23 August 2016

Percy Grainger's music, sex life and his Australian Museum

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was born in Melbourne, son of British architect John Harry Grainger, and his wife Rose Aldridge Grainger of Adelaide. His father had migrated from Durham to Adelaide 1877 to take up a post in the Engineer-in-Chief's Office then moved on to a broad private practice. John Grainger had been responsible for the design of many important bridges, offices and houses across Australia, but as a close friend of David Mitchell, no piece of architecture was as significant as the design of Dame Nellie Melba's Coombe Cottage in Coldstream in 1912 (as we will see).

Rose Grainger thought her only child was a genius in the making. The lad showed great talent in the visual and musical arts, largely home schooled by his mother. At 10, he focused on piano studies with Louis Pabst, then harmony with Julius Herz. John Grainger thought his son was being smothered by an over-protective mother and stayed in Europe, from 1890 on. Did Percy ever see his father again?Apparently it didn’t matter. Percy was unveiled as a pianist at a public concert in Melbourne’s Masonic Hall in July 1894. Soon there were other public performances at the People's Promenade Concerts at the Melbourne’s famous Exhibition Building in October 1894.

Percy Grainger recital, 1907,
Queen Alexandra’s patronage 

In May 1895, Percy Grainger left with his mother to further his musical studies in Germany. He never returned to permanently live in Australia again but retained “a ferocious nationalism, an intense love of the landscape and a rather quixotic view of the virtues of the Australian character”. Grainger entered Dr Hoch's Conservatorium in Frankfurt-am-Main as a very young adolescent.

Grainger began a long professional concert career in Dec 1900 which took him first to London, where he lived with his mother from 1901-1914. Was he happy there? It would appear so since under his mother’s careful social guidance, he was quickly accepted by the best society. He played several times before royalty, including a solo recital with Queen Alexandra’s patronage in 1907. Rose’s pressure continued unabated.

In 1906 he met Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, leading to an imp­or­t­ant friendship that enhanced the young man’s career as a virtuoso. In fact Grieg selected Grainger to play his concerto at the Leeds Festival in 1907. Alas for Grainger (and for Mrs Grieg), the composer’s suddenly died the following year. Grainger thanked his mentor for the rest of his life, championing Grieg’s music in every country. The time was right – within two years, Grainger made his first recordings with the Gramophone Company.

Edvard Grieg, Grainger, Nina Grieg, Julius Rontgen
Norway 1907                                                    

With the outbreak of WW1 in Europe in 1914, Rose and her son Percy Grainger suddenly emigrated to the USA, without saying goodbye to all the people who had supported his career in Britain and the Continent. He was soon travelling around the USA, playing at concerts in city after city. He was not conscripted in Australia or Britain, but he did join the USA Army as a bandsman in June 1917.

Back in civilian clothes in 1919, Grainger was “lionised as a pianist and fêted as a composer, acclaimed as a latter-day Siegfried and a worthy successor to Paderewski”. Australia only had two great musical heroes, Dame Nellie Melba and Percy Grainger, known in every concert hall across the globe. So the entire country was very proud when the two of them created a joint Melba-Grainger Concert in aid of the Allied War Effort, in Jan 1916. He was naturalised as an American in 1918.

Mother Rose died in 1922, apparently suiciding because of per­sis­­tent suggestions of incest with her son; Percy must have been devastated.

Percy Grainger and his wife Ella Viola Ström,
Melbourne 1935

Percy Grainger was a celebrity of the European, North American and Australian stage, commanding huge fees and attracting sell-out audiences for his piano concerts. Grainger visited Australia twice during the 1920s, privately in 1924, then in 1926 on a concert tour for the giant theatrical company JC Williamson's.

During the 1926 tour, Percy met the gorgeous young Swedish poet-painter Ella Viola Ström (1889-79) on board a ship. For those who had thought Percy was a mummy’s boy, he surprised them all by marrying Ella, on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl.

Grainger was a handsome, talented, strange and bitterly intro­verted man. He was “fluent in at least 6 European languages and their dialects, and read and studied as many more. An obverse of this eclecticism was a rather cranky concentration on notions of Nordic racial superiority and language purific­ation.  His intensity around his work was matched by a violent and passionate sex life in which he repeatedly flogged himself, his lovers and his wife Ella, and demanded to be flogged by others. And he meticulously documented his activity through photography, and letters. He was actually frightened by his own private absorption with his “cruelty instincts”.

Were his wife’s responses to Percy’s peculiar preferences ever documented? Presumably yes. “It is easy to imagine that the excitement of whipping orgies might cause a sudden heart-failure in either of us at any moment,” he wrote in the letter that appeared in Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger. Yet, he wrote, she loved it.

He was appointed Head of Music Department, New York University, a very prestigious landmark in his career in 1932. And he continued to travel to Australia, touring for the Aust­ral­ian Broadcasting Commission in 1934-35. Income from this tour was to est­ablish a Music Museum and Grainger Museum on the campus of University of Melbourne. The Museum did indeed open in Dec 1938, designed by the University's architect in close consult­ation with Percy Grainger. The Museum's historical and archit­ectural significance put the building on the Victorian Heritage Register.

Percy Grainger Museum,
Melbourne University

Percy Grainger made his last trip home in 1955-56 and gave his last concert anywhere in 1960. The next year he died in the USA and had his body buried in Adelaide. I am assuming he wanted to be buried in Adelaide, to honour his beloved mother’s hometown.

The Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne says it is the only purpose-built autobiograph­ical museum in Australia. Its fascinating collection is huge, and internationally significant. You will expect objects directly related to Percy Grainger's composit­ional career, such as scores and manuscripts. But there are many more thousands of items that are not musical eg diaries, furniture, decorative arts, photographs, clothing and correspondence. The Museum believes its collection was motivated by Grainger’s desire to interpret and contextualise his own creative achievements and cultural environment.


bazza said...

Hi Hels. This one is difficult for me. Once I wrote a post in the series on my Blog called My Heroes about Albert Einstein. Somebody commented “....ah yes, but he was cruel to the women in life...” This caused me to think; many famous people had chaotic or unpleasant private lives and the dilemma is whether or not to take this into account when judging or even appreciating them. For example I have always had a problem dealing with Wagner because of this. You may have guessed that I am referring to Percy Grainger’s virulent Antisemitism. None of this affects his genuine brilliance and I am grateful to you for this interesting post. One of my favourite pieces of music remains Grainger’s Molly on the Shore. Incidentally Grainger always spoke with a ‘plummy’ English accent.
By the way, where do you deliver your lectures and to who?
(PS: I always have difficulty with the who/whom, subject/object thing!)
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am sorry to read about Grainger's distasteful personal life and opinions, which lower him in my estimation.

Lately, your blog really coincides with my old record collection, Grainger records also being a staple of 78rpm days. Grainger and Melba might be at the very top of Australian musicians, but there were plenty of others in that era. Some that come to mind are Ada Crossley, John Brownlee, Frances Alda, Malcolm McEachern, Peter Dawson, and perhaps a little later Marjorie Lawrence--no shortage of great names!

Hels said...


Are you familiar with our TAFE Colleges? They provide tertiary training and qualifications that are much more vocationally oriented than our universities. I lecture in a TAFE here in the centre of Melbourne.

Re the anti-Semitism which I did not mention because Grainger had enough character or behavioural flaws to fill 3 blog posts, it may have seemed strange to his contemporaries. Perhaps because he seemed fixated on Nordic culture and racial superiority, he often wrote and spoke in very racist and anti-Semitic terms. But which came first? His mother was definitely anti-Semitic and taught it to her son when he was still a young lad.

Percy's wife definitely looked like a Nordic princess; perhaps she reminded Grainger of his mother.

Hels said...


I am actually delighted that Grainger's records were a staple of your 78rpm days. Since his death in 1961, I think it would be far enough to say he has become a bit of a neglected composer. People might well recognise Country Gardens or Molly on the Shore, but would they know who wrote those pieces and where the composer came from?

Another Student said...

If John Harry Grainger was such a successful architect, what happened to him after he left his wife and child. That surely must have affected Percy, as he grew up.

Andrew said...

I think I know the rather oddly shaped museum at Melbourne University. I didn't know there was a museum within and it sounds like it might be interesting.

Fashionista said...

Did Percy really wear floppy towelling "clothes" in public?

Hels said...


*nod* the Museum is not regularly shaped, probably typical of its date. See

The inside is well worth visiting!

Hels said...


what a confusion Percy's father was. He had a stellar career working across Australia on important building projects, often with Charles D'Ebro, one of my favourite British-Australian architects. But he was later plagued by ill-health, drinking, promiscuity, VD and catastrophic investments.

Fortunately for Percy, John Grainger only stayed back in Britain by himself for a short time before returning to Australia. Unfortunately for Percy, his dad found a new woman and lived across the southern states of Australia.

Hels said...


Percy wrote "my mother mooted the idea of clothes made of Turkish towels – cool in summer, warm in the winter, and washable at all times. I leaped at the idea, seeing therein a chance to return to something comparable with the garish brilliance of the skyblue and scarlet garments of our Saxon and Scandinavian forefathers. The result of my mother’s and my teamwork is the field of towel-clothing is seen in Collected Photographs:

Garish is correct.

Annie ODyne said...

A great post as always dear Hels. The towelling clothes have not had any imitators, sadly. I have collected enough of those old patterns to recreate a Grainger suit if only I got offline and onto the Singer treadle and did it. From the far west of Victoria, one has to be a genius to manage to get to the Grainger museum when it is actually open. over at Ann O'Dyne I gave Perc a go back in 2008 and I commend it to you for some of the commentors.

Hels said...


you are super.... I would never have found a 2008 post unless someone put great big arrows on the ground for me to follow. Apart from anything else, my memory is fading fast :(

Thanks also for the IPG Society page - that Percy Grainger house at 7 Cromwell Place, White Plains NY is terrific.

Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne said...

From the democratisation of art to the promotion of non-western musical traditions, Grainger's ideas made him an outsider in his age. But it didn't stop there: a vegetarian and extreme fitness junkie, designer of multi-coloured costumes and supporter of 'sexual outsiders', it's no wonder that it took so long for the rest of the world to begin to get a handle on the composer.

Let the University of Melbourne's Grainger Museum lead you on a journey through the life and works of one of music's most idiosyncratic geniuses, and compare your own time and place with his. Due to the success of the festival and interest in the Percy Grainger: The Accidental Futurist Exhibition, it has been extended to June 2017.

Hels said...

Thank you. I am very pleased the exhibition has been extended until the middle of next year. The original plan for one fortnight during the Melbourne Festival was never going to be adequate for most Victorians and tourists.