British wind Music Before 1981
Chapter 7: Interlude - Rodney Bashford On Grainger
In an article appearing in an earlier WINDS (Holst, Horns and Unharmonious Blacksmiths, WINDS, Spring 1987) I gave forth on certain matters concerning the Suites in E flat and F, on the tenuous authority of having met Holst for a few minutes and a later friendship with his daughter Imogen. So may I give forth on Percy Grainger with whom I did have the privilege of several conversations, not all of them to my own conceit?
In 1957 Percy Grainger and his wife visited Kneller Hall, its centenary year, to conduct four of his lollipops at a summer concert. During his stay he watched me, as the then staff bandmaster of the school, rehearse the four pieces (Hey, Molly, Derry, Gardens) and greeted me as I left the rostrum with Everyone plays my music too slowly. My deflation was only slightly tempered by his rider; it was good to hear it up to speed for once. I didn't believe him for a moment, especially when next day he took them all at a furious pace far outstripping mine louder (lots), cringingly, fulsome, and con fuoco - though he would have abhorred the latter non-white musical term. I did, though, believe his remark about too slowly, and still do. Anyone who remembers that glorious television documentary on Grainger, the one in which he plays Grieg and himself on piano, and Raimund Herinex exults in Shallow Brown, will know his general approach to tempi.
So, what about Lincolnshire Posy, the great seminal work of the repertory which any band with ambitions to fame must eventually come to terms with? Frederick Fennell has said and done everything that matters concerning the work, though even he in his writings gets somewhat bogged down with inessentials. Misprints? Articulation? Up beats, down beats, note values? All no doubt of some little importance! ~ but do 1 hear from Percy Bah, get on and play the bloody thing, and do have fun. Fennell made a much-admired early recording of the Posy, and was rightly praised for his work on it. Nevertheless later performances from him and others seem to me to lack something. My own acquaintance with Grainger, of but a few days, leads me to believe that we have all come to treat the Posy as some sort of sacred cow, full of 'problems', technical how-d'ya-do-its, up beats, side beats, and (most emasculating of all) complete and utter precision at the expense of spontaneity, delight, and that indefinable English pastoral rough-hewedness with which Grainger imbued it in its harmony and instrumentation.
Inexperienced bands do of course have their problems, but 1 am talking about the good ones 1 have heard, who should be beyond worrying about the details. 1 did not have a chance to discuss the Posy with Grainger, though from his almost cavalier treatment of his shorter pieces 1 am convinced he would not be totally sincere in admiring most present-day performances of it, or come to that, any of his music. Has all of it become too urbanised 1 wonder? That lovely word 'bucolic', with its undertones of country junketings, cider, and unseemly goings-on 'neath the haystack just about sums up my own vision of Lincolnshire Posy. The Sailor's Song, in spite of its title, is a full-blown and vivid hunting scene with view-hulloos, tallyhos, and horns a-plenty as the hunt approaches then disappears over the hills and far away; Horkstow Grange is a tale of miserly passions, not a rather good hymn tune; the Poachers are sure-footed if canny professional thieves, not mincing poofs; the Young Sailor is not only brisk but frisky, randy, and not a little 'Brahms and Liszt' during his hornpipe; Melbourne should rant for himself, not mutter under his breath; and the poor Lost Lady, she's rarely found.
Grainger was scathing about the feeble effects' usually achieved in Molly on the Shore, particularly at the banshee cry. On Shepherd's Hey there was never enough 'hey'. The Tune from County Derry was not a setting of Danny Boy. Country Gardens were too often full of exotic arum lilies instead of dog roses. Now that much more modern works have arrived, with their rhythmic complexities and outrageous demands on technique, perhaps these wonderful evocations of a rural England that Grainger knew and loved will be treated with less awe (and dare one say respect), and a little more joy. Dullsome is a word Grainger did not coin, though he might well consider it were he alive today.
One of the leading UK record companies, Chandos, is engaged in recording all of the music of Percy Grainger; two records have been issued by the RNCM Wind Orchestra of all of the original music for wind band and wind ensemble, listed here in order of composition.
- 1905 The Lads of Wamphray
- 1918 Shepherd's Hey
- 1919 Molly on the Shore
- 1928 Colonial Song; Country Garden; The "Gum-Sucker's" March
- 1937 Lincolnshire Posy; Hill Song No 2
- 1938 The Merrie King
- 1949 Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon
- 1954 Faeroe Island Dance
Interpreting Specific Works