Percy Aldridge Grainger (8 July 1882 – 20 February 1961) was an Australian-born composer, arranger and pianist. In the course of a long and innovative career he played a prominent role in the revival of interest in British folk music in the early years of the 20th century. He also made many adaptations of other composers’ works.
Although much of his work was experimental and unusual, the piece with which he is most generally associated is his piano arrangement of the folk-dance tune “Country Gardens”.
Grainger left Australia at the age of 13 to attend the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Between 1901 and 1914 he was based in London, where he established himself first as a society pianist and later as a concert performer, composer and collector of original folk melodies. As his reputation grew he met many of the significant figures in European music, forming important friendships with Frederick Delius and Edvard Grieg. He became a champion of Nordic music and culture, his enthusiasm for which he often expressed in private letters.
In 1914, Grainger moved to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life, though he travelled widely in Europe and in Australasia. He served briefly as a bandsman in the US Army during 1917–18, and took US citizenship in 1918. After his mother’s suicide in 1922 he became increasingly involved in educational work. He also experimented with music machines that he hoped would supersede human interpretation.
In the 1930s he set up the Grainger Museum in Melbourne, his birthplace, as a monument to his life and works and as a future research archive. The Grainger Museum is a repository of items documenting the life, career and music of the composer, folklorist, educator and pianist Percy Grainger (b. Melbourne, 1882; d. White Plains, New York, 1961), located in the grounds of the University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Grainger was a devotee of words derived from Anglo-Saxon, and used the word ‘hoard-house’ for museums generally, but agreed to the word ‘museum’ in this case.) The Museum is among a relatively small number of autobiographical museums in the world.
Among displays of original manuscripts and published scores, musical instruments, field recordings, artworks, photographs, books and personal items, are Grainger’s whips and other items relating to his sado-masochism (which Grainger called the “Lust Branch”), the contents of his bedside cabinet, and a gallery devoted to his mother’s suicide. There are also sound-making devices Grainger used to make his innovative and experimental “Free music”.
The substantial archival collection includes some 50,000 items of correspondence (with people such as Edvard Grieg, Frederick Delius, Cyril Scott, Richard Wagner and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) and the collection generally comprises over 100,000 items in total, only a small proportion of which are on display.
As Grainger grew older he continued to give concerts and to revise and rearrange his own compositions, while writing little new music. After the Second World War, ill-health reduced his levels of activity, and he considered his career a failure. He gave his last concert in 1960, less than a year before his death.