Percy Grainger's Hall of Mirrors

Why Australia's most eccentric composer built a museum as a shrine to his life and music.

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The young Percy Grainger
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Unknown photographer, Melbourne Percy and Ella Grainger outside the Grainger Museum, 1956
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The Grainger Museum

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The terry-towelling clothes are gaudy – a vest of Aztec-inspired tan triangles, against blue and white striped pants and rainbow shirt – and more than 50 whips are presented in a vertical glass case with the same care as one might display beetles or butterflies… 

The collection of the Grainger Museum is as quirky and compelling as the man who created it. Yes, it contains countless flails, lashes and documentary photos of their effects on composer’s well-muscled back, but the staff of the museum have long since directed their energies away from the S&M artifacts.

Of more lasting interest are the myriad musical titillations, such as the big cabinet with knobs on it, that looks like a huge domestic radiogram from the 1930s, but is actually a cleverly disguised computer. Twiddle those knobs, and you can instantly dial up a number of different sound sources, be they examples of Grainger’s music, speech, whatever. Then there’s his “butterfly piano” – part of his ‘free music’ experiments, with each note being tuned only one sixth of a tone apart, instead of a semitone, so its range is very limited. It looks for all the world like one of those tinkley toy pianos that children used to be given as presents, but on steroids.

Reopened in October 2010 as part of the University of Melbourne Library, the Museum houses personal items from all parts of Grainger’s life – from the piano he practiced on as a child, to the wild and weird instruments that he conjured up to deliver his “free music”, an uninhibited world of sound. Not for Grainger the limits of just tones and semitones of a piano keyboard. He wanted to release the music from in between the cracks – a continuous tonal swoop, such as that made by an air-raid siren or swanee whistle. He was also very concerned that these innovations be preserved for the musicians of the future.

Just what sort of person do you have to be to erect a museum to your own memory? We must remember that Grainger really did build this place himself, sometimes brick by brick with his own hands. “We don’t know when Grainger first started thinking about creating an autobiographical museum,” says curator Astrid Krautschneider, “but after his mother’s death he wrote to his friend Balfour Gardiner remarking that, ‘All very intimate letters or notes should be deposited in an Australian Grainger Museum, preferably in birth-town Melbourne’.”  

Grainger hoped that in opening his museum he would use his life experiences to help explain to others the creative process that drove his music. “He believed that art did not occur in a social vacuum, so he took the unconventional approach of collecting and displaying the ephemera, domestic items, clothes, etc – the very material that made up his world, alongside his music.”

By Grainger’s own admission, his life can be neatly divided into two halves – before and after his mother’s death. (Some of his belongings in the museum are marked with the Danish words Mors tid – in Mother’s time.) His mother Rose was an inestimable influence. She came from sturdy stock – it is said her mother had lashed herself to the ship’s mast on the way over from Britain, just to experience the full force of a storm at sea. The Australian-born Rose married a handsome architect, John Grainger, who designed, among other things, the landmark Princess Bridge in Melbourne, and the beautiful Government House Ballroom in Perth. He was also a drunkard and philanderer, who infected Rose with syphilis – she sent him packing by the time Percy was eight.

Rose did not take another lover, lavishing all her affections onto her son. Percy was an attractive child, and his mother made the most of the flowing golden locks that kept him looking youthful, his appearance having been compared by his father to “Bubbles”, the nauseatingly sweet child in Pears Soap advertisements. A gifted pianist herself, Rose played Leopold to Percy’s Amadeus. Like Leopold, she has been portrayed, by Grainger’s most famous biographer John Bird, as a manipulative monster. For example, she used to play dead, just to see if Percy really loved her. (Oddly enough, Percy retained his youthful looks until his mother’s death, after which he turned into Dorian Gray’s worst nightmare, ageing rapidly after 40.) 

The young Percy was raised on a literary diet of Hans Christian Andersen (there’s a lock of Andersen’s hair in the Museum), Homer, Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and the Icelandic Sagas. He was particularly taken with a fearsome character called “Grettir the Strong”, and became obsessed bythe sound of phrases like “the javelin crashed through the shield!” He was fascinated by the thought of a battle-axe slicing a man clean in two.

As an adult, Grainger wanted to erase any Norman or Roman influences on English, and believed the country had gone downhill since the Battle of Hastings. Grainger’s “blue-eyed English” (as he called it) would preserve only the Nordic and Saxon influences – a sort of “Norse Code”. His museum in Melbourne was referred to as a “hoard-house”, and he even went so far as to rule out the use of standard Italian musical terms in his compositions, regularly replacing the word crescendo, for instance, with “louden lots”. 

At the very early age of 12, Grainger and his mother moved to Frankfurt for him to study at
the Hoch Conservatory. There, he made several lifelong friends such as fellow composers Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner and Cyril Scott, some of whose antics seemed almost as strange as Grainger’s. Scott eventually turned to a study of the occult and the paranormal, offering to act as a medium between Percy and Rose after her tragic suicide in 1922.

Gardiner gave up composing for a very practical reason – his grand piano fell through the floor to the room below! With these men Grainger formed the so-called “Frankfurt Group”, whose proclaimed objective was to free British and Scandinavian music from the yoke of central European influence. Grainger dreamt of being a full-time composer, but for the time being had to concentrate on performing to pay for his mother’s medical expenses, brought on by her unfortunate condition.

Percy and Rose moved to London in 1901 where he became the darling of the elite, playing for “at homes” and in the salons of the well-heeled matrons of high society, some of whom availed themselves of his sexual charms. To give an idea of just how popular a performer he was in his heyday, on a tour of Australia with soprano Ada Crossley in 1903, they were met by 5,000 people at Spencer Street Station in Melbourne; their concert at the Exhibition Buildings in Carlton was attended by 20,000.

Popularity did not make performing any easier for Grainger, however. He remarked: “As I’m standing in the wings I’m doing one of two things: wondering if it wouldn’t be better to shoot myself, or phrasing a speech of apology in case they start to hiss.”

Born in 1882, the same year as both Stravinsky and Kodaly, Grainger had much in common with others of his particular calling. For instance, like Benjamin Britten he loved nursery food – rice pudding, cakes, bread, jam and oranges eaten whole. Also, like Britten and his partner Peter Pears, who spent WWII in the USA as conscientious objectors, Percy moved to America at the outbreak of World War I. He left England simply to “preserve” his talent as that rarest of commodities – an Australian composer – but he couldn’t make up his mind if he was a pacifist or just a coward.

As a composer, Grainger’s talent was that of a miniaturist, with his major work The Warriors usually lasting no longer than 19 minutes. There are no Grainger symphonies, no concertos, no sonatas. Even more strangely, familiar works such as Country Gardens, Shepherd’s Hey
and Molly on the Shore that are usually thought of as light and frothy, Grainger considered to be mournful and furious. Like Pierre Boulez in our time, he believed that music was not to entertain but to agonise. Like Puccini he was fascinated by oriental music, and actually wrote whole tone music without having heard a note of Debussy or Ravel. 

Like Leonard Bernstein, Grainger had real grounds to worry that if he became too famous as a performer, his compositions would be neglected. But what qualities are needed to perform Grainger’s piano music? “The first is a love of the particular piece of music you plan to perform,” says concert pianist Penelope Thwaites. “Grainger hands you so many technical difficulties and requires unusually hard work. He combines the apparent artlessness of folk song with the sophisticated harmony of the musical world in which he grew up – Wagner, Strauss, Delius. A performer must adventure with Grainger, and be prepared to think outside the box. Those who regard his music with patronage have entirely missed the point.”

But the most obvious reference point for any performer is Grainger’s own playing style, bequeathed on more than 30 recordings of his piano performances owned by the Museum. Then there are the countless live-recording player piano rolls Grainger made for the Aeolian Company’s Duo-Art system, including an extract for piano of The Warriors, a ballet score intended for the Ballets Russes. Sir Thomas Beecham, who was conducting for Sergei Diaghilev’s famous company in London, thought Grainger’s colourful music would be a good vehicle for the imperious impresario and his dancers. A scenario failed to appear in time for the impatient Grainger, so the composer provided his own. It was clear what he had in mind was nothing short of an on-stage orgy of international proportions. The score was prefaced by a description: 

“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 ballet has never been performed with this original scenario, but as Grainger scholar Alessandro Servadei says, “I think Graeme Murphy would have a field day!” The Warriors also got unexpected exposure at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, says Servadei, when “the MSO recording of The Warriors was substituted at the last moment when the cauldron got stuck and the pre-recorded music ran out!”

A visitor to the Grainger Museum will see only about one per cent of the impossibly large collection, comprising more than 100,000 items (the rest is now held in storage off-site). “Before we closed for renovations,” says Krautschneider, “the entire collection was housed within the Grainger Museum itself, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to cope.”

One of the most peculiarly precious displays still remaining in the Grainger Museum are the contents of Rose’s handbag the day that she died, leaping from the 18th floor of the Aeolian building in New York. These include her purse, lipstick, toothbrush, key, handkerchief, comb and a tin of Beecham’s Pills. There’s also her plait that Grainger cut off to preserve, and her gloves, spookily stuffed, giving the impression that her hands are still in them.

No less fascinating are the many scores of Australian “Colonial” music by such composers as George Marshall-Hall – one of Melbourne’s early musical movers and shakers – alongside scores by more familiar composers, such as the Florida Suite by Delius in the composer’s own hand. And that’s just a random sample. “There are hundreds of composers represented in the collection – far too many to mention offhand!” says Krautschneider. But just how did they come to be here in a small, obscure museum on the other side of the world? “The short answer is – Percy put them there!”

It’s possible, of course, to visit musical museums and houses of famous composers all over the
world, but which other composer would choose to build an edifice to preserve his legacy while still living? It took an audacious Australian composer with a healthy ego like Percy Grainger to lead the way.  

The Melbourne Recital Centre pays tribute to Australia's iconoclast composer with its Grainger Celebration, July 2, 7.30pm. View the event details here. The Grainger Museum recently launched its academic journal, Grainger Studies, which can be read online.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Limelight.



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