“There are no pianos in the world that can begin to compare with the Steinway.”
Although an iconoclast to his bones — with eccentric views and transgressive habits — Percy Grainger (1882–1961) was a pioneering folklorist, composer and pianist whose innovations prefigured those of figures far better known. He helped usher in a renaissance of appreciation for folk music in the U.K., “collecting” songs before they disappeared by notating traditional performances — and, in a first, documenting them via phonograph. Grainger made hit piano arrangements of British and Irish folk tunes — such as “Country Gardens” and “Molly on the Shore” — that inspired such later composers as Benjamin Britten. He also collected folk songs from Denmark to Polynesia, along with making arrangements for wind and military bands of medieval and Renaissance music. Grainger’s original compositions eschewed classical forms and ranged from such light tunes as “Handel in the Strand” to the ballet The Warriors. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Grainger was educated in Germany from his early teens and then spent key years in London, where he made important friendships with composers Frederick Delius and Edvard Grieg, the latter of whom considered Grainger “a genius.” He recorded Grieg’s Piano Concerto with conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. On disc and via piano roll, Grainger also recorded his own miniatures, as well as Bach, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt. Later in his career, Grainger experimented with “chance” music (prior to the likes of John Cage) and mechanistic “free music” (long before synthesizers and autonomous electronic music).
Grainger resided most of his life in the United States, settling in 1921 in White Plains, New York. He was an attraction as a pianist, with New York Times reviews of Grainger recitals at Carnegie Hall in the late 1920s and ’30s noting the big crowds and calls for encores — along with his “vivid sense of rhythm” and impromptu spoken introductions to pieces that ranged from Scarlatti to Ravel to his popular folk-song arrangements. A review of a 1931 performance led with the statement: “What Percy Grainger says, does and plays is always interesting.” As a teacher, Grainger once invited Duke Ellington in to illustrate a lecture, and the Australian considered himself “democratic” in his view of music, valuing an African-American jazz player or an Irish balladeer just as much as a European classical virtuoso. Venerating J.S. Bach, Grainger said: “If he were living today, I feel Bach would include ragtime, Schoenbergism, musical comedy, Strauss and all grades in between.” And he once said, recalling days collecting folk songs: “No concert singer I ever heard, dull dogs that they are, approached these rural warblers in variety of tone quality, range of dynamics, rhythmic resourcefulness and individuality of style.” Grainger’s unconventional behavior included often hiking to his concerts; and his folk-inflected tunes and loose practice habits caused his reputation to wane in the era of postwar modernism. But Harold Schonberg, in The Great Pianists, summed up Grainger this way: “He was one of the keyboard originals — a pianist who forged his own style... who brought a bracing, breezy and quite wonderful out-of-doors quality to the continuity of piano playing.” —Bradley Bambarger