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A Musical Feast

John Knight | August 2009

    I have always loved the music of Percy Grainger and have programmed many of his compositions on concerts. I was introduced to Grainger’s music at age 18 when John Paynter led the Arkansas Intercollegiate Band in Irish Tune from County Derry, I remember how those rich harmonies moved slowly and eloquently like a great and majestic river. One of the mysteries of great music is the deep emotional responses it evokes, producing vivid memories for years to come.
    I remember how difficult it was as  first bassoonist to come in on the first measure of that piece. Grainger marked three low Cs to be played “flowingly, gently, and pp.” In order to balance my part with the other instruments I scraped quite a bit off my reed and stuck a sock in my bell. It must have worked because on the night of the concert Mr. Paynter looked down at me and smiled. From then on Grainger was my musical hero.
    I’ve come to love and understand his music ever more through the years, but I still have so much to learn. I have a tape of Grainger conducting the University of Texas Symphonic Band recorded in 1940 and treasure this historical document as Grainger’s authoritative interpretations of Irish Tune from County Derry as well as two movements from Lincolnshire Posy, The Immovable Do, Children’s March, and Country Gardens. It also includes Grainger playing piano on Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy for band and piano, arranged by Rocco Resta with Bernard Fitz-gerald conducting.
    This tape has provided me with a wonderful musical feast this summer. As I listen I am transported to the past and remember my musical journey with Grainger. Many years ago I heard a recording of Grainger performing the first movement of the Grieg piano concerto with the University of Michigan Symphonic Band under William Revelli and another by the Goldman Band with Grainger playing the piano part on The Children’s March. As a young conductor my understanding of Grainger’s music developed through intensive study of his scores. Not surprisingly, my dissertation dealt with the asymmetrical meters in Lincolnshire Posy.
    Harry Begian wrote an insightful article, “Remembering How Grainger Conducted Lincolnshire Posy,” which recounts the time when Begian was a student at Wayne State University and the band performed the piece under Grainger’s baton. Begian recalls, “As a conductor Grainger was not the most graceful person on the podium; his physical movements were rather rigid, jerky, and he stabbed a lot, especially in marcato and accented passages.”
    I suspect Grainger’s unorthodox  conducting technique was much like Furtwangler’s – who disregarded the beating and focused on the spirit of the of the music.
    Leopold Stokowski, a friend of Grainger, said, “Music is like a great dynamic sun in the center of a solar system which sends out its rays and inspiration in every direction. Music makes us feel that the heavens open and a divine voice calls. Something in our souls responds and understands.” As conductors we have the choice to play music that will  educate and develop the musical understanding of our students. I hope that as you choose repertoire for the new year, you will remember Percy Grainger and let his music send out its rays and inspiration  to every student.

(For more information on Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry, see Frederick Fennell’s classic 1978 article in this issue.)