A Source Guide to the Music of Percy Grainger
by Thomas P. Lewis

Selected Chapters

Table of Contents to Source Guide
1. Biographical/Artistic Vignettes
4. Program Notes




"I have always found Percy's folksong arrangements marvellously moving and apt. Brigg Fair, Six Dukes, The Pretty Maid, Shallow Brown are great songs. You may criticize him that he found them as simple unaccompanied folksongs and turned them into Grainger pieces. Maybe, but his ears and imagination are so true, and his sympathy so strong, that what has had to be done to them to make them concert-songs has proved, as created by him, triumphantly successful.

"Grainger began writing songs seriously when he was a student at Frankfurt. His first Kipling setting, Soldier Soldier, dates from May 16, 1898, a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday. Using poems by Kipling, Longfellow, Burns and others he composed a half dozen songs for voice and piano in that year and another ten in 1899. Three of these later appeared in print: Anchor Song, Song of Autumn and Men of the Sea.

"His interest in folksong was also awakened at Frankfurt, though the melodies he set in the first instance were traditional and popular songs from published collections. On November 2, 1898, he arranged his first version of Willow Willow from William Chappell's Old English Popular Music, followed in January 1899 by 25 or 26 settings from Augener's The Minstrelsy of England.

"In 1900 he wrote no songs with original melodies at all, though he set 12 melodies from The Songs of the North for voice and piano. These were a distinct advance on his earlier traditional settings, showing some of the characteristics of the m ature composer. None of them have yet [1981] been published.

"1901 saw the Kipling song Dedication, which was published as the first of his Kipling settings (vocal and choral), dedicated to his mother, whose enthusiasm fired much of his composing. Only occasional songs appeared in the next five years, Love Song of Har Dyal (1901), and Twa Corbies (sketched 1903) being the only ones he considered worthy of publication. Though he was very active as a composer at this time, he concentrated more on choral works and experimental instrumental compositions.

"In 1905 came the fateful trip to Brigg, where he was to notate his first folksongs. In the autumn of that year he set about making choral arrangements of some of the songs he had taken down by ear. The following year he returned with a phonograph and took down meticulous notations by listening to the recordings over and over again. He used these in a number of settings he made over the ensuing years, publishing a large number of compositions with Schott & Co from 1911 onwards. These included a proportion of works for voice and instrumental ensemble which were also issued for voice and piano: Died for Love (1906-7), Bold William Taylor (1908), Shallow Brown (1910), Willow Willow (1902-1911) and Six Dukes Went A-Fishin' (1905-1912). The choral work Lost Lady Found (1910) could also be performed [by] voice and piano. His only (and last) original song during this period was A Reiver's Neck Verse of 1908, although two other works, Colonial Song (wordless duet and piano, finished 1914) and Harvest Hymn (voice and piano duet, 1938), exist in versions which may be considered as wordless songs.

"In 1914 he moved to America, concentrating initially on larger works, then joining the Army for a period, where he learned to score for wind band. In 1920 he returned to his folksong notations and wrote voice-and-piano settings of three of them: Sprig of Thyme, The Pretty Maid Milkin' Her Cow and British Waterside. The first was based on an earlier sketch recorded on a Duo-Art piano roll, the other two being spontaneous and, for Grainger, quickly written. These were published, but Creeping Jane, completed the following year, was not.

"Grainger's mother died in 1922 and with it much of his desire to compose. At first he wished to publish everything he had and composed furiously in her memory, but his efforts after this time were very sporadic. Three trips to Jutland, phonographing Danish folksongs with Evald Tang Kristensen, gave him some inspiration. Three of his Danish settings (all unpublished) may be performed as songs for voice and piano: The Power of Love, Husband and Wife (better as a duet for quarrelling male and female voices with piano), and Old Woman at the Christening Barrel (man's voice, piano and harmonium).

"In later life he made three more folksong settings for voice and piano: Early One Morning (1940), Hard Hearted Barb'ra (H)Ellen (1946) and David of the White Rock (1954). Of these, the two earlier ones used sketches that date back to many years before. Early One Morning is identical in musical content to the setting made for Stokowski's orchestra and recorded by him in 1950. Only David of the White Rock was published. In 1947 he transcribed his setting of Lord Maxwell's Goodnight.

"A small number of Ella Grainger's compositions--Farewell to an Atoll, Honey Pot Bee, and Crying for the Moon, written between 1944 and 1948 and arranged by Percy--complete the Grainger canon."--Peter Pears (Songs).


"Grainger's attitude towards the people from whom he collected folksongs was not scientific, but very human,and many of his song-settings are vivid musical portraits of their singer-creators. He was not interested in the songs as specimens, but as expressions of the art in the lives of those who sang them.... Grainger recorded an interesting remark made to him by H.G. Wells:

H.G. Wells, the novelist, who was with me during a 'folk-song-hunt' in Gloucestershire, on noticing that I noted down not merely the music or dialect details of the songs, but also many characteristic scraps of banter that passed between the ol d agriculturalists around us, once said to me: 'You are trying to do a more difficult thing than record folk-songs; you are trying to record life'; and I remember the whimsical, almost wistful look which accompanied the remark. [Percy Grainger, "The Impress of Personality in Unwritten Music", The Musical Quarterly (1915).]"--Nicola J. Barber.

"It seems probable that Grainger's lasting involvement with folk music owes much to the rapport which developed between [himself and Edvard Grieg], each recognizing in the other the depth of feeling and integrity with which they approached f olk music and more important, its performers. Of Grainger, Grieg wrote:

What an idealist, what a child, and, at the same time, what a big and developed life. A future socialist of the clearest water.... He will do his best work for the folk-song.

"In 1905 Grainger interrupted his career as a concert pianist to join Ralph Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp, the Hammond brothers, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson and many others in their efforts to note down, analyse and publish English folk songs before they became extinct--this latter notion--the inmpending extinction seemingly being the raison d'être of many folklorists or ballad experts from the days of Bishop Percy onwards and happily proving to be unduly pessimistic--a self-justifying fatalism perhaps. His enthusiasm had been aroused when he attended an illustrated lecture given by Miss Broadwood on the subject of English folk song early in 1905. In April of that same year he accompanied Miss Broadwood and Frank Kidson to the North L incolnshire Musical Competition where the organisers had been able to include a folk song class. These organisers; Lady Winifred Elwes, Gervase Elwes and Everard Fielding had obviously combed the area around the town of Brigg fairly thoroughly for there w as a large list of entrants. Several of these singers had attained a standard of artistry within their own genre which has never since been recorded, except perhaps in the singing of Phillip Tanner of Llangenith in the Gower peninsula. At all events the c ompetition at Brigg on 11th April 1905 proved an unqualified success. The judging was carried out by Frank Kidson and he awarded first prize to Mr. Joseph Taylor for his singing of 'Creeping Jane', second prize to Mr. William Hilton for his version of 'Co me all you Merry Ploughboys' and third prize to Mr. Dean Robinson for his singing of 'T'owd Yowe wi' one Horn'. Unfortunately Mr. Hilton was never phonographed by Grainger but the other mentioned songs can be heard on [Leader Sound Ltd. disc LEA 4050 (197 2), recorded in 1908]. After the competition, the singers were persuaded to sing several of their songs in private so that Grainger and Miss Broadwood could note them down. Later Lady Elwes took Grainger to the workhouse at Brigg where, says Grainger, his collecting began in real earnest.

"During the next twelves months, Grainger noted down approximately one hundred songs from singers in Durham, Yorkshire, Westmorland, Inverness, Suffolk, West Sussex and of course, Lincolnshire. A number of these songs were later recorded afresh with t he aid of the phonograph, a few were noted again by other collectors (such as the items sung by John Collinson at the Kendal Folk Song Competition in May, 1905 and later printed from the annotation of Frank Kidson), others alas do not appear to have survi ved for Grainger quickly realized the inadequacies of attempting to note down songs with pad and pencil and, deciding that his early transcripts (Nos. 1-99) were not faithful enough records of what had been sung to him, he appears to have destroyed or oth erwise filed away these items. An index of the latter songs has recently come to light and the search continues for the original sheets since many of the items were not phonographed.

"Until July 1906 Grainger was one of the band of 'pad and pencil' collectors who endeavoured to note as accurately as the circumstances allowed the melodic contour of a song, with possibly some of the major structural or rhythmic variants employed by any particular performer. This method required the utmost co-operation from the singer who might be required to repeat a song several times. Many informants were just not amenable to this procedure. It was at best a method of recovering a faithful represe ntation of a text with a rationalized abstract of the tune. It also demanded an acuteness of ear that is not common even amongst trained musicians. Grainger had perhaps fortuitously encountered a most gifted group of singers whose rhythmic and structural variations together with the most highly developed range of ornamental subtleties defied instant trancription. He bought a 'Standard' Edison phonograph--primitive by today's standards but at that time hardly a new device--and started afresh. The pho nograph had been invented some twenty nine years earlier by Thomas Edison in the U.S.A. and simultaneously (and independently) by Charles Cros in France. By the time Grainger purchased his machine it had progressed through many refinements so that within certain limits it was functionally a reliable recording device. Certainly it enabled an acoustically correct record of a solo performer to be made always allowing that the user thoroughly understood the shortcomings of the instrument and the several rathe r basic precautions one had to come to terms with. Grainger never dabbled in any enterprise that he undertook, and he knew exactly what he was doing and how he should handle the technical problems he was presented with. His remarks in the Journal of t he Folk Song Society No. 12, pp.147-169, are indicative of this thoroughness and they deserve a far closer reading and appreciation than it seems the editorial committee (or at least two of its members) of the Folk Song Society gave, if their rather guarded 'appreciation' of Grainger's conclusions is any indication.

"A total of 216 cylinders survive of songs recorded in Lincolnshire in 1906 and in 1908 and in London and Gloucestershire in 1908. Those recordings made in Lincolnshire formed the basis of the meticulous transcriptions that Grainger and his mother hek tographed (mss. 100-300) and distributed to friends or deposited in archives in U.S.A., Australia and England. They were, it should be understood, working notes for later development prior to publication (one should compare the hektographs with the songs included in the FSJ mentioned above) but even so represent work of a nature than only Bartok had involved himself in up to that time. The fullest details of those stylistic nuances that separate the truly creative folk singers from the mere song ca rrier are shown. In some instances Grainger had made up to five different recordings of the same singer performing a particular ballad and these served to illustrate how an individual could create anew on each occasion, sometimes to the extent of jumping from a mixed scale to pure mode--a device that led Grainger to suspect the rather rigidly conceived idea of folk song airs being constructed from modal scales, especially the so-called church modes--the question raised being it seems: is modality be ing applied before or after performance. He averred more to the idea of a loosely knit scale having a mutable third and seventh degree and (though rarely and never consecutively) a major and minor sixth--this latter possibility occurring especially as a fast moving passing note. The subject was taken up by Annabel Buchanan in her article: 'A Neutral Mode in Anglo-American Folk Song', Southern Folklore Quarterly, June 1940. This idea, brought about by the uniquely careful study of records that could be played over and over again, was not popular and it came disarmingly soon after the publication of English Folk Song--Some Conclusions by Cecil Sharp. [It should be emphasized that Sharp at no time pronounced judgment upon Grainger's finding and did not associate himself with the criticism directed of Grainger in FSJ 12, p.159.] At any event Grainger's contemporaries, especially J.A. Fuller Maitland and regrettably, Miss Broadwood, were none too keen on the inference that their own collection methods might be questioned in terms of scientific accuracy and that young Mr. Grainger had the answer. Their lack of enthusiasm coincides with the waning of Grainger's collecting activities and though he continued to collect songs in Kent, Devon and London (often be it noted, without the aid of a phonograph!), his main interest refocused on the use of folk song in arrangements for solo voice and piano or any conceivable arrangement of instruments. His masterpiece without doubt is the Lincolnshire Posy, a wind band arrangement of six Lincolnshire tunes. In addition he arranged around fifty folk songs and popular songs in a cycle of British Folk-Music Settings. These latter were dedicated to the memory of Edvard Grieg and they remain glorious examples of how folk songs should and can be arranged without any loss of integrity on the part of the arranger, i.e. without the need for surreptitious alterations to the original form being made necessary by the 'demands' of a different genre."--Bob Thomson.

* * *

"Gervase Elwes, the famous English Tenor, and his wife were Grainger's hosts in Lincolnshire and he used to go 'song-seeking' with their sons. In the biography of Elwes by his wife, she says 'Percy never had the slightest hesitation in pumping anybody he came across. He would go up to a man ploughing and ask him if he knew any songs, and as often as not the man would stand for a minute or two and sing him a song in the most natural way in the world.' She also gives a vivid picture of his energy and in fectious charm which was still true thirty years later. 'Percy could never walk downstairs. He had to come bounding down several steps at a time and take a great leap to the bottom. Unfortunately he did it once too often during his visit, sprained his ank le and had to lie up. While thus confined to the house, people were collected from all over the place and brought to his room to sing, as he lay in bed listening and writing down the tunes. One day I went in and found a row of ten singers at least sitting in a circle round the room.' The results of these and similar labours-of-love appeared in many phonograph records taken from folk-singers and written down and published in the Folk Song Society's Journal. Hundreds of English, Scottish, Danish and Faroe I slands folk-songs and dances were collected by him, as well as Polynesian music, and the phonograph records of the original performers are carefully preserved in the British Museum, the Library of Congress, The Royal Library, Copenhagen, and the Grainger Museum of the University of Melbourne, which he founded for ethnomusicological studies.

"Grainger had very strong ideas about folk-songs and their notation, and as a performer himself he fully realized the importance of the folk-singer's own contribution to his material. He always acknowledged in print the singer from whom he learnt the song. 'Folk-song, by and large,' he said, 'is narrative song.... It seems to me a great mistake to arbitrarily construct out of the different ways a singer sings the difference verses of a narrative song, a so-called 'normal' version of the tune, and to a dhere to it strictly throughout the whole song. No folk-singer would do anything so poverty-stricken.' Grainger tries to make his arrangements as richly varied as he can. About 1898 or 1899 he says, 'I began the practice of accompanying voice or voices wi th 'large chamber music' (six to twenty-four players), as a result of noticing the effectiveness of such procedures in the Bach Passions.' This was early days for such perceptiveness. Since then, most of Grainger's own original compositions (as well as ar rangements) were intended for such large room-music. His approach to music was fearlessly un-academic; his musical directions ('louden lots' instead of crescendo, and many more) are old friends now; his effects were unfettered (the bang of a fist on a piano lid, his favourite harmonium and reed-organ, a moistened finger run round the edge of a half-filled wine glass, accordians, concertinas, groups of pianos, the vibraharp, electronics, there was no musical sound which he was not prepared to use). All his music was designed to be adapted for almost any imaginable set of players and singers. He was a 'committed' composer in the fullest sense, committed to skills and feelings based on human associations, to shared enthusiasms and experiences, to simple joys and sorrows."--Peter Pears (Salute).


Barber, Nicola J. "Brigg Fair: A Melody, Its Use and Abuse", The Grainger [Society] Journal, VI/2 (August 1984), 4-20.

Bird, John. "More than a Pianist", Keyboard Classics IX/1 (January/February 1989), 7, 52-53.

Brower, Harriette. "Percy Grainger", Piano Mastery: Talks with Master Pianists and Teachers, Second Series (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., c. 1915).

Dilsner, Laurence. "Percy Grainger (1882-1961): Some Personal Reflections", Clavier XXI/9 (November 1982), 13-14.

Finck, Henry T. "Two Anecdotes", The Grainger [Society] Journal, IX/1 (Autumn 1987), 3. Reprinted from the author's Musical Laughs (New York/London: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1924).

Goldberg, Albert. "Percy Grainger: A Recollection", The Grainger Society Journal, VII/2 (Fall 1985), 15-19.

Grainger, Percy [GSJ IV/1]. "Grainger on Grainger", The Grainger [Society] Journal, IX/1 (October 1981), 4-10.

Grainger, Percy [GSJ VI/1]. "The Lower the Fee, the Better I Play", The Grainger [Society] Journal, VI/1 (February 1984), 31. Reprinted from "Deemths" (Kansas City Traingarth, 28 October 1941).

Grainger, Percy [GSJ IX/1]. "Edvard Grieg: A Tribute", The Grainger [Society] Journal, IX/1 (Autumn 1987), 9-10. Reprinted from The Musical Times (September 1957).

Grainger, Percy [Univ IL]. From program notes for 10/19/89 concert "A Tribute to Percy Grainger", given by the School of Music, University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

Grant, Mark N. "Kyriena Siloti and Percy Grain-ger", The Grainger [Society] Journal, V/2 (November 1983), 7-8.

Grayson, W. Norman. "The Percy Grainger I Knew", The Grainger Society Journal, VII/1 (Spring 1985), 18-20.

Manville, Stewart. "A Look at Percy Grainger", The Westchester Historian: Quarterly of the Westchester County Historical Society, LVIII/2 (Spring 1982), 25-31.

Mellers, Wilfrid. "Music Matters: New Worlds for Old, Old Worlds for New--Percy's Paradox," Music & Musicians International (October 1990), 14-16.

Morton, Brian. "To Half Fight Nature: Percy Grainger", BASA [The British Australian Studies Association] Magazine, III/1 (Spring 1986), 3-10.

Payne, Karl. "Percy Grainger as Teacher", Clavier, XXI/9 (November 1982), 14-15.

Pears, Peter [Salute]. Liner notes for recording Salute to Percy Grainger, Decca SXL 6410 (1969).

Pears, Peter [Songs]. "Introduction" in Thirteen Folksongs Arranged for Solo Voice and Piano by Percy Grainger. London: Thames Publishing, 1981 (2 vols).

Perna, Dana. Program notes for January 4-6 & 9, 1990 concerts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Rezits, Joseph. "Percy Grainger on Composers", The Grainger Society Journal, VIII/2 (Fall 1986), 40-46.

Schonberg, Harold C. The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963, 325-27.

Tan, Margaret Hee-Leng. "Free Music of Percy Grainger", Recorded Sound (Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound), Nos. 45-46 (January-April 1972), 21-38.

Thomson, Bob. Liner notes for recording Unto Brigg Fair: Joseph Taylor and Other Traditional Lincolnshire Singers Recorded in 1908 by Percy Grainger, Leader Sound LEA 4050 (1972).