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ClassicsOnline Home » GRAINGER, P.: Folk-Inspired Works for Piano Duet and Duo (Weichert, Rave)
The essence of Percy Grainger’s music is most evident in his piano pieces. He took ownership of traditional and popular influences, rejecting outdated conventions to create works of ingenious variation, textures and moods. Grainger’s sparkling genius can be heard throughout, ranging from the fantastically popular Country Gardens to the elaborate Fantasy on ‘Porgy and Bess’.
Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882–1961)
Music for Piano and Duo
Percy Aldridge Grainger was born in Melbourne on 8th July 1882. He received initial musical training from his mother, making his début as a pianist when only ten, and from Louis Pabst, founder of the Melbourne Academy of Music. He went to Germany in 1895 where he became a pupil of James Kwast at the Hoch’sche Konservatorium in Frankfurt am Main. 1901 saw the beginning of a career in England, followed by tours to South Africa and Australia. In 1906 he encountered Grieg, of whose Piano Concerto he became a leading exponent. Settling in the United States from 1914, he made his début in New York the following year and taught at the Chicago Music College from 1919. In 1928 he married Ella Ström at the Hollywood Bowl, and resided at White Plains, NY from 1940. In common with his older contemporary Busoni (with whom he had studied briefly during the 1890s), he found the career of concert pianist increasingly onerous—all the time pursuing a highly individual fusion between traditional music with his own composing, together with research into his equally idiosyncratic notion of electronic music which absorbed an increasing amount of his time from the mid-1930s onwards. Leaving his manuscripts and effects to the Grainger Museum in Melbourne, he succumbed to cancer in White Plains on 20th February 1961.
Although he composed for a variety of media (and indeed strove to diminish the notion of unalterable instrumentation with his preference for ‘elastic scoring’, the essence of Grainger’s music is perhaps most evident in his output for piano. This was an instrument his mastery of which had led to his early recognition as a virtuoso performer, although later it developed into something of a love/hate relationship. This recording comprises a representative selection of his works for two pianos or piano duet, several of them drawn from Grainger’s typically idiosyncratic collections (of which AFMS = American Folk Music Settings, BFMS = British Folk Music Settings and RMTB = Room Music Tit Bits), and all of them confirming the conviction which he brought to his search for an idiom that drew on the full range of traditional and popular influences in its casting off of what he considered the outdated conventions of European classical music as it appeared to him at the outset of the twentieth century.
Handel in the Strand (RMTB2) was written during 1911–12 and reworked in 1930. Along with its immediate overtones of traditional English dance (hence the subtitle ‘Clog Dance’), this is a series of variations on Handel’s variations on the tune ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. The title was suggested by the composer’s associate William Gair Rathbone, for whom the piece evoked Handel sauntering down The Strand (then the centre of London’s theatre) to the sound of popular music from that era. Over a continuous ‘tripping’ accompaniment the main melody emerges out of the texture in a series of ingenious variants, taking in a forthright counter-theme before building to a lively culmination then heading to its peremptory close.
Molly on the Shore (BFMS19) was written in 1907 and reworked in 1914. Subtitled ‘An Irish Reel’ and drawing on the Cork reel tune ‘Temple Hill’ as well as the tune of the title, the piece is dedicated to the memory of Edvard Grieg. Over a stealthy accompaniment a capricious melody comes to the fore, the pianos remaining closely intertwined as the music reaches a mid-way pause before their interplay becomes increasingly elaborate prior to a plaintive winding-down then a deft final pay-off.
Shepherd’s Hey (BFMS4) was written during 1908–9 then reworked in 1913 and 1918. Drawing on a tune collected in 1906 by Cecil Sharp (and closely related to ‘The Keel Row’), the piece unfolds as a ‘call and response’ between the two halves of its theme, which is subject to numerous variations and tonal sideslips without losing its rhythmic profile or its robust humour.
Harvest Hymn (on an original tune) for piano duet was initially sketched in 1905 but not finalized until 1932 then reworked in 1936 and 1938. With its warm-hearted melody and its gently lapping interplay, this is one of Grainger’s most affecting pieces as it builds towards an eloquent climax in which melody and accompaniment are as one in the richly harmonized piano writing.
Country Gardens (BFMS22) for piano duet was written in 1908 and reworked in 1918, with later versions continuing up until 1953. Again derived from a tune collected by Cecil Sharp, it became Grainger’s most popular during his lifetime (much to his chagrin). The indelible main melody is presented with a delicious coyness such as aptly offsets the more ruminative counter-melody, after which the expression opens-up appreciably as both themes are repeated on the way to a suitably forthright close.
Song from the Faroe Islands (Let’s Dance Gay in Green Meadow) for piano duet is based on a folk-tune collected by Grainger in 1905 and variously revised over the next four decades. Against its harmonically ambivalent accompaniment, the main theme emerges as a series of ingenious variants which avoid tonal resolution and make full use of the textural possibilities of the duo medium.
Spoon River (AFMS1) was written in 1915 and revised in 1922. Based upon a traditional fiddle tune provided by Captain Charles H. Robinson, its lilting accompaniment is a perfect basis for the theme to assume the foreground as the expression opens out, the music moving into a languid central section before resuming its liveliness on the way to a sparkling close.
As Sally Sat-a-Weeping is the relatively straightforward adaptation of a Dorset folksong made in 1924. This is also among the shortest of Grainger’s folk realizations, though it makes considerable demands on the duo medium as the main melody is subject to considerable intricacy in the degree to which the parts overlap as the piece heads to its rhetorical conclusion.
Lincolnshire Posy (BFMS34) is one of Grainger’s most characteristic creations and was assembled for wind band in 1937 then arranged for two pianos the next year. It consists of six contrasted movements. Lisbon (Dublin Bay), sketched in 1906 and again in 1931, is a fine example of the way that Grainger uses motivic development and textural elaboration. Horkstow Grange (The Miser and his Man), sketched in 1934, unfolds as a sequence of variants on its hymn-like theme that builds to a climax of real intensity, tailing off into a coda that remains tantalizingly unresolved. Rufford Park Poachers, sketched in 1933, unfolds via a dextrous interplay into what is one of Grainger’s most imaginative explorations of the Duo medium, one which takes in frequently complex chordal writing before heading towards its gently imitative close. The Brisk Young Sailor (who returned to wed his true love), sketched in 1919, proceeds as a sequence of breezily resourceful variants in which the melody’s contrapuntal potential is amply indulged and which makes the non-resolution at the close the more arresting. Lord Melbourne, sketched in 1910, is founded on a melody of great eloquence (and memorably treated by Benjamin Britten in his late Suite on English Folk Tunes, dedicated to Grainger’s memory) that touches on almost tragic emotional depths prior to a powerfully rhetorical close. The Lost Lady Found, sketched in 1910, centres on a lively theme resourcefully elaborated at each fresh turn of phrase, while taking in a number of harmonic subtleties on the way to its decisive cadential flourish.
Fantasy on George Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ is the most extended of Grainger’s many transcriptions, and a testament to his admiration for an opera whose subject-matter and blurring of the distinctions between opera and musical caused much controversy right from its première in 1935. Having transcribed several of its songs during the 1940s, the present work was finally published in 1951. It begins with the hectic music of the ‘Introduction’, presently subsiding into the soulful pathos of ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ with its resourceful interplay between the pianos. The mood becomes gently ironic while preparing for ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, which is itself subject to a whole series of subtle variants, before a sudden pause and onset of ‘Clara Don’t You Be Down-hearted’ with its limpid exchanges and wistful demeanour. An intensifying of mood introduces the rapt manner of ‘Strawberry Woman’, before a rousing reprise of the introductory music makes way for ‘Summertime’, here accorded a suitably expansive though tellingly restrained treatment. An abrupt change of mood leads straight into ‘Oh I Can’t Sit Down’, as bright and breezy as is the original, and whose bravura writing again finds contrast with the languorous ecstasy of ‘Bess You Is My Woman Now’ which builds to a suitably effulgent climax. The music then takes a quizzical turn as it segues into the lively insouciance of ‘I Got Plenty O’ nuttin’, before heading into the questing defiance of ‘I’m on My Way’ which follows the opera in recalling earlier themes (but not Rhapsody in Blue!) as it reaches a grandly rhetorical close.
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