Best of the British Isles: Percy Aldridge Grainger February 13 2014, 1 Comment

Just after the turn of the century, many European composers found inspiration in the folk songs of their respective cultures. Musicians would travel out to the countryside with wax cylinders, recording and collecting folk songs sung by the few people that still knew them. As the oral tradition of traditional folk music began its decline, this trend not only allowed people to learn more about their musical past, but also to preserve a waning tradition. In the band world, this movement had its greatest impact in England, where many English folk songs were transcribed, in some form, for the earliest configurations of the wind band.

When it comes to English folk songs, my mind immediately goes to Percy Aldridge Grainger.


Grainger, a native Australian, started his musical career as a young concert pianist, who toured the world before he started to write music of his own. He left Australia in 1895 at the age of 13, and started to receive acclaim around 1900. There’s a single video of Grainger playing piano on YouTube, and it’s very interesting to see how wildly his hands move about the keyboard.

Despite being born in Australia, Grainger is always associated with the English folk song movement, but he was determined to become an established pianist before promoting his compositions. He did not being to promote his growing list of compositions until the 1910's. One of his earliest works is still one of his well-known works; Molly on the Shore.

Like most of Grainger’s earlier work, Molly on the Shore began as a work for solo piano, but was later arranged for wind band, string quartet, and string orchestra. The band version strongly features the woodwinds, playing a light, quick melody, typical of the Irish reels on which it is based.

Grainger came to the United States in 1915 primarily as a concert pianist, but his reputation as a composer continued to grow. He also became an early advocate for the wind band. When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Grainger joined the Coast Artillery Corps of the U.S. Army, starting on saxophone, his favorite instrument, but later moved to the oboe. He became a U.S. citizen in 1918.

What is most interesting about Grainger’s music is how true he stayed to the folk song tradition. Many composers would normalize the lilting rhythms and sometimes incorrect pitches to fit with a specific key, but Grainger embraced these abnormalities. He will sometimes use irregular meters and harmonies, adding a special and unique color to his work that cannot be found in many other places.

Of all of Grainger’s work, Lincolnshire Posy is always referred to as his crowning achievement. This six movement piece showcases his usual treatment of rhythmic and harmonic motion, as well as the sing-song quality that the audience looks for in folk music. There are also moments of "free time" in the fifth movement, something that, when it was premiered in 1937, was way ahead of its time. Each movement is titled with the name of a folk song, which he recorded himself. There are moments more beautiful than any other folk setting I know, and other moments so difficult to perform, it was left out of its premiere performance. All the settings have their own flavor, but feature the versatility of Grainger’s talent.

You can hear Grainger’s music on many Altissimo! albums. The Molly on the Shore recording was taken from the United States Air Force album The Lord of the Rings, and Lincolnshire Posy is part of the United States Marine Band Bicentennial Collection. The United States Military Academy Band also has an album titled A Tribute to Percy Grainger, which features many of his wind band pieces. Also, be prepared for Best of the British Isles, a new Altissimo! release coming this March!

- Brian R. Denu