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EXPLORING MUSIC: Phonographic Firsts/ Edvard Grieg & Percy Grainer

The MHS Review 397 VOL. 12, NO. 1 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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I once encountered somewhere the state­ment "Of making many books there is no end." Perhaps I heard it from my bookmaker, though he has several sets of bookends. Or, to put it another way, one wonders how people think up the subjects for some books, and how, having done so, they persuade anyone to publish them.

Believe it or not, this excursus is related to the subject at hand. Recently, I bought, from the bargain table in the local bookstore, a thin volume called Words on Music, put together by Robin Ray, who, I gather from the jacket blurb, is a theater person. In his foreword Mr. Ray explains that what he set out to do was to make an anthology of "literary descriptions of music,'' showing how people have tried to describe the indescribable. But, he con­fesses, he soon tired of that pursuit, and the result is the oddest omnium gatherum of subjects and sources you can imagine, dictated wholly by his tastes and interests.

One of these last appears to be Percy Grainger, on whom he quotes at some length Eric Fenby and Sir Henry Wood. Well, you can't blame him. If ever there was an oddity it was Grainger. He was a superb pianist, a folklorist of considerable perspicacity, and a composer whose worth is only now beginning to be understood. But he was also a determined nonconfor­mist. His quixotic attempts to anglicize the terms used in music and his wedding in the Hollywood Bowl with full symphony and audience of thousands are the stuff of legend.

As I may have told some of you before, I once saw Percy in the flesh. I was clerk­ing at G. Schirmer's music emporium in the mid-I940s and, looking up from what I was doing one day, I saw him, with his tou­sle of hair, and his belted tweed jacket and knickers, chatting with someone as he waited for the elevator to the editorial of­fices. He was then in his early 60s and had, as was his wont and his will, hiked in the 20-odd miles from White Plains where he lived.

Fenby says that at 50 he could have pass­ed for 30; he still looked youthfully athletic when I saw him. His energy and feats of agility seemed limitless. Fenby tells how, at Delius' home, he could stand in the front yard. throw a ball high above the roof, run up the front steps, through the house, and down the back steps in time to catch it as it came down. He neither smoked nor drank and ate very little. Fenby recalls his dinner being commonJy a bowl of bran and a glass of "Chateau de Pump"-a teaspoon or so of milk in a glass of water.

The first time Henry Wood heard Gra­inger, it was as soloist in the First Tchaikovsky Concerto. Wood says it was OK, but he preferred hearing him do Grieg. So did Grieg. The latter was neither eccen­tric nor healthy, but he met Grainger in 1905 or 1906 and became his friend and advocate, although he was nearly 40 years his senior and was, in fact, to die in 1907. What brought them together was precise­ly their mutual interest in folk music. So­meone introduced Grieg to some of Gra­inger 's folk-based pieces, and the Norwegian was so taken with them that he impulsively sent the young Australian an inscribed photo of himself. They met in London shortly afterwards.

Grieg, no doubt caught up in the na­tionalistic fervor of the times, became in­terested in the folk music of his country early on, when he became friends with Richard Nordraak, a young musical patriot. His first published group of such ar­rangements dates from 1866, but Norwegian folk music was at the heart of his mature composition, and he was especially pleased with his late books of piano-transcribed songs and dances, opp. 66 (1896) and 72 (1903). However, they were largely ignored, and he found it both delightful and ironic to discover a young Australian who could and did play them better than any native. It is from these works that Joseph Smith draws here. It is particulalry interesting to hear among them the source of Delius' On Hearing the First


The Grainger pieces run from old favorites to phonographic firsts. The former group includes Blithe Bells, that outrageous working-over of Bach's "Sheep may safely graze.'' The gem of the second group is In Dahomey ( Cakewalk Smasher), a wild assault not on a folksong but on a song from a musical extravaganza by the Black American composer Will Marion Cook and on a trombone tune by Arthur Pryor!

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