Does the name Percy Aldridge Grainger mean anything to you? He’s described in the Grainger Museum on the campus of Melbourne University as, “Australia’s first world-renowned composer and arranger, and a concert pianist of international standing.” This is undoubtedly true if you are mind-stuck in the 20th century. Grainger, according to the displays in his museum, was a genuine Renaissance man and major eccentric.
He established the Grainger Museum himself, which makes it both autobiographical (its word, not mine) and very personal, sometimes surprisingly so. Grainger hoped that his museum would explain the musical process through his life experiences. Its collected memorabilia exceeds 100,000 items. All of this make it a unique institution in Australia (its words, not mine). I would change that to in the world since I’ve never visited a museum quite like it anywhere.
Grainger was born in 1882 in Melbourne. Although he performed often and successfully, he was never comfortable on the stage. And although he was, in his day, a popular composer, he called himself a ‘tone-wright’ or maker of musical sounds instead.
Grainger was an only child. John, his father, was an English engineer. Rosa, his mother, was, apparently, a psychiatrist’s dream patient. John contracted syphilis, which he passed along to his wife before ending the marriage and largely disappearing.
I called Percy a Renaissance Man because he was a folk music collector, a painter, a master of many languages, a rock-star-like pianist whose buddies included John Singer Sargent and Edvard Grieg, an avid collector of beaded objects, a vegetarian and heath fanatic, etc. One of his nicknames was the ‘running pianist’. He was a noted developer of phonograph technology and a sound experimenter who played with pitch, rhythm, etc. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the Father of Electronic Music. Today he’s mostly known in the United States as a composer of band music. He learned all about brass and wind instruments and their repertoire while in the army.
At the age of 13 he travelled to Frankfurt, Germany, to study music. Mommy followed. He moved to London and began touring successfully. Mommy followed and made sure that he practiced the piano up to 3 hours per day. A month before the start of World War I, he and Mommy sailed to America. He stayed for 45 years and became a citizen of the United States in 1921. Perhaps distraught by false rumors of incest, Rosa jumped from or fell to her death from an office window the next year.
Grainger was clearly eccentric. Percy met his future wife on a boat while returning from Australia to the U.S. Noting her resemblance to his mother, he married Ella in 1928 during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl with 25,000 witnesses. One of the more I-dare-you-to-look-away displays is the whip collection he and his wife enjoyed. After their use he took lots of selfies less discreet than Anthony Weiner’s.
The free-to-enter Grainger Museum is managed by the University of Melbourne Library. It re-opened in 2010 after what this museum’s primary brochure describes as “extensive building conservation works”. If in Melbourne, it’s worth traveling to Gate 13 of Royal Parade to have a look. Don’t expect the ordinary.