Grainger: Fifty Years On
"Let Us Sit in Wait No Longer": Future Directions in Percy Grainger Scholarship, Performance and Interpretation Symposium, 16 October 2010, University of Melbourne
Professor Malcolm Gillies (London Metropolitan University)
"This body is that of a slender, emaciated and well-developed white male 168 cm. long appearing somewhat younger than the stated age of 78 years." So begins Dr J. Lester's autopsy, carried out on Percy Grainger on the morning of his death, 20 February 1961.1
We are now just four months away from the fiftieth anniversary of Grainger's death. The passing of time is impressed upon a number of us in this room, whose first real exposure to the international world of Grainger scholarship was the centenary celebration of Grainger's birth, held in July 1982 here at the University of Melbourne.
We were then fully in the "dig up and expose" phase. Most of the music had not been recorded and most of the treasure trove of letters, essays, concert programmes and memorabilia was, if catalogued, not yet annotated or published. But the Museum did have an industrious curator, Kay Dreyfus, and successive University administrations were decidedly benevolent, or so it seemed to me from the vantage point of a junior tutor.
Last week I looked back into my files for that centenary conference, which went under the title "The Grainger Bequest to the Nation: More than a Museum?" Two papers particularly well plotted the state of Grainger scholarship at that moment. Terry Radic considered how the individual legacy of Grainger might be expanded to create a national heritage. Frank Strahan, long-time University Archivist, in the abstract for his paper, "Digging Up Percy", summarized his theme very crisply: "Like a lucky alluvial gold-digger in a few turns of the spade – a sparkling 'jeweller's shop' revealed. Ignorance, prejudice, even stupidity had buried Percy. These must be shovelled away."2
Much shovelling has occurred in the last thirty years. Volumes of letters, essays, biographies and photo albums have appeared. As the web came upon us in the early-mid nineties there followed websites, exhibitions (virtual and otherwise), virtual tours, and the linking up of repositories, archives, the Grainger Library in White Plains, and collections of recordings as never before possible. Between 1996 and 2003 the greatest leap forward for exposure of his music occurred, in the form of the Chandos series: nineteen CDs of Grainger's music to date, for which Barry Ould was a driving force, especially in bringing so many new work versions to light.
But there is something missing here.
The documentary base has strength; there are now high-quality recordings of most of the works. But the music – that very thing that made Grainger famous (while many of the other aspects of his life made him sometimes unjustifiably "infamous") – that music is still underexposed and underexamined. Its scores are only fitfully available the moment one steps outside the confines of Schott, Bardic Edition and the Museum itself; only a small slab of it gains more than passing performance; and high-level commentary, let alone methodologically rigorous analysis, is infrequent. Wilfrid Mellers' book in the Oxford Studies of Composers3 was a rare attempt, although was frequently based upon more on speculation than on analysis.
Of course, you could argue that the history of music is ultimately about "progress" in the technical means of music, and Grainger, while having contributed a good few novelties to that progress, is not a sufficiently important figure. He is, or was – you could say – a figure of passing "popularity", not a timeless, great figure: namely, the composer of Country Gardens. In this vein of thought you could say that he was on the deck, rather than in the boiler-room, of St Cecilia's ship.
But I don't think that such glib dismissal, typical of the 1970s and 1980s, is good enough. The evidence of the Chandos series tells my ears, and I suspect many of your ears, that while Grainger had quite a run of self-confessed "potboilers", that have more jauntiness than progresssive jolt, there is a treasure trove of musical discovery still awaiting there.
Back in 2000 in writing the Epilogue about "Grainger Studies and the Future", with David Pear, to a volume of Australasian Music Research, we had this to say:
The material for writing a deeper Grainger biography is now to hand. The life-and-works task still remains daunting, however, because of a continuing lack of understanding of what Grainger was about, as a composer. The stream of excellent recordings emerging from several multinational companies disguises the fact that so much of his repertory remains unexplored from a theoretical and analytical viewpoint. We are still highly reliant in fact upon Grainger's self-analyses of works, and the few detailed commentaries of his contemporaries. The 'new musicologies', with their deliberate retreat from the object to its context, have only reinforced the lack. Yet Grainger wanted above all to be acknowledged as a composer. The pianism by which he was perhaps best known during his lifetime was, he always maintained, only in the service of the higher compositional good.4
Now, while quite a number of his various claims to invention were based upon a less than comprehensive knowledge of contemporary repertory, and so have to be discounted to considerable degree, there are so many aspects of his music that are so crying out for further investigation. Here are half a dozen suggestions:
1. Grainger's distinctive sense of rhythm, which is frequently why you know it is "Grainger" when you have heard about one second of a piece. What exactly is its distinctive quality? Why has analysis, including Grainger's own self-analysis, assumed rather than explicated the structural nature of his folk-derived rhythmic variety?
2. His scoring, with its exquisite blending and contrasting of tones: honed particularly by his two years in United States Army bands, and later codified in his principles of "Elastic Scoring". But what really is the evidence of the scores of his mid-later years, which gave rise to the reverence accorded to his name even today among (particularly American) bands?
3. His cloying, annoying, but more-original-than-you-think part writing: sometimes truly inspired; sometimes, even deliberately, trashy (trashy because this voice-leading leads nowhere, or simply circles back to base). Grainger once said, "I love my parts to jostle and rub and irritate",5 and despite its obvious sexual connotation, there is a deep point here. His musical parts do not flow together or collide as much as jostle and rub up against each other.
4. Grainger's sense of variation, which is neither as systematic as Schoenberg's, nor as fragmentary as Stravinsky's, but every bit as inspired as Bartók's in its attempt to capture the fleeting deviations, embellishments and, as it were, "mistakes", of the true folk singer or instrumentalist. That quality fascinated the ethnomusicologist in Grainger to such a degree that he wrote the essay, "The Impress of Personality in Unwritten Music", for the very first issue of The Musical Quarterly in 1915.6 And that article might be a very useful starting point, as a mirror upon Grainger's own practice of variation in his own music.
5. Then there is the very distinctive pianism that is captured in Grainger's score notations, with its fluctuating mixture of Brahms, Bach, Liszt, and even music-hall techniques. We can call this a characteristic of idiom. Strangely, even if Grainger's pianism does become rather formulaic in his own pieces (most of which were originally written for other instrumental forces, of course), it becomes startlingly vivid in his piano arrangements of the music of others. As Leslie Howard commented in 1982 about Grainger's Ramble on the Last Love Duet in Strauss's Rosenkavalier: "The sumptuousness of the original is not compromised for an instant by the restrictions imposed by the medium, and the special cunning, particularly with the aid of the middle pedal, with which Grainger conjures up Strauss's world completely in terms of the Grainger piano sound is a real tour de force."7
6. It is when these variously distinctive parameters of his compositional style are put together that we have that most innovative feature of Grainger: his texture. In 1916 he defined texture in this way:
Texture = "the actual distribution of notes in chords, the critical or unconscious choice of inversions—whether they are close or spread; in short the weft of the fabric, the actual stuff (sonority) produced by the polyphony or by a ‘chordy’ style of writing".8
Unlike idiom, Grainger's concept of texture was not instrumentally circumscribed: "Fine, personal texture never ages, nor does even performance on another instrument destroy its individual message, as a rule!"9 He saw this personal texture most imaginatively, even likening it to linoleum ("sodden") or porcelain ("shell-like"). Against texture, there were those musical characteristics that he held as being inherently "unmusical": structure ("as if music were a subway or a building"), or form, or development ("I haven't the faintest idea what is meant by this latter means", he once confessed), or "clarification" (Verklärung).10
Grainger throws down the gauntlet to our inherited, still largely structurally oriented set of musical values, when he challenged: "Is not the beauty of Chopin two-thirds texture?"11 Perhaps we should ask: Is not the significance of Grainger two-thirds texture?
I hope that a new wave of interest in Grainger's music will be spiked by The New Percy Grainger Companion, edited by Penelope Thwaites – to be launched in London next month – and also be an important theme in the Grainger Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, which will emerge next February.
Let me end with a note of caution. It is fine to look to the music qua music. But we must remember that there is – or should be – no "neutrality of the notes". That is, the music, like the life, does reside in the real time of a real world. Both have their influences and tendencies and cannot be hermetically sealed, unless we want to turn back to a crude positivism, as you find in older dictionaries: with the life in one chapter, and the music in another.
The title of today's gathering (which I did not choose) is an object lesson in this point. "Let Us Sit in Wait No Longer" is the start of the title of an essay that Grainger gave to the Brooklyn Music School in 1919.12 The rest of that title is "For the Advent of Great American Composers – They are with Us Already". Well, it is just about the music, is it not?
Grainger goes on in his lecture to talk about the compositional gifts and starring works of American composers who are "as great in the world of music as Whistler and Sargent in the pictorial world".13 He lists Rubin Goldmark, John Alden Carpenter, Howard Brockway, and so on. But Grainger will not let us off as lightly with this list of American composers and works.
The racial point is there: musicians performing their own music "in their own racial spheres".14 The final sentence, and punchline, of Grainger's exhortatory essay is this:
Moreover, the patriotism that finds its vent in racial self-expression through the medium of art does not wilt and die as empires and supremacies wilt and die, but lives on through the ages, a 'carte de visite' to future humanity, engendering cosmic love.15
Yes, music does need to be seen within the context of its time, place and ideological circumstance. In Grainger studies, I think we are now ready to do that – and so to do justice to Grainger's purpose in founding this museum: that all be told, and nothing be hidden.