Joan de Bondt, The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper
Percy Grainger was a composer and pianist born in 1882 whose legacy is generally associated with his piano arrangement of the folk dance tune ‘Country Gardens’.
Bruce Grainger of Barham, retired primary school teacher and keen golfer, modestly acknowledges Percy as a family member on his father’s side. Bruce’s wife, Anne, recalls that many years ago, her father in law said, “You know we’re related to Percy Grainger, but we don’t lay fame to that claim.”
Percy Grainger was a cousin to Bruce’s great grandfather. A wedding photo of Bruce’s grandfather, Stewart Hamilton Grainger, is attached to a photo of Percy at about the same age and the resemblance is unmistakable.
Born in Brighton, Melbourne, Percy lived abroad for much of his life and died in New York in 1961. A handsome, charismatic man, fluent in at least six European languages and their dialects, Percy was born to parents, Rose (nee Aldridge) of Adelaide and acclaimed architect, John Harry Grainger, who had migrated to Adelaide from England.
Percy was home schooled and as well as showing precocious musical talent, studied drawing and painting with Frederick McCubbin. At the tender age of 10 years, he had his first piano performance in the Masonic Hall in Melbourne.
Percy’s father returned to England for a visit in 1890 and never rejoined his family. Thereafter, they met occasionally in Europe and Australia.
In 1895, Percy left Melbourne with his mother to study music at the Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfurt, Germany, then in 1901, moved to London, where he launched his career as a virtuoso pianist. Subsequently, Percy had little or no contact with his father’s family.
His collection of English folksongs was begun in 1905, pioneering the use of the Edison Phonograph. In 1908, he made his first recordings with the Gramophone Company and sketched an arrangement of the dancing tune ‘Country Gardens’.
Percy’s first American tour was in 1915 and he collaborated with Nellie Melba in support of the Allied War Effort. He became a naturalised American citizen in 1918 and married Swedish poet and painter, Ella Viola Strom, in 1928 on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. Percy was appointed Head of the Music Department, New York University in 1932.
In 1934, he conducted a concert and lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand, and established the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne.
To this day, it is the only purpose built autobiographical museum in Australia, housing a diverse collection of art, photographs, costumes, musical scores and instruments.
Inaugurated in 1938, the museum has more than 100,000 items, with 40,000 on permanent display.
These include his dentures, a plaited lock of his mother’s hair and items of terry-towelling clothing of his own design and craftsmanship. The museum also presents temporary events and exhibitions.
Percy died in New York in 1961 and his remains were brought to Australia for burial in the Aldridge family grave in Adelaide, alongside those of his beloved mother, who had died in tragic circumstances in 1922.
Eccentric to the end, Percy Grainger bequeathed his own skeleton to be displayed at the museum, but the request was refused on the grounds of public indecency.
The family is doing more research on the Grainger family history.
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 7 July 2022.