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Percy Grainger's  "Arrival Platform Humlet" for Solo Viola, from "In a Nutshell"

Wed, December 12, 2018 5:03 PM | Anne Ocone (Administrator)

by Vincent Lionti, viola, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Board Member, International Percy Grainger Society. 

My own introduction to the music of Percy Grainger was having the good fortune to take part in a swashbuckling performance of "The Warriors" conducted by Gerard Schwarz at the Waterloo Festival in the summer of 1982, Grainger's Centenary year. Fast forward to February 20, 2011, when I was entrusted with putting together a concert of sixteen Grainger works for a memorial commemoration of his death exactly 50 years before, to the day, in 1961. I began to slowly discover, during those intervening years, one piece after another of Percy's that had irresistible charm, was well crafted and highly original. Because I didn't play a "band" instrument, and was primarily interested in chamber music, I came upon these pieces only by accident or by word of mouth from friends and colleagues. This is how I learned of the existence of the "Arrival Platform Humlet", when my friend the violist Paul Coletti found it hard to believe that I, of all people, had not heard of the work. He promptly supplied me with a copy. Of course, meeting fellow Board member Cora Sowa, who in turn introduced me to Barry Peter Ould and his Bardic Editions of vast quantities of Grainger's chamber music, was a revelation. With Grainger's "elastic scoring", many of his compositions were easily adaptable to various instrumentations, with the composer's blessing. The "Arrival Platform Humlet" is one such piece, but violists have a special affection for it, and like to claim it as their own.* I have always had a great fondness for it and have felt a special connection to the composer when I play it because of the following story:

I had many wonderful conversations with Stewart Manville before he died. Stewart was, as we all know, the great archivist and curator of the Estate of Percy Grainger, and married Percy's widow, Ella, in 1972. Any time I played a concert with a Grainger work on it, I would invite Stewart to say a few words about the music and its composer. It was the next best thing to having the composer there in person. Stewart always graciously accepted my invitations to speak, and would speak rather eloquently while the audience sat transfixed.  He related the story to me (which unfortunately can't be corroborated) about one of the only times (possibly the only time) that he ever came face to face with the composer, waiting (probably in the 1940's) for a train, sure enough, on the arrival platform at the White Plains (New York) train station.  Stewart spotted the great composer standing alone on the platform and inched closer to him. Before Stewart realized what he was doing, he began whistling nervously.  The composer eyed him suspiciously, but then smiled and said, "... the arrival platform, I take it?"  Apparently the train arrived, and they went their separate ways.  One of the last times Stewart spoke publicly was at the 50th Anniversary commemoration concert in 2011, mentioned above. He broke down emotionally during his speech, and had to be encouraged by members of the audience exhorting him to continue.

The "Arrival Platform Humlet" puts the violist through his paces demanding skill, agility, imagination, a solid technique, and to some degree, endurance, even though the piece is only about three minutes long. Numerous and sometimes awkward double stops require spot on intonation, and the player needs to get comfortable climbing into the very highest registers and Everest-like regions of the instrument, demonstrating acrobatic tricks and leaps while up there. The violist may be tempted to compare Grainger's "Humlet" to Paul Hindemith's Solo Viola Sonatas; the two composers were almost exact contemporaries, born 12 years apart and died two years apart. Both were virtuoso proponents of their respective instruments, had huge solo careers, performed and conducted widely, taught at American Universities and institutions, and composed large quantities of music "on the side".

Penelope Thwaites writes in "The New Percy Grainger Companion" that Arrival Platform Humlet  dates from 1908, at the height of Grainger's love affair with the Danish Karen Holten, and the excitement he describes of meeting at the railway station is clearly autobiographical. She also writes that any performance of it "should be fierce and exhilarating". Grainger first met Karen Holten in 1904, when the composer was 22 while on a concert tour with cellist Herman Sandby. They soon began an eight year relationship that ended on the eve of World War I. Their last meeting was at a Copenhagen Railway Station, shortly before Grainger left England for America. Karen Holten married two years later and died in 1953. There seems to be no doubt that Karen Holten was the muse that inspired the creation of the "Arrival Platform Humlet".

*Editor's note - It has recently been reported to the Grainger Society that "Arrival Platform Humlet" is currently being arranged for Solo Tuba!

**live recording of Vincent Lionti, viola, made at the Percy Grainger 50th Anniversary Memorial ConcertSunday, February 20, 2011Grace Church, White Plains, New York (audio recording made by Rocco Bueti).


  • Wed, December 26, 2018 4:45 PM | Mark N. Grant
    Vincent, Grainger Board members Don Gillespie, Rolf Stang, and yours truly all attended your performance of "In a Nutshell" at Waterloo in 1982, Percy's centennial year; if I remember correctly, it was a hot, sultry summer day, but an exciting performance. About five years after that, the Juilliard Orchestra gave a blazing performance of In a Nutshell in New York under the baton of Paul Zukofsky, which I also attended. I remember Zukofsky's tempo of The Gumsuckers March as being practically a presto. (I may have a recording of the performance.)

    Stewart over the years told many different versions of his tale of encountering Percy on the railroad platform in White Plains, and added the quote from Percy "the arrival platform, I take it?" only in later years once the "In a Nutshell" suite had had many performances and recordings. Since the chance meeting must have occurred in the 1940s, the odds that Stewart had ever heard In a Nutshell or Arrival Platform Humlet at the time are virtually nil. The only performance I know of in America in those years was a Hollywood Bowl performance on the radio in 1946 conducted by Stokowski and I don't know whether that would have been heard in New York. There were no commercial recordings of Humlet or Nutshell at that time.

    Wilfrid Mellers's book on PG has a wonderful musical analysis of Humlet, but Mellers mistakenly ascribes its date of composition to Percy's New York years (post-1915) though it was actually written during his London years going back to 1908. But Mellers does highlight the delightful polymodal quality of the theme. This free mixture of modes is actually characteristic of a number of Percy's works.
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