May 19, 2020 by Joshua Stegall
A pioneer of 20th century music, Australian composer Percy Aldridge Grainger was (to put it mildly) a bit strange – even by modern standards. Tall tales and urban legends pale in comparison to Grainger’s actual life. The man truly marched to the beat of his own drum, and his quirkiness appeared in just about every aspect of his life.
Percy Grainger’s might not be a name many recognize. Although his works for piano and wind band are quite popular, his music isn’t often performed by orchestras today. Despite his relative obscurity, Grainger had quite a high opinion of himself! At one point, he created a musical cataloging system to rank the greatest composers of all time, and Grainger ranked himself the ninth greatest composer ever! (He ranked himself above Mozart but reserved the top spot for Bach)
Grainger was both strange and larger-than-life. He even sold tickets to his wedding (which occurred at the famous Hollywood Bowl) to nearly a quarter of a million people. He also set aside money to personally fund a museum dedicated to his own memory. The Percy Grainger Museum, located in Australia, was given a time capsule when Grainger died in 1961. Curators of the museum were given clear instruction to open it ten years later. When 1971 came around, historians were abuzz with speculation about the contents of the time capsule. Was it filled with unpublished music? Maybe a memoir? Nope! To the shock of all involved, the time capsule contained many of his whips (50 shades of Grainger?), indecent photographs of the composer, and a graphically detailed journal describing his “intimate encounters” (which included illustrated descriptions of how he liked to be whipped). Many were horrified by the contents of the time capsule, but before he died, Grainger insisted that they be displayed in his museum for all to see. As bizarre as they were, the contents of his time capsule weren’t the strangest exhibit Grainger planned to display in his museum. He wanted his skeleton to be included in the museum after he died, but (thankfully) this horrifying request wasn’t honored.
Grainger, who never tried too hard to be “normal,” was firmly opposed to established musical traditions, and he didn’t compose in typical musical forms like sonatas, symphonies, or concertos. Grainger found the musical norms a bit pretentious, and he avoided conventional Italian markings for tempo and dynamics (like pianissimo or crescendo). Grainger instead opted for informal English and used phrases like “louden hugely” in his music. To Grainger, an hourlong symphony was boring and pretentious, so most of his pieces are fairly short and many are based on folk music (which Grainger considered to be more a more natural type of music). Grainger liked folk music so much that he traveled the English countryside with his phonograph to record regional folk tunes that might have otherwise been lost and forgotten.
Grainger was certainly peculiar in a general sense, but his quirkiness also extended to his day-to-day life. A novice fashion designer, Grainger designed and wore clownish clothes made from brightly colored towels. When it came to food, Grainger (who described himself as a “meat-shunner”) was essentially a vegetarian who didn’t like vegetables. He mostly ate boiled rice, canned peaches, fruit pies, ice cream, and cake (like a kid who decided to eat candy for every meal).
Larger-than-life and undeniably strange, Percy Grainger shatters the stereotype that composers were dull, quiet people. He was bizarre then and now, but to him, his “uniqueness” was directly connected to his creativity and musicianship. Next time you listen to his music, consider the unusual and colorful personality that brought it to life!