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Sixty-five minutes of riotous invention and luscious harmonies as the inveterate innovator and experimenter in music flexes his orchestral imagination.
As a composer he was largely self-taught and strongly influenced by the folk music of Great Britain and Ireland. Many of his 'miniatures'— such titles as Country gardens, Handel in the Strand and Molly on the shore—established his composing credentials very early on. But Grainger was also an inveterate innovator and experimenter in music, and the kaleidoscopic aspects of his compositional creativity—evident in highly imaginative works often with unprecedented rhythms, harmonies and scoring—are fully represented in the programme heard here.
The music was digitally recorded with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in February 1989, at the acoustically excellent South Melbourne Town Hall. The album was originally released in Australia by ABC Classics and elsewhere by Koch International.
The warriors 'Music to an imaginary ballet'
In 1910, Sir Thomas Beecham gave the first performance of Delius’s Mass of life. Percy Grainger attended and was so gripped by the experience that he presented the conductor with the score of his English dance. The following year this work was duly premiered by Beecham, who then mentioned his idea of creating a ballet scenario for which Grainger would write the music. Beecham was at that time heavily involved with presenting Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in London though quite how serious his suggestion to Grainger was remains open to question. In any event, his proposed ‘scenario’ never materialised so Grainger wrote a purely orchestral ‘danceable’ work which had the possibility of adaptation into ballet music, should it be so required.
Grainger began working on the score in 1913. He finally completed it three years later in San Francisco, and conducted the first performance at the Norfolk Music Festival, Connecticut, in 1917. The composer dedicated the work to Frederick Delius 'in admiration and gratitude' and supplied his own notes to the score:
No definite programme or plot underlines the music, though certain mind-pictures set it going. Often the scenes of a ballet have flitted before the eyes of my imagination in which the ghosts of male and female warrior types of all times and places are spirited together for an orgy of war-like dances, processions and merrymakings broken, or accompanied, by amorous interludes; their frolics tinged with just that faint suspicion of wistfulness all holiday gladness wears.
I see the action of the ballet shot through, again and again, with the surging onslaughts of good-humouredly mischievous revellers who carry all before them in the pursuit of voluptuous pleasures. At times the lovemakers close at hand hear from afar the proud passage of harnessed fighting-men, and for the final picture I like to think of them all lining up together in brotherly fellowship and wholesale animal glee; all bitter and vengeful memories vanished, all hardships forgot; a sort of Valhalla gathering of childishly overbearing and arrogant savage men and women of all ages—the old Greek heroes with fluttering horse-haired helms; shining black Zulus, their perfect limbs lit with fire-red blossoms; flaxen-haired Vikings clad in scarlet and sky-blue; lithe bright Amazons in windswept garments side by side with squat Greenland women in ornately patterned furs; Red Indians resplendent in bead-heavy dresses and negrito Fijians terrible with sharks’ teeth ornaments, their woolly hair dyed pale ochre with lime; graceful cannibal Polynesians of both sexes, their golden skins wreathed with flowers and winding tendrils—these and all the rest arm in arm in a united show of gay and innocent pride and animal spirits, fierce and exultant.
The work is continuous but falls into eight sections, as here described by the composer:
1—Fast. Martial or dance-like in character.
2—Slow and langorous.
3—Fast. Begins in the dance spirit but gradually becomes broader and more 'flowing' in style.
4—Slow pastoral melody on the bass oboe, accompanied by a tremolo of muted strings and a staccato organ-paint consisting of harp harmonics and piano strings struck by marimba mallets.
5—Slow langorous music (similar to section 2). At the same time, snatches of quick martial music are faintly heard from behind the platform.
6—Dance orgy, beginning gently but working up to a high pitch of commotion and excitement.
7—Climax. The chief theme of the composition is given forth slowly and majestically by the full orchestra.
8—The dance orgy is resumed with vigour, but is broken off suddenly while at its height, whereupon the work ends with an abrupt anticlimax.
Irish tune from County Derry
If any two popular works by Grainger have kept his name before the public, they are Country gardens and the Irish tune from County Derry (also known as The Londonderry air and Danny boy). Grainger’s first setting of the latter was for unaccompanied six-part wordless chorus in 1902 and called Irish folk song. Numerous other versions followed, including one for piano which much impressed Busoni (as also did Hill-song No 1) when Grainger played it to him. Another version for strings so impressed Alexander Siloti that he made his own solo piano version, not knowing of Grainger’s. Leopold Stokowski commissioned a brand new arrangement in 1949, one of half a dozen or so pieces selected by the great maestro for a special recording project. The version recorded here is the 'large room-music, elastically scored' orchestral version of 1920, for which Grainger employed a novel, hauntingly chromatic and highly effective harmonisation.
Danish folk-music suite
In April 1905, Grainger began collecting folksongs in Lincolnshire. Six months later he broke off his field work and, with his friend the cellist Herman Sandby, embarked on a month-long concert tour of Denmark. There he met the Danish folk-song collector Hjalmar Thuren, who in turn introduced him to the work of Evald Tang Kristensen (1843-1929). The following year, Lucy Broadwood of the English Folk- Song Society lent Grainger a copy of Kristensen’s Danish folk-songs. It was, Grainger wrote, 'the greatest joy to me … they are full of what I regard as the typical Danish character'.
The two collectors were not to meet until November 1913. 'I have spent the whole morning with him', wrote Grainger. 'He is marvellous, very amusing to be with. Perhaps I will spend 3-4 days with him next summer or autumn with the phonograph so that together we can collect some remnants of Danish folk-songs.' However, plans for a trip in August 1914 had to be abandoned, first because of his mother Rose Grainger’s illness, and then because of the outbreak of war, whereupon Grainger and his mother emigrated to America. It was not until after Rose’s suicide in 1922 that Percy was able to meet up with Kristensen, then in his eighties. Together they made three trips through the Jutland region—in 1922, 1925 and 1927—seeking out and recording folk-singers with the aid of a phonograph. As Grainger had written in 1907: 'To collect without a phonograph (until there’s something better) is mad and criminal.' The Danish folk-music suite is the fruit of these travels.
The first two movements are based on folksongs collected in August 1922—The power of love and Lord Peter’s stable-boy—and are 'lovingly honour-tokened' to the memory of Rose Grainger. The third movement, dedicated to Sandby, uses two folk-songs, The nightingale and The two sisters, also collected in August 1922. The finale, Jutish medley, dedicated to Kristensen 'as a token of boundless admiration', incorporates four tunes: Choosing the bride and The dragoon’s farewell, gathered in October 1927, The shoemaker from Jerusalem (collected from the singing of Tang Kristensen’s wife) and Hubby and wifey (a quarrelling duet) gathered in August 1922. The Danish folk-music suite, completed in 1928 and revised in 1941, is scored for a large orchestra including 'tuneful percussion', with substantial parts for piano, harmonium and organ. The individual movements and folk-songs exist in a number of other versions (some in vocal arrangements) and are often performed independently.
Hill-song No 1
In 1900, before completing his studies at the Frankfurt Conservatorium, Grainger journeyed with his mother through Europe to England. Their travels took them to Scotland where Percy seized the opportunity for a three-day hike through West Argyllshire. Hill-song No 1 was a direct response not only to 'the soul-shaking hillscapes' of the region but also to particular tonal memories of music which he had encountered on his Continental travels: the 'hard-toned rustic oboe in Italy'; 'some extremely nasal Egyptian double-reeds at the Paris Exhibition'; and 'bagpipes in the Scottish Highlands'.
The first version of Hill-song No 1 was composed between March 1901 and September 1902 in Frankfurt and England, and scored for 2 piccolos, 6 oboes, 6 cor anglais, 6 bassoons and 1 contra-bassoon. 'All the double reeds should produce a wild, nasal, ‘bagpipe’ quality of tone', he specified. Finding the original scoring not feasible, Grainger tried different alternative combinations, and the final rescoring of 1923 (recorded here for the first time) is much fuller, including single woodwinds, trumpet, euphonium, saxophones, harmonium, piano, percussion and a string septet. In their original versions, both Hill-songs (the second, heard later, dates from 1907) illustrate the composer at an early age leaning towards small instrumental combinations or 'room music' as he termed it. The example had been Bach, after Grainger had heard performances of the Brandenburg Concertos and the Passions in Frankfurt. 'These sounds', he wrote, '(2 flutes and harpsichord and mixed chorus accompanying a solo voice) sounded so exquisite to my ears … that I became convinced that large chamber music (from 8-25 performers) was, for me, an ideal background for single voices or a small chorus.' Grainger extended the idea to the Hill-songs in their specification for 21-24 instruments, each being cast in one continuous movement.
These highly innovative works make extensive use of irregular barring and are harmonically adventurous, employing whole-tone scales and 'mild discords'. Also close to Grainger’s heart was the concept of 'democratic polyphony' in which each tone or instrumental part should enjoy an equal prominence. This principle of democracy might be said to extend throughout Grainger’s output in what he called 'elastic scoring', making works performable by different instrumental combinations and numbers of performers.
The Hill-songs are a striking evocation of the spirit and wildness of an unpeopled highland. Woven into the score is the recurring triplet phrase 'Mother o’ mine' from his 1901 Kipling setting, Dedication. It is perhaps not surprising that towards the end of his life, Grainger could write: 'I consider Hill-song No 1 by far the best of all my compositions.'
Beautiful fresh flower
In 1935, on reading a book by the American musicologist Joseph Yasser, which gave examples of purely pentatonic harmonisation, Percy Grainger took the Chinese folksong Beautiful fresh flower, harmonised it by using only the tune’s five notes, and set it for piano solo. (The melody is one of the several authentic Chinese tunes used by Puccini in Turandot, though Puccini’s harmonisation is not pentatonic.) In 1985, Ronald Stevenson played Grainger’s setting in China, and the Chinese musicians expressed great admiration, one of them even claiming 'Percy could certainly speak Chinese in music!' Grainger’s orchestration employed here—strings, vibraphone and tam-tam—has been made especially for this recording by fellow Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. (From information kindly supplied by Ronald Stevenson.)
Colleen dhas (or The valley lay smiling) was composed in Denmark in October 1904 and first performed by an impromptu band of local musicians while Grainger was staying at the home of Herman Sandby’s brother, a village doctor and amateur flautist. It is Grainger’s first 'room-music' setting of a folk-song, taken from Thomas Moore’s ten volumes of Irish melodies which Stanford re-edited in 1895. 'Colleen dhas' is Gaelic for 'pretty maid', and while Grainger was collecting and recording folk-songs in Lincolnshire in 1906, he came across a variant in The pretty maid milkin’ her cow which he also set.
Hill-song No 2
The two Hill-songs, which both set off in 'fast walking measure', are closely interrelated, as the composer’s own note explains:
Hill-song No 2 is the result of a wish to present the fast, energetic elements of Hill-song No 1 as a single-type whole, without contrasting types of a slower, more dreamy nature. To this end, the bulk of the fast, energetic elements (of Hill-song No 1) were used, together with about the same extent of new material of a like character, and composed in London in April 1907, in which month the whole was put into shape. Hill-song No 2 was scored April 8-20, 1907, at Svinkløv, Jutland, Denmark, for 24 wind instruments, and dished up for two pianos, August 21-23, 1907, at Svinkløv.
The Hill-songs are available in their original versions for woodwind and also for two pianos and, in the case of Hill-song No 2, for wind band and for symphony orchestra without trombones, tuba or violins (as recorded here for the first time). Grainger dedicated this work to his life-long friend Balfour Gardiner, whose concerts in 1912 and 1913 helped establish Grainger’s reputation as a composer.
Steven Lloyd & Edward Johnson © 2020