Thursday, 10 February 2011

‘To know a world of beauty…’

My first encounter with Grainger’s music - writes Penelope Thwaites, editor of The New Percy Grainger Companion - began not as a music student at Melbourne University, but in England in the 70’s, not long after my Wigmore Hall debut. The composer William L Reed said to me one day, “You’re an Australian – why don’t you play some Grainger?” I considered, and decided to include three folk-settings at the end of my next recital. I found them delightful, stimulating - and demanding. That, I learned, was a not unusual experience for those embarking on performing Grainger.

Fifty years after his death in New York on 20 February 1961, a fresh evaluation of Percy Grainger is due. This Australian-American composer and pianist who spent much of his youth in Germany and Britain and who revered the Scandinavian countries and their culture seems to have been born into a state of reaction against existing norms. The necessity to earn his living and support his invalid mother took him to the heart of the British establishment as a society pianist, when his own genes were drawing him inexorably towards the music of ordinary people – folk music. His quenchless curiosity led him to experiment with new instruments to introduce into the lush panoply of Edwardian orchestral writing – an orchestra for which he wrote superbly. He envisaged a kind of music that would dispense with regular time signatures and conventional pitch, music that would move as freely as the sounds of nature.

I have just come from rehearsing a trio of Grainger songs. Grainger’s pianist is a full partner to the singer and together, time and again, two artists are called upon to create a scene, a drama , more often than not with an undercurrent of sadness. The Sprig of Thyme tells the old story of the young woman betrayed by the disappearing lover, but this girl has spirit, and hopes for better things. The music reflects all that, with a kind of gaiety that is far more touching than a display of self-pity. Absolutely characteristic in the song is Grainger’s harmony, now poignant, now twisting the knife in the wound. It all happens in three minutes – a masterpiece.

Benjamin Britten recognised Grainger’s unique greatness in this field : “In the art of setting folk song, Grainger is my master”. Britten may have produced the greater volume of works, but neither he nor any other composer I know comes near Grainger’s strangely affecting mix of emotional earthiness enhanced by harmonic sophistication.

He wrote with passionate appreciation of the folk-singers who gave him their (often jealously guarded) tunes. Perhaps they sensed he was one of them? Grainger himself never mentioned, perhaps never knew, that his great-grandfather, Jacob Grainger (1796-1880) farmed in the south of County Durham, as did almost all of his (Jacob’s) family. Just one son moved to London in the 1840s and became a master tailor, and one of his family of ten left England to take a job in distant Australia as a draughtsman, later architect. That was Percy Grainger’s father.

Some 350 performers in eight concerts will take part in the Celebrating Grainger 2011 festival at Kings Place, London, from 17-19 February. They will traverse his choral and solo vocal music, woodwind, brass and string chamber works, with the Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra his superb writing for military band, a concert including Grainger’s non-western settings, multi-hand duo piano works, percussion ensembles, Theremins, experimental music machines, and a chance for audiences to sing Grainger’s music too. On the actual 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, Sunday 20 February, speakers and scholars from Australia, Canada, USA, Denmark, Germany, and the UK will gather at the British Library for a seminar entitled Percy Grainger for the 21st Century.

Grainger’s universalism is one of the most important themes in the book I have been privileged to edit The New Percy Grainger Companion – important not because Grainger solved every problem, and certainly not because his life was some kind of pageant of triumph. He struggled. But he did think more widely than many classically trained musicians of his time – or of this time – and because he thought so freshly about music, his provocative thoughts are stimulating.

At Kings Place on Saturday 19 February, we include a British premiere of his Thanksgiving Song. Ours must be a chamber version of a work written originally for full symphony orchestra and off-stage choir with instrumental ensemble. The first half of the piece is purely instrumental – a dreamy beginning leading to a frenzied apotheosis – then silence. The second half could not be more different. When it was premiered in 2003 in the spacious Adelaide Town Hall, the off-stage musicians were able to realise Grainger’s highly original (seemingly almost comical) idea of the endlessly repeated chorale fading very slowly into the distance, as the singers and accompanying group were transported on a trolley outside the periphery of the hall. Yet as they finally stood in the outer corridor singing ever more quietly, the doors were slowly closed and a pin-drop silence followed. For this magical effect in our restricted space on 19 February, Trinity College of Music has recorded that final section with their singers and instrumentalists, and that will provide our conclusion. The live performers will listen, along with the audience.

My hope is that audiences will leave feeling altogether happier!

And now to continue my own practice...

The New Percy Grainger Companion edited by Penelope Thwaites is available now from all good booksellers and will be on sale at the events mentioned above. More on Percy Grainger can be found here and here. For tickets to the Kings Place concerts, please visit their website, and for the British Library symposium click here. Chandos Recordings Grainger Edition is self-recommending. The quotation that names this post is by Grainger and runs, in full, ‘To know a world of beauty and not to be able to spread the knowledge of it is agonising’.

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