When addressing the subject of Percy Grainger, it’s easy to concentrate on the Australian composer’s tics and eccentricities.
…which is exactly why I’m doing it. Why make life difficult?
Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne in 1882 and for much of his life was noted primarily as a successful concert pianist and composer of small-scale keyboard works. He was also a tireless researcher and arranger of folk songs, particularly in Britain and Scandinavia, attracting praise from Britten and Grieg, among others. After moving to the US with his mother Rose, Grainger worked on unique instruments of his own devising, while also establishing a museum dedicated to his life and career in Melbourne in 1938. His legacy assured, Grainger died 50 years ago today.
From his self-designed clothing to the prodigious energy which compelled him to jog between towns on concert tours, Grainger was one of the stranger 20th century composers. But if you know anything of Grainger’s idiosyncrasies it is most likely his weakness for flagellation. However the more you read about him, the more you realise this was one of the least strange things about him.
His wife Ella was, fortunately for Grainger, a willing participant. The composer donated his collection of whips and other paraphernalia to his museum and discussed his passion for flogging in a manner admirably free of shame or neurosis. “I am a sadist & a flagellant – my highest sexual delight is to whip a beloved woman’s body…To a lesser degree I enjoy being whipped myself (& before marriage used to whip myself every few weeks)…” These observations were contained in a letter entitled “Read This If Ella Grainger or Percy Grainger Are Found Dead Covered with Whip Marks” (eminently practical; after all, the older you get, the more likely you are to forget your safe word).
This letter is contained in Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger, a posthumous collection of the composer’s writings, some of which were dashed off as aides-memoires while others were notes for an autobiography which never eventuated. The personality which emerges is obsessive, irascible and – above all – mother-fixated. Pieces like “Arguments with Beloved Mother”, “Mother’s Worship of Bodily Beauty” and (my favourite) “Mother’s Wilfulness, Recklessness, Fearlessness, Bossiness, Violence if Opposed, Tendency to Burn Food When Cooking, Vehemence” speak of an obsession of Norman Bates proportions.
In 1922 Rose Grainger, beset by mental problems, threw herself from a New York skyscraper. This was the defining event in Grainger’s life, although a few years later he was positing the theory that it was in fact a “Nietzschean” act: “She saw (I think likely) me as the younger, superior, healthier, more gifted one, saw herself as the older, weaker, inferior one, thinking her mind was going.” In fact, his mother had been disturbed by rumours that she was involved in an incestuous relationship with her son. Though false, you could see how Percy’s habit of parading nude in his mother’s presence well into adulthood might have nudged others to that conclusion.
The early 20th century was a golden age of pseudo-science, and Grainger was a keen reformer in his dietary and other lifestyle choices, and an admirer of early self-help guru Bernarr Macfadden. But as his callous, narcissistic theory about his mother’s death shows, this can lead to dark places. The idea of eugenic sacrifice recurs in another passage, in which Grainger appeals “Let us set our house in order – kill off the sick, the nasty, the ugly, the lazy.” Delve even further into Self-Portrait and you enter the kind of territory normally explored in late night talk-back radio. A fervent racist, Grainger regarded Scandinavia as the wellspring of all that was good and right, his scorn for other ethnic groups – “the hostile world of rough, harsh dark-eyed people” – increasing in reverse proportion to degrees of latitude. And the older he got the more cantankerous he became. A 1958 piece entitled “The Things I Dislike” began “Almost everything. First of all foreigners, which means: all Europeans except the British, the Scandinavians & the Dutch.”
Grainger was nothing if not thorough, and his distrust of anything originating south of Holland led to him to try and purge his writing of Greco-Latin elements, which were isolated in double brackets, introducing a kind of apartheid into his very sentences. He sought alternatives for these quarantined interlopers based on Nordic roots (much as the Nazis would later seek to purge French vocabulary from German). And so family became “breed-group”, literature became “book art” and attractive became “on-draw-some”; Grainger called the resulting mishmash “Blue-Eyed English”.
This approach does produce moments of poetic grace: “fury-feel-thy” for passionate, or “self-enoughness” for individualism. But no-one could argue for the elegance much less economy of a construct like “weal-helpsome tone-feast tone-bill-of-fare” (charity concert program). Blue-Eyed English in fact resembles the tortured verbiage of Westerwenglish, an ongoing Internet meme parodying the broken English of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. “Westerwave” imagines the minister’s thoughts by painstakingly translating idioms, names and everyday vocabulary syllable-by-syllable from German into ultra-literal and ultimately unintelligible English (it shouldn’t be funny, but it is).
Meanwhile, if you’re hurry-itchy to joy-feel word-chains in the tone-wright’s tongue, here is your cut-out-and-keep guide to Blue-Eyed English:
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