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Percy Grainger and the Intimate Saxophone

Wed, May 20, 2020 12:30 PM | Susan Colson (Administrator)

[This post is excerpted from an article written by Dr. Paul Cohen.  The complete article is here.  Enjoy this recording of Molly on the Shore from Dr. Cohen's CD American Landscapes, his solo CD of American music for soprano and alto saxophone.   Molly on the Shore is an original setting by Grainger and not an arrangement.  Dr. Cohen’s restoration is drawn from the manuscripts of Cecil Lesson and Percy Grainger.]

“Around 1904 Balfour Gardiner & I heard our first sax-reed (a tenor) near Frome, Somerset. A man in a country band played one to us. And I knew then & there, that I was hearing the world's finest wind tone-tool —the most voice- like, the most mankind-typed, “ --Percy Grainger

When Percy Grainger enlisted in the United States Army as musician third class (summer of 1917), he chose to audition on the soprano saxophone! When the time came to join, Grainger apparently bought a soprano, learned the Blue Bells of Scotland (his entire repertoire), walked to Fort Totten (New York), and enlisted as a bandsman. He kept secret his identity as an internationally acclaimed concert pianist for some months, and concentrated his efforts on playing saxophone and oboe, while exploring the instruments and possibilities of the wind-band.

It was here that he composed his remarkable Children's March: Over the Hills and Far Away which, in the original orchestration, (since revised by the publisher) includes parts for soprano and bass saxophone, and contra-bass sarrusophone! This original version has been republished by Southern Music, and can now be heard as Grainger originally intended.

His love for the saxophone grew over the years, and he often expressed his unbridled enthusiasm to all who would listen. In a preface to one of his most famous works he wrote:

". . . to my ears the saxophone is the most expressive of all wind instruments- the one closest to the human voice. And surely all musical instruments should be rated according to their tonal closeness to man's own voice! . . . "

Percy Grainger's relationship with the saxophone seems to have been intensely personal, but always joyous and fruitful. His frequent use of the entire family of saxophones, in addition to his numerous and enthusiastic writings about the instrument, speak eloquently of his feelings and thoughts. It is from his informal correspondence and anecdotal references, however, that one begins to appreciate the depth of passion and importance that the saxophone played in his life. This is charmingly illustrated in a letter to his friends in which his compositions for saxophone ensemble are discussed. He once again used his "blue-eyed English."

"Some folks have hook-worms inside them: & I understand that the hook-worm has to be at-rest-set (satisfied) before the man can come into his own. My hook-worm is tonal fun. No tone- fun, no Percy. And this summer, I got my tone-fun out of the Sax-reed (saxophone) group at Interlochen. Yet it has taken from 1904 to 1943 to have my hopes of sax-reed team-work fulfilled. Every other summer there was some spoke put in the wheel of my sax-reed hopes — either the group was un-whole, or it could not get together to rehearse, or they wanted to rehearse quite othery things from those I wanted to try out on them. But this summer I had my way. As wont-some, I had taken to Interlochen our 2 sax-reeds — the she-high (soprano) & the he-mid-low (baritone). The sax-reed teacher (Rollin Silfies) took the she-high himself (most sax-readers shun the she-high like a pest) & did most sweetly on it (among other things he played the long she-high sax-reed single in Rufford Park Poachers in my Lincolnshire Posy). In his big group we had 1 she-high, 3 or 4 she-lows (altos), 3 he-highs (tenors), 1 he-mid-low (baritone), 1 he-low (bass).This was something to work with! So I wrote out parts. . . (& this was almost the only writing out of parts I did this summer at Interlochen)." --Percy Grainger

No one could ask for a more committed champion of the saxophone!

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