Percy Grainger Biography

(Composer, Arranger and Pianist Known for His Folk-Dance Tune ‘Country Gardens’)

Birthday: July 8, 1882 (Cancer)

Born In: Brighton, Australia

Percy Grainger was an Australian-born pianist, composer, and arranger who later became an American citizen. He played a pivotal role in the revival of interest in British folk music in the early 20th century and was also known for his experiments in modern music. His father was John Grainger, a prominent architect with broad cultural interests. The Graingers had a troubled family life as John was a heavy drinker who continued having sexual relations with other women despite being married. His parents separated when Percy was a young child. His mother, Rose, was an accomplished pianist and Percy inherited her musical skills. He was tutored by his mother and gave a public piano performance when he was just ten. He later studied music at Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany, and began his career as a pianist. As a good-looking and charming young man with prodigal musical talents, he was able to build a reputation within a short time. Eventually, he began to compose as well. Following his mother’s death, he began to devote himself more to educational work in schools and colleges. He also continued to be active in the music scene well into his 70s. The 1999 film Passion was based on his life story.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: George Percy Grainger

Died At Age: 78


Spouse/Ex-: Ella Viola Brandelius Ström (m. 1928–1961)

father: John Harry Grainger

mother: Rose Annie Aldridge

Born Country: Australia

Composers American Men

Died on: February 20, 1961

place of death: White Plains, New York, United States

Notable Alumni: Hoch Conservatory

Ancestry: Australian American

More Facts

education: Hoch Conservatory

Childhood & Early Life

Percy Grainger was born on 8 July 1882, in Brighton, Colony of Victoria, Australia. His father, John Grainger, was an English-born architect who had emigrated to Australia. He was also an artist and had wide cultural interests. His wife, Rose Annie Aldridge, was an accomplished pianist. She was the daughter of prominent Adelaide hotelier George Aldridge.

John was a heavy drinker who had sexual relations with multiple women and as a result he contracted sexually transmitted disease. He even fathered a child with another woman despite being married to Rose. John and Rose had a strained marriage due to his promiscuity and separated in 1890.

Rose was an ambitious woman with a domineering personality. She home-schooled Percy and also taught him how to play the piano. The young boy was talented and gifted in music. He went on to give his first public performance as a pianist at the tender age of ten. He composed a piece called A Birthday Gift to Mother in 1893.

In 1895, Rose and Percy went to Europe so that the boy could study further under reputed maestros. He studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main for four years. Meanwhile, his mother became an English teacher.

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Percy Grainger befriended a group of British students, including Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner, Norman O'Neill, and Cyril Scott and Norman O'Neill, with who he formed the Frankfurt Group. All the young men studied under German music teacher Iwan Knorr, who encouraged them to develop their individuality in musical expression.

Rose fell ill in 1900 and could no longer work. To earn some money, Percy started giving piano lessons and public performances. His first solo performance was in Frankfurt on 6 December 1900.

By 1901, he was confident of making it big as a concert pianist and left for the United Kingdom with his mother. Talented, charming, and good-looking, he was received warmly by the music lovers in London and was able to find wealthy patrons soon after his arrival. He was often invited to perform concerts in private homes.

One of his patrons introduced him to Queen Alexandra, who was much impressed by his musical talents. She began to attend his performances regularly. In the ensuing years, he continued to grow in fame and became acquainted with popular personalities, such as singer Adelina Patti and pianist Ferruccio Busoni.

During this period, he began to compose in earnest. He composed several Kipling settings and orchestral pieces. His composition Hill Song Number 1 (1902), an instrumental piece, was much admired by Busoni. He also composed Train Music and Charging Irishrey in the same period.

After attending a lecture given by the pioneer folk-song historian Lucy Broadwood in 1905, Percy Grainger developed a keen interest in recording and collecting English folk songs. In the ensuing years, he gathered more than 300 native folk songs from all over the United Kingdom and assembled Edison cylinder recordings of these songs.

He continued to rise in stature as his music began to gain widespread popularity. He met and befriended prominent figures in the music world, including Richard Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Frederick Delius, and Debussy. 

Well-established by now, Percy Grainger began the large-scale publishing of his compositions in 1911. Many of his works were performed in concerts arranged by Balfour Gardiner at London's Queen's Hall in 1912. In the next couple of years, many of his works were performed to great acclaim.

First World War broke out in 1914, and Percy Grainger moved to the United States of America. He began his first American tour in February 1915 and performed at New York's Aeolian Hall. He played two of his own compositions and a few works by Brahms, Bach, Chopin, and Handel. 

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In 1917, America entered the war and he enlisted as a bandsman in the U.S. Army with the 15th Coastal Artillery Corps Band in New York City. He made frequent appearances as a pianist at Red Cross and Liberty bond concerts in his 18 months’ service. 

He left the army in 1919 and resumed his career as a concert pianist, giving around 120 performances a year. He also led a course in piano technique at Chicago Musical College. 

His mother died in 1922, leaving him devastated. He kept himself busy with educational work in schools and colleges throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He worked as a professor of music at New York University (NYU) for one year.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Percy Grainger played regularly in charity concerts, performing in a total of 274 charity events during the war years. He was physically and mentally exhausted by the time the war ended.

He stopped composing after 1950 and made his last Carnegie Hall appearance in 1954. 

Family & Personal Life

Percy Grainger was extremely close to his mother, Rose, giving rise to speculations that their relationship was incestuous. 

He had sadomasochistic interests and was sexually involved with numerous women. He became sexually involved with an older woman, socialite Lillith Lowrey, in exchange for patronage. He was briefly engaged to a girl named Margot Harrison in 1913, but the relationship never culminated in marriage.

In 1928, he married Ella Ström, a Swedish-born artist. Ella already had a daughter from a previous relationship with who he formed a warm bond.

He was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery in October 1953. His bout with the disease would continue for several years. His health continually declined in the late 1950s, and he died on 20 February 1961, at the age of 78.

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