The Farthest North of Humanness: Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-14


Kay Dreyfus (Editor)



Kay Dreyfus (Editor), The Farthest North of Humanness: Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-14 (Melbourne and London: Macmillan, 1985), First Edition, octavo, 25.5 x 19.8 cm, hard cover, colour dust jacket, xxvi + 542 pages; 60 b/w photographs relating to composers, musicians, music history, John, Rose & Percy Grainger, painters, Percy’s bizarre towel clothes and nudes; many drawings, illustrations and music notations in text of letters. Acknowledgements, Introduction, Editor’s Note, Translator’s Note, Glossary of Private Language, List of Abbreviations, Chronology, Letters (by year from 1901-14), Epilogue, Index. Weight: 1.42 kg.

Condition: Fine, only very slight shelf wear to top and bottom edges of board covers.

The Australian-born composer, arranger and pianist George Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was famous for his spectacular career on three continents and his unusual, even bizarre, behaviour. Letters in the present volume date from 1901-14, the period in which Grainger pursued his musical career in Britain and across Europe as far as Russia. This volume includes letters to Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), the Norwegian composer, and his wife Nina Grieg, and photographs of Grainger visiting the Griegs. A leading Romantic composer whose music is now part of the world’s classical repertoire, Edvard Grieg considered Grainger “a musical genius”. Grieg’s use of Norwegian folk music was of particular interest to Grainger, who was prominent in the early 20th century revival of British folk music. This volume also has letters, with side notes, to Grainger’s mother Rose, with whom he had a controversial relationship, and to Frederick Delius and many other important British composers and musicians.

Percy Grainger, an only child, was born in Melbourne in 1882. A childhood interest in music was encouraged by his mother Rose, while his skills in art, graphics and drawing were fostered by his English-born father, the architect John Grainger, who emigrated to Australia in 1877  where in 1879 he won the competition to design Melbourne’s Prince’s Bridge. After visiting Europe in 1890, John Grainger became estranged from his family, thereafter seeing them rarely. From 1897-1905, as Western Australia’s Chief Architect, John Grainger was responsible for many of Perth’s major public buildings. In 1912 John Grainger designed Dame Nellie Melba’s Coombe Cottage, at Coldstream, Victoria. With his mother, Percy Grainger left Australia aged 13 to study at Frankfurt’s Hoch Conservatorium.

From May 1901 to September 1914 Percy Grainger was based with his dominant mother Rose in London, where he progressed from society pianist to concert performer, composer and folk music collector. His Byronic good looks and golden hair were noticed as much as the vigour and strength of his playing. Grainger toured England in 1902 with the French-Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, one of the most famous sopranos in history, described by Verdi as “perhaps the finest singer who had ever lived” and “a stupendous artist”. In 1903 Percy studied with Busoni in Berlin, and in 1903-04 and 1908-09 Grainger made very successful tours of Australasia with the well-known Gippsland-born contralto Ada Crossley, whose parents had approved her singing lessons only if she promised never to sing opera; she subsequently left Victoria for studies in Britain, and in Paris with the celebrated Madame Marchesi. Later in 1904 Grainger made his first concert tour of Denmark with Herman Sandby, a noted Danish composer, cellist and pianist. In 1905 a Danish music student, Karen Holten, became an important confidante, the close relationship with Grainger persisting mainly through letters until 1913; in that pre-War year, Grainger’s brief engagement to another student foundered through his mother’s possessiveness and his own indecision.

Edvard Grieg selected Percy Grainger to play Grieg’s concerto under his baton in Leeds in 1907, establishing Percy’s reputation as the greatest living exponent of Grieg’s piano music. In that year Grainger began a close friendship and professional association with the composer Frederick Delius. Grainger pioneered using the Edison Phonograph to collect English folk songs, and in 1908 sketched an arrangement of the Morris dancing tune Country Gardens, his hugely popular piano arrangement being published 10 years later. Country Gardens sold more than 40,000 copies in the United States annually, and this tune, which is always associated with his name, eventually made him rich. In 1911 he adopted the professional name Percy Aldridge Grainger, recognising his mother’s maiden name. He began writing The warriors: Music for an imaginary ballet in 1913, which required three conductors. The wartime decision by Percy and his mother Rose to emigrate to the USA in 1914 upset his aristocratic supporters but this hostility was ameliorated by his collaboration in recitals with Nellie Melba in 1916 in support of the Allied war effort, and by his enlisting as a Bandsman in the US Army in 1917.

Percy’s father John Grainger died in Melbourne in 1917 from syphilis. In 1918 Percy Grainger became a naturalised American citizen. The suicide in 1922 of Rose Grainger, his constant companion and business and social manager, left Percy desolated and with a legacy of remorse. She leapt from the 18th floor of New York’s Aeolian Hall, in despair from rumours of incest and the growing effects of syphilis. The Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne, which holds a number of curious exhibits, has the contents of Rose’s handbag when she died. In 1924 Percy Grainger revisited Australia, and while there made a 130 km walk from Tailem Bend to Keith in South Australia; Rose Grainger’s remains were buried in the Aldridge family grave in Adelaide and after his death at White Plains, New York, in 1961, Percy Grainger’s remains were also returned to Adelaide for burial.

The later years of Percy Grainger’s life were marked by his childless marriage in 1928 to the Swedish poet and painter Ella Viola Ström before a concert audience of 22,000 at the Hollywood Bowl; appointment in 1932 as Head of the Music Department at New York University; experiments with “free music”; Australasian concert and lecture tour in 1934 and the founding of the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne (where he took part in some construction work); opening of the Grainger Museum in 1938; his sense of failure post-WWII, partly owing to ill-health and declining musical activity; and a final Australian visit in 1955-56.

Among Percy Grainger’s bizarre habits, extraordinary for a pianist, was his lack of concern for his hands, which were often calloused from heavy physical work. He enjoyed flagellation:  his father had beaten his mother, and his mother beat Percy, whose wife Ella later joined in. Percy’s letters document his sexuality and his “cruelty instincts”, tempered by what some have seen as a tender approach to human relationships. The Grainger Museum’s whips, flails and lashes made by Percy Grainger include some fashioned from conductors’ batons. Percy claimed his creativity was inseparable from his sex drive; in 1982 a play titled A Whip Round for Percy Grainger was produced in Melbourne. Grainger frequently dressed strangely in Aztec-inspired clothing, gaudy designs and towel clothes and beadwork in public, when he was sometimes mistaken for a vagrant. He also invented a forerunner to the sports bra. Among Grainger’s more conventional habits were abstention from alcohol and tobacco, and vegetarianism (though mostly directed to fruit). The 1999 film Passion focused on the relationship between Percy and Rose, while Grainger is briefly noticed in Ken Russell’s 1968 Song of Summer, a dramatised life of Delius. The Editor of the present volume, Kay Dreyfus, is a former Curator at the Grainger Museum.