The first piece that I ever heard by Percy Grainger was “Molly on the Shore“. Its tick-tock opening of the lower clarinet and bassoon voices provide an amazing support for the rapid-fire but flowing melody for the first clarinets that remains as captivating now as it was the first time I heard it. That melody became one of the few phrases that I can easily play on my own clarinet with joy and ease.
I was a freshman in high school then, but I had a chance to play that piece with many extremely fine musicians, at least two of whom have since gone on to play professionally. I’m sure that some combination of being part of a wind ensemble with some of the finest musicians I have ever played with made this music resonate with me in a way that has stuck with me my entire life.
As I continued to play in high school, I found myself delighted each time our band director, Terry Sakow — himself a big Grainger fan — brought out yet another composition by the Australian composer.
Nearly each one came with some little bit of trivia that made this funny-haired early 20th century composer that much more interesting, beyond the fact that he was the only composer I had ever seen who took seriously the symphonic elements of a concert band.
As he puts it in the conductor’s notes to Lincolnshire Posy:
“Why this cold-shouldering of the wind band by most composers? Is the wind band, with its varied assortments of reeds, so much richer than the reeds of the symphony orchestra, its complete saxophone family that is found nowhere else (to my ears the saxophone is the most expressive of all wind instruments – the one closest to the human voice. And surely all musical instruments should be rated according to their tonal closeness to man’s own voice!), its army of brass, both wide-bore and narrow-bore, – not the equal of any medium ever conceived? As a vehicle of deeply emotional expression it seems to me unrivalled.”
Another thing about Grainger, he disdained the pretensiousness of musical instructions in Italian, which have been common for centuries and continue to this day. Instead of “poco a poco crescendo molto,” for example, he would write “louden lots bit by bit.” Cute.
Probably my favorite thing about Grainger was that not only did he try to alter music behind the scenes, on at least one occasion he gave the finger to his listening public.
In 1918, Grainger — who by this point was an accomplished pianist — wrote a short two minute piano piece based on an English folk song. It was called “Country Gardens.” For those who haven’t heard it, it’s a simple light-hearted jaunt that evokes skipping along a country road. When Grainger first debuted it that same year, the audience loved it. The tune apparently became a bestseller.
However, as Mr. Sakow tells it, Grainger came to dispise the piece as more and more people fell in love with it. He was eventually commissioned to compose another version of the piece for concert band. Upon doing so, he added various points in the music where the musical phrase doesn’t resolve properly, making it sound as if the entire band is playing a wrong note. Brilliant!
In the summer of 2002, I found myself living in Melbourne for two months — which meant it was winter in that part of the world. A friend indulged my Grainger fandom and arranged for me to visit the house in Brighton that he was born in. I actually stood in the room that Percy was born in. (There’s a regular family living there now, but there is a plaque outside.)
Later on during my stay, I got a rare opportunity to attend a concert of the Grainger Wind Symphony. During the intermission, a man brought out a player piano complete with early 20th century piano rolls — a few of us gathered round and listened to Grainger himself, playing Grainger.
I was so taken by the idea of listening to a recording of one of my favorite composers that I ended up speaking to the man who was taking care of those piano rolls. He arranged for me to get CD copies of those rolls.
The other day, I dug up these recordings, and copied them to my computer. I spent most of the day listening to them while doing some writing. They’re really quite good. The sound is clean and crisp. The dynamics are palatable. And they were recorded over eighty years ago on pieces of punched paper — and now I play them, in digitally reduced form.
Perhaps when I’m in nearby Connecticut later this month, I’ll make a pilgrimage to his house in White Plains: “To get to the Grainger House by train, take the Metro-North railroad from Grand Central Terminal in New York to the White Plains station; take a cab to the Grainger House. Or, if you want to emulate Percy himself, take a brisk walk; it’s about a mile.”
Or, I might just “slow off lots.”