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How to Conduct and Perform the Music of Percy Grainger

Fri, July 30, 2021 9:23 AM | Anne Ocone (Administrator)

By Bill Garlette

    • The first thing to remember is that Grainger had no use for the standard formal style of the four musically predominate European countries at the time– Germany, Austria, France, and Italy. He felt that the hegemony that these countries imposed on the music world was unfair. This is part of the reason that he never wrote in symphonic or sonata form preferring to let his music unfold for itself and follow its creative path wherever it led. This then resulted in using what he called the Democracy of Music or a Democracy of Lines. The concept of theme and variation or development didn’t apply. The main ideas of a composition were not the exclusive domain of only the ‘first parts.’ This ‘Democracy’ resulted in the theme or tune being shared throughout the ensemble. All of this doesn’t mean there isn’t structure to his music or no ‘melodies’ are employed. Quite the contrary. Tunes are prevalent and embraced. They just don’t reside in the first parts.


      “Grainger (Dec. 2, 1929): "TO CONDUCTORS and to those forming, or in charge of, amateur orchestras, high school, college and music school orchestra and chamber-music bodies.

      "ELASTIC SCORING. My 'elastic scoring' grows naturally out of two roots:

      1. That my music tells its story mainly by means of intervals and the liveliness of the part-writing, rather than by means of tone-color, and is therefore well fitted to be played by almost any small, large or medium-sized combination of instruments, provided a proper balance of tone is kept.

      2. That I wish to play my part in the radical experimentation with orchestral and chamber-music blends that seems bound to happen as a result of the ever wider spreading democratization of all forms of music.

      "As long as a really satisfactory balance of tone is preserved (so that the voices that make up the musical texture are clearly heard, one against the other, in the intended proportions) I do not care whether one of my 'elastically scored' pieces is played by 4 or 40 or 400 players, or any number in between; whether trumpet parts are played on trumpets or soprano saxophones, French horn parts played on French horns or E flat altos or alto saxophones, trombone parts played on trombones or tenor saxophones or C Melody saxophones; whether string parts are played by the instruments prescribed or by mandolins, mandolas, ukeleles[sic],, guitars, banjos, balalakas[sic],, etc.; whether harmonium parts are played on harmoniums (reed-organs) or pipe-organs; whether wood-wind instruments take part or whether a harmonium (reed-organ) or 2nd piano part is substituted for them. I do not even care whether the players are skilful[sic],  or unskilful[sic],, as long as they play well enough to sound the right intervals and keep the afore-said tonal balance--and as long as they play badly enough to still enjoy playing ('Where no pleasure is, there is no profit taken'--Shakespeare).”

      "This 'elastic scoring' is naturally fitted to musical conditions in small and out-of-the-way communities and to the needs of amateur orchestras and school, high school, college and music school orchestras everywhere, in that it can accommodate almost any combination of players on almost any instruments. It is intended to encourage music-lovers of all kinds to play together in groups, large or small, and to promote a more hospitable attitude towards inexperienced music-makers. It is intended to play its part in weaning music students away from too much useless[sic], goalless, soulless, selfish, inartistic soloistic technical study, intended to coax them into happier, richer musical fields--for music should be essentially an art of self-forgetful, soul- expanding communistic cooperation in harmony and many-voicedness.” 1)


      Elastic Scoring was a natural result of Grainger’s life-long philosophy of Democracy in Music (1931).


      “‘A chance for all to shine in a starry whole.’ Some such thought as this underlies, I suppose, our working conception of democracy. Democracy seems to our mind’s eye not merely a comfortable system of ensuring personal independence & safety to each man, but also an adventure in which the oneness & harmonious togetherness of all human souls is lovingly celebrated – for it is obvious that democracies are just as patriotic & humanitarian as they are freedom-loving.” 2)


      The next crucial item was Grainger’s strong belief of being completely clear as to what his intention was with each part, each line. This requires conductors and performers alike to attend to every performance directive, every dynamic indication, and all note markings to truly render his works the way he intended. It is imperative that the lower dynamics and decrescendo be strictly adhered to.


      Next item on the list refers to the first. Always look for who has the ‘tune’ and ensure that part is ‘to the fore.’ Next is to embrace that movement in music is life so look for the ‘faster notes’ and let them shine for their moment. After all, Grainger loved Bach and Bach lived during the age of ornamentation – bring out those quick notes.


      Now we come to what was very unconventional for his time but quite common in ours – mixed meters and composite meters. Grainger’s favorite works for wind ensemble were his Hill-Songs. Hill-Song No. 1 is rarely played because of its instrumentation and rhythmic complexity. Hill-Song No. 2 was a realization by Grainger that the instrumentation needed to be more in keeping with the wind ensemble or Small-Room music set-up of the time. Even in its reduction, Hill-Song No. 2 has 88 metrical changes in the span of a 5-minute work and employs meter markings such as 11/2/4. He had choice words for those who recoiled at these metrical time signatures or his approach to ‘Free Music’ as in the Fifth Movement, Lord Melbourne, of Lincolnshire Posy.


      To Bandleaders

      Bandleaders need not be afraid of the two types of irregular rhythm met with in the “Lincolnshire Posy”: those conveyed by changing time signatures in “Rufford Park Poachers,” and those (mark “Free Time”) left to the band leader’s volition in “Lord Melbourne”.” Both these types lie well within the powers of any normal high school band. The only players that are likely to balk at those rhythms are seasoned professional bandsmen, who think more of their beer than of their music.” 3)


      Then we have Grainger’s ‘Blue-eyed English.’ A cleansing of the Old English/Anglo-Saxon of Latin, Greek and other foreign languages that infected the original. 4)


      There are numerous methods of approaching and rehearsing Grainger’s music. Many articles discuss conducting techniques and how to accomplish balance, technically difficult passages, and metrical complexities but not the foundations of the Composer’s Intent. This is where we must look at Grainger’s music in totality and his remarkable insights into music, music performance, and social philosophies. This is where we unlock the real secrets of Percy Aldridge Grainger!




    • 1)    A Source Guide to the Music of Percy Grainger by Thomas P. Lewis, ISBN 10: 0912483563 ISBN 13: 9780912483566, Publisher: Pro Am Music Resources, 1990, APPENDIX 1: ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON INSTRUMENTATION, ETC. p. 272-277 http://www.minervaclassics.com/grainger/progno11.htm
    • 2)    Malcolm Gillies and Bruce Clunies Ross, Grainger on Music, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 217.
    • 3)    To Bandleaders contained in Lincolnshire Posy score.
    • 4)    Percy Grainger Journal, Vol. 10 No. 2, Winter 1991, Author, Leroy Osmon, Percy Grainger’s Blue-Eyed English – A Catalogue of Terms, 10 – 26. http://anyflip.com/wkyv/btaq

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