Book review: Thorns buried in Percy's country garden

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The All-Round Man: selected letters of Percy Grainger 1914-1961

ed Malcolm Gillies and David Pear Oxford University Press, £25.00

It was his mother, Rose Grainger, who first pointed Percy at the piano. She paid for his studies in Frankfurt by teaching English, then managed his concert career in Britain and the United States until her mind gave way from syphilis and she killed herself. This is the central crisis of these 76 letters, chosen out of thousands to tell the story of "Australia's first great composer" - Grainger's self-definition.

His mother's death scarred him as much as the floggings she had administered throughout his childhood. These, in turn, spurred on the "whip-lust" that remained with him until his late sixties, when he had his testicles surgically removed (bilateral orchidectomy, according to the notes: even Grainger, inventor of "blue-eyed English", could not bring himself to say "gelded") in an attempt to cure the prostate cancer that eventually killed him.

Grainger's letters of 1901-1914 take him up to his flight from Britain to the US, ostensibly to guard his mother's health, but actually to avoid conscription. By the time the Great War was over (with Percy as a US Army bandsman, second class, on soprano saxophone, and a US citizen) Mrs Grainger's breakdown into insanity was well advanced and it was her suicide, falling 18 floors from his agent's office window, that tipped Grainger himself into eccentricity bordering on madness.

The letters of this collection complete the story, with bizarre details such as his wedding at the Hollywood Bowl before a concert audience of thousands, not to mention his towelling suits and his obsessive sado-masochism. The days of his folk-song collecting, his championing of Grieg, and his famous "dish-ups" or arrangements, such as "Molly on the Shore" or "Handel in the Strand", were long gone.

It was always Percy Grainger's intention to leave a record of his life. He built a museum in Melbourne to house fully dressed dummies of his friends, colour photographs of the blue eyes of Vaughan Williams and others, and his own skeleton (never in fact delivered), along with more conventional manuscript material. Many of his letters were written as museum pieces (much to the annoyance of recipients, who were expected to return copies on demand) and present a fragmentary, biased and self-obsessed figure.

The autobiography is admirably annotated by the editors, who delight in pointing out where Grainger was whingeing or bragging - often both in rapid alternation. Later on, Grainger used his "blue-eyed English" more extensively, and this thickens the laterletters to the point of unreadability. His last creative work was his "Free Music", an attempt to capture the sound patterns of ripples and other natural phenomena, using home-made devices such as the Kangaroo Pouch machine, a primitive synthesizer, which produced a series of polyphonic, gliding tones, apparently much like early Pink Floyd.

It may seem unfair to blame Grainger's character defects on his mother, but she does seem to have flogged most of them into him early on, and the closeness of their relationship (bringing accusations of incest, which helped to drive her insane) made it impossible for him to escape her numerous prejudices, even if he had wanted to.

"Puke-stir" (Graingerese for nausea) is what his appalling letters of the Thirties and Forties bring up, with their striking hatred of Jews. His frustration at the way his composing was hijacked by his concertising is understandable. His "whip-lust" was,it seems, reciprocated by his long-suffering wife. In his last years, his comparative failure made a painful contrast to his early successes.

The over-riding impression these letters give is of an overweening arrogance, ignorance and inhumanity. Self-obsession does not equal self-knowledge. Why should we care that much about Percy Grainger? A man who could set "Country Gardens" might well be capable, and culpable, of anything.