark—typical of Grainger for its disconcerting, debunking honesty—it is the ‘true folk-song poetry’ of the two composers which this recording readily and warmly celebrates.

Despite Grieg’s comment about creating ‘an independent English music’, Grainger is surely fascinating for being perhaps the world’s first international and nation-less composer. Renaissance composers from the north worked in the south, Mozart’s European tours are legendary, and Dvorvák became, for a while, a man of the New World. But Grainger’s capacity to defy nationhood and to fill up the pages of his passport is unsurpassed. He was Australian by birth, but in 1918 became an American citizen. His formative musical education was in Frankfurt from 1895 to 1901, and his first years of professional success as pianist and composer were in England. He had a passionate interest in the Scandinavian countries—their ancient culture, their languages, their women—and, despite the relative difficulty of travel in the early decades of the last century, his concert tours and transcultural interests took him to the most far-flung parts of the globe such as South Africa, Cuba, Jutland, the South Seas and, of course, Australasia.

And it is this extraordinary perspective—as a floater between the New and Old Worlds—which gave him such a vigorously global interest in music. In a letter in 1916 he wrote: ‘I feel that, as a modern composer, I have just as much to learn from Chinese or Zulu music as from Schoenberg or Scarlatti.’ And in a radio talk in 1933 entitled ‘Can Music become a universal language?’ he concluded that music would not become that universal language ‘as long as our musical vision is limited to the output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900—the first step in the right direction is to view the music of all peoples and periods without prejudice of any kind.’ Many decades later such musical boundaries have been hugely extended: ‘exotic’ music, as Grainger called it, makes appearances around the world in university ethnomusicology departments; local musicians from all continents are scouted, recorded on modish big-selling labels and jetted to World Music festivals; and the appreciation and popularity of Western art music goes right back now to the Middle Ages. But Grainger’s enthusiasm for Machaut, Dunstable, Dufay and Purcell, for performances of Bach with small forces and ‘original tonal proportions’, for Maori hakas, and improvized vocal polyphony in the Cook Islands—however prophetic these may appear to us now—must all have seemed slightly potty at the time.

Judged by the usual criteria for greatness in a composer—singularity of purpose, emphasis on large-scale, conspicuously substantial works, consistency of production of original material—Percy Grainger will never commonly be regarded as great. As one of this century’s most distinguished and eccentric polymaths (composer, pianist, writer, ethnomusicologist, inventor, linguist, painter, traveller, unashamed mummy’s boy and sexual adventurer), as one of the earliest proponents of light music (‘light’ meaning short, entertaining and certainly not a sonata, symphony or concerto), and as a composer who wrote little fresh material beyond the age of thirty, it is only too easy to write him off as a jack-of-all-trades, a phenomenal but squandered talent, a visionary flawed for his baffling melange of ideological contradictions.

But as a specialist in miniatures in a century which has come to embrace the short and the popular—epitomized by the three-minute ‘single’—perhaps we can assign greatness to Grainger from a different cultural perspective: for his radical sense of musical egalitarianism, as an unlikely grandfather of pop music (in its broadest sense), and as the first truly great ‘crossover’ artist, decades before this much-vaunted term was even thought of. ‘It pains me to think that the ragtime class can’t enjoy Bach or Debussy fully or that the classical class cannot enjoy ragtime fully. Music, surely, belongs to all, to birds, to savages, to over-civilized folk, to the over-refined, to the vulgar, all alike? As long as a being feels, why should he not have his special art?’

Irish tune from County Derry was taken from the Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (Dublin, 1855), and first arranged for unaccompanied mixed voices between 30 September and 2 October 1902 at Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire. This earliest ‘dish-up’, as Grainger called his arrangements, was called Old Irish Tune; the subsequent, revised version from 1912—recorded here—has the fuller title Irish tune from County Derry. Grainger had a number of Irish émigré friends as a child in Melbourne, and this piece may be seen as a touching tribute to these Irish in Australia from an Australian in Britain. Like many of the British folk-song settings on this disc, it is ‘lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Edvard Grieg’.

The Sea-Chanty [sic] settings Dollar and a half a day, Shenandoah and Stormy owe their existence primarily to a meeting in London between Grainger and Charles Rosher on 24 July 1906. Grainger, in ‘folk-fishing’ mood, cast out his net and caught these three tunes from Rosher, who was a retired sailor living in Chelsea. Later, in January 1908, Grainger travelled to Dartmouth at the suggestion of H E Piggott (a maths lecturer at the Royal Naval College) and heard another retired sailor, John Perring, sing Stormy and Dollar and a half a day in (inevitably) slightly differing versions.

Shenandoah and Stormy were written between March and June 1907 in London, whilst Dollar and a half a day was begun in London in January 1908 (presumably on returning from Dartmouth) and completed—most appropriately—at sea in the Bay of Biscay on 27 June that year.

All are set for men’s voices, and all benefit from a ravishing sense of spatial sonority. Grainger is quite specific in his instructions as to how the voices should be distributed: in Shenandoah and Stormy a group of six and four, respectively, ‘accompanying singles’ and the solo voice contrast with the far larger ‘refrain chorus’; and in Dollar and a half a day, a solo quintet (including the prominent tenor and baritone solos) are set against an ‘accompanying chorus’ and large unison ‘refrain chorus’. The effect is magnificently rich: a clutch of male voices treated with the harmonic, sonorous breadth of a large string orchestra or brass band.

In Dollar and a half a day Grainger gives much prominence to the use of the word ‘nigger’, and it might be considered appropriate to replace this with a more ‘politically correct’ alternative. However, the nature of the shanty’s text—very much supportive of the black man’s situation and critical of the injustice of a two-tiered, black–white pay structure—together with the fact that the word in this context has a poetic power and relevance to the time it was written should encourage performers to retain it.

Having made the acquaintance of the distinguished folk-song collector Lucy Broadwood at meetings of the newly formed English Folk Dance and Song Society, Grainger spent a number of weeks in 1905 and 1906 collecting folk-songs in Lincolnshire, staying as a guest of the Elwes family in Brigg (the tenor Gervase Elwes was the first great Gerontius, and he gave the first performance of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge in 1909). Some of the hundreds of melodies collected were taken down on the phonograph—a pioneering, hi-tech method for that time—and one of them was The gypsy’s wedding day, taken down on 7 May 1906.

One of the reasons that Grainger’s ‘folk-fishing’ expeditions in Lincolnshire were so fruitful was that at the time of one of his visits a large crowd from around the county was gathering in Brigg for the fair. It is thus particularly fitting that perhaps Grainger’s most famous and beloved ‘catch’ from this time was the tune Brigg Fair, which was sung to him by a woodman on the Elwes estate, Joseph Taylor of Saxby All Saints. Evidently Mr Taylor did not know, or could not remember, more than two verses of this exquisite tune, and so to complete his touching arrangement Grainger subsequently borrowed three further verses from two other songs: Low down in the broom (verse three) and The merry king (verses four and five), both from West Sussex. Grainger heard the tune at Brigg on 11 April 1905, and the arrangement’s completion is dated 18 January 1906. A year later Grainger’s great friend Delius wrote his orchestral Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody.

Grainger’s friend and benefactor in Frankfurt, Karl Klimsch, gave him a volume of traditional Scottish tunes, arranged in the Parlour Song style, entitled Songs of the North. And nearly two decades later, in a letter to the Scottish music journalist D C Parker, Grainger wrote that ‘the Scotch border-ballads have been another strong and never waning influence and delight’. In the context of his passionate interest in things Nordic, this Scottish leaning is no surprise. The tender, nostalgic Mo nighean dubh (‘My dark-haired maiden’) was arranged by Grainger in London during his first visit there in 1900—a year before he and his mother moved to England from Frankfurt.

O mistress mine is a simple homophonic, five-part treatment of a tune by the Elizabethan composer Thomas Morley (c1557–1602), the text coming from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The composition date on the score is 10 April 1903.

Grieg’s Four Psalms, Op 74 are his last completed works, and are based on old Norwegian church melodies found in L M Lindeman’s Older and newer Norwegian mountain melodies. It seems that Grieg’s intention in setting these psalms (or ‘songs of praise’ as they should more accurately be translated) was more to preserve and honour these folk melodies rather than to compose some late-in-life personal expression of faith. Grieg had been brought up a devout Christian, but a crisis of faith following his father’s death in 1875 led him to be drawn to the broader, more relaxed outlook of the Unitarian Church, having met the Unitarian leader Reverend Brooke in Birmingham in 1888.

The texts of the first two ‘psalms’ are by Hans Adolf Brorson (1694–1764), the third by Hans Tomissön and the last by Laurentius Laurentii (1573–1655). Grainger translated these for the 1925 Peters Edition, and also wrote a glowing, somewhat over-the-top introduction in the score. He asserts boldly: ‘[… the music is] remarkable for the masterly manner in which highly original and daring complexities of chromatic and enharmonic polyphonic harmony are couched in a perfectly vocal and naturally singable style (through the innate melodiousness of the inner as well as the outer part-writing), thereby, for the first time, making the harmonic innovations of the later nineteeth century available for choral use’.

Grieg set the Latin hymn Ave, maris stella in 1898 as an occasional piece, assigning it no opus number for its publication in 1900. Its charm—its lyrical ebb and flow—is reminiscent of Bruckner’s a cappella Latin motets.

Grainger was introduced to Kipling’s works in 1897 when his father sent to him in Frankfurt several volumes-worth of Kipling in order to prevent the young Percy becoming too ‘Germanized’. It was a well-chosen gift from an estranged father, for Grainger later wrote (in the letter to D C Parker quoted above) that ‘Kipling’s verse had more artistic influence on me (between the age of fifteen and twenty-five) than the art of any single other man’. Whether it was an artistic affinity inspired by the pathos, poetic structure or direct, striking language of Kipling, Grainger worked on—not necessarily finishing—more than forty Kipling settings between 1898 and the late 1950s. Soldier, soldier is taken from the Barrack Room Ballads and was composed at Grieg’s home on 2 August 1907. Like all the Kipling settings it is dedicated ‘to my beloved mother’.

Unlike the unswervingly sprightly The gypsy’s wedding day, Mary Thomson is one of those classic English tales of love gone sour, a story simply told and with a timelessly wise moral tag: ‘And O beware of flattering tongues, for they’ll your ruin prove’. Grainger’s sensitivity to the text, his awareness of its progressive, darkening complexity, shows in the same progressive complexity of the harmony, culminating in prodigious chromatic wanderings in the final verse: extravagant pianistic vampings which work, miraculously, in this choral guise. Grainger noted this tune down from a Mr Samuel Holdstock in Kent in August 1909.

Another Scottish tune, with words by Robert Burns, Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon was set in October 1901. The most remarkable feature of this affecting arrangement is the role for whistlers in the second verse—indeed, it is one of the earliest examples of scored whistling in Grainger. We have his mother’s Swedish masseur in Frankfurt to thank for this, for the composer acknowledges Sigurd Fornander in the score, ‘who showed me the charm of whistling’. Fornander was a virtuoso whistler, allegedly with a five-and-a-half octave range, and it is this phenomenal range which we can also blame for Grainger writing the whistling part well into the stratosphere. The more self-confident whistlers in Polyphony were assigned to this part in the recording session, but most were struck down by altitude sickness in the penultimate phrase. With no time to trawl the streets of Hackney for some more lofty practitioners, and without an ondes martenot or one of Grainger’s own electronic inventions on hand to act as a whistle substitute, we decided to leave it as it is for you all to hear!

Dalvisa (meaning from the province of Dal) is a Swedish folk-song known as ‘Vindarna Sucka’ which Grainger worked into voice parts while staying at the Elwes family home of Billing, Northamptonshire, in 1904.

Grainger’s own note in the 1930 publication of Australian up-country song reads thus: ‘This piece (written for chorus in May 1928) is based on a tune I wrote in 1905, called “Up-country song”. In that tune I had wished to voice Australian up-country feeling as Stephen Foster had voiced American country-side feelings in his songs. I have used this same melody in my Australian Colonial Song and in my Australian The Gum-Suckers March.’

Two points are worth noting from this introduction: first, that Grainger was still keen to push his Australian-ness a decade after taking American citizenship; and secondly that by the late 1920s the pattern had already set in that most of his compositional activity was (merely) the reworking, often in several different guises, of earlier material. His mother’s death in 1922, when she jumped from the eighth floor of a New York apartment block, is widely thought to be the main cause of this creative drought.

Near Woodstock Town is another English folk-song very much in the same mould, thematically, as Mary Thomson—the distraught, dumped woman. The tune appears in three eighteenth-century English operas—The Cobbler’s Opera (1729), Village Opera (1729) and Silvia (1731)—but Grainger’s source for this simple, understated arrangement made in March 1903 was Augerner’s Minstrelsey of England, edited by W E Duncan in the late nineteenth century.

The Sussex mummers’ Christmas carol was collected by Lucy Broadwood near Horsham in 1880, and Grainger dedicated his 1905 version for cello and piano to Herman Sandby. This wordless vocal arrangement is by the American composer Dana Perna.

The popular Swedish folk-tune A song of Värmeland, set by Grainger in 1904, was the obvious choice for performance at the extraordinary wedding ceremony of Percy and Ella Grainger in 1928—extraordinary because it took place as part of a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 28,000 people (with the bride-to-be knowing nothing of this in advance). In musical terms, Ella, the Swede, was represented by Värmeland, and Grainger by the Australian up-country song.

At twilight first began life in 1900 as a setting of part of Kipling’s Rhyme of the three sealers (1893), but the main work on it was done eight years later, with a completion date of 5 July 1909. By then, perhaps because of problems in gaining permission from Kipling’s agent, the text had been totally reworked by Grainger so that it effectively reads as a parody of the original—the opening lines, for example, change from ‘Away by the lands of the Japanee / Where the paper lanterns glow’ to ‘Away by the reefs of the Chilean Coast / Where the Southern Cross hangs low’.

Together with Soldier, soldier and the Australian up-country song on this recording, this is original work from Grainger—one without borrowed folk-song or traditional material. A clear ABA structure is enhanced by expansive chromaticism and eccentric, fastidious markings in virtually every bar (for example, ‘louden lots’ and ‘very clingingly and well to the fore’). In the introduction to his arrangement for piano in 1939, Grainger wrote: ‘When I ended this chorus with the chord E flat, B flat, G, C, E flat (the chord with which so many thousands of jazz compositions have since been closed) I thought I was closing a piece with a discord for the first time in musical history. Perhaps it was the first time that this particular chord was so used. But the end of the second act of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande must already have been written, though I did not know it. I heard nothing of Debussy’s until the summer of 1902.’

Meurig Bowen © 1995

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