A to Z: Grainger (and Gershwin)

I couldn’t decide which ‘G’ composer to do, so since it’s my blog, I’m doing both!

Percy Grainger was the very first composer I encountered when I got to college. I’d never heard of him before, but there on the music stands on Day One of concert band rehearsal was something called “Irish Tune from County Derry”. Just two bars in, I fell in love with this guy.

At first listen, that sounds like just a lovely setting of a somewhat maudlin tune, but the more you hear it, the more the Grainger touch stands out. By using such a gorgeous melody and by utilizing such a rich sound, Grainger manages to sneak some really wild dissonances right past the listener.

Grainger was Australian by birth, but the major part of his legacy is his exploration and commitment, via settings for orchestra, wind band, piano, and others — of English folk music. He was highly idiosyncratic, and he had a wonderful gift of brevity: there are Grainger pieces that are scarcely more than a minute or two long, and they’re perfect in that scope. Here’s Grainger’s “Shepherd’s Hey”:

In terms of his settings of folk tunes, Grainger’s masterpiece is the Lincolnshire Posy, which sets six different folk tunes over the course of six movements. I was lucky enough to perform this amazing work in my junior year of college. Note how Grainger makes little effort — no effort at all, actually — to push these folk melodies into any kind of regular form. Grainger noticed that regular people singing folk tunes tended to trouble little with things like regular meter or rhythm, so that’s what he tried to recreate in his settings. The result is a work that takes a lot of effort in rehearsal to pull off. I’d have to show you the sheet music to really make it clear, but there are dual entrances that are offset by several beats. There are places where there are no bar lines at all, and the conductor just hammers out each note. And then you have Grainger’s dynamic and tempo instructions: he didn’t like the traditional Italian music terms, so instead of marking ‘Crescendo’, a Grainger piece will direct the performer to ‘Louden Lots’.

I always found something deeply refreshing about Grainger, and it’s probably from him that my fascination with Celtic music began. It’s really a short line from Grainger to the Chieftains, after all.

Finally, here’s an original piece by Grainger. This is not a folk tune, but it has that character. It’s one of my very favorite marches of all time, from the opening, which sounds, to paraphrase Salieri from Amadeus, ‘like a rusty squeeze box’.

And then there’s George Gershwin, with whom I share a birthday. My perception of Gershwin has always been colored by Leonard Bernstein’s writings about him, in which Bernstein opines that Gershwin’s prodigious gifts for melody and the feel for American jazz and its new rhythms were his major gifts, and that Gershwin was just beginning to plumb the depths of his compositional gifts when he died at too young an age. Bernstein’s view was that when it came to composition, Gershwin was lacking; the Rhapsody in Blue, according to Bernstein, is a collection of wonderful tunes that are stitched together loosely and so unconvincingly that the piece can literally be edited and re-edited and not lose much in translation. That’s probably right. As Bernstein says: “What’s good about the Rhapsody is so good that the entire piece is irresistable.”

For Bernstein, the true Gershwin masterpiece was Porgy and Bess, which he viewed as Gershwin starting the process of melding opera and ‘Tin Pan Alley’ into something uniquely American — a truly American music drama, developed here out of American traditions and musical vocabulary and less dependent than ever before on the entire Germanic tradition of musical development that shows up in the transitional passages in earlier works like the Rhapsody.

Here’s the Rhapsody in Blue, performed by Andre Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (a wonderful recording, by the way).

Tomorrow, we’ll stay in America.

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One Response to A to Z: Grainger (and Gershwin)

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    that 2 minute Grainger piece I've heard before; very nice.

    But I am a sucker for Gershwin, esp this and An American in Paris. My favorite moment in Rhapsody is when the horns accelerate near the end and they bleat out that somewhat unpleasant chord.

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