Grainger: Molly on the Shore

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Grainger’s Molly on the Shore on Tuesday, October 8th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

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Percy Grainger (1882 – 1961)
Molly on the Shore

Without question, the most influential force in Percy Grainger’s life was that of his parents; the second was music. Born to a family of investors and entrepreneurs, Percy was the son of John Grainger, who relocated from his homeland of England to the wild, wild west of Australia in 1877. It was John’s hope that the untapped industrial sector of Australia would be ripe for the picking – and it was. Three years later he married Rose Annie Aldridge, and two years after that his son Percy was born. 

Unlike his father, Percy did not find business to his liking and instead shared his mother’s appreciation for the arts and culture. Having only attended formal schooling for a three-month stint, the young Percy was taught by his mother, an autodidact, who educated him in literature, languages, history, and the arts. When Rose realized the potential of her son’s musical ear, she hired Louis Pabst, a German immigrant then considered to be Melbourne’s leading piano teacher, to tutor her son. The young Percy took to it like an Aussie to Vegemite for breakfast, lunch, and tea. He practiced nonstop and soon wrote his first composition at the age of 10. The work, titled A Birthday Gift to Mother, was to foreshadow his maternal relationship for the rest of his life. He adored his mother to the utmost, and as he grew older, his love for his mother – and his dislike for his father – only increased. His father, an alcoholic and a womanizer who had several affairs and fathered at least one child with another woman, infected his wife with syphilis (for which there was no treatment at the time), inflicting on her a lifelong battle of neurological and emotional illness. Rose eventually left John and raised her son on her own.

With her philandering husband out of the picture, Rose spent all her energy fostering her son’s creative and artistic development. Eventually, Percy obtained a scholarship that allowed him to study in Frankfurt, after which he began his European career as a concert pianist. In 1901, he settled in London with his mother, and it was during his stay in England that he became passionately involved in the collection and arrangement of folk songs and country dances. A neighbor of the Graingers recalled, "Percy never had the slightest hesitation in pumping anybody he came across. He would go up to a man ploughing and ask him if he knew any songs and as often as not the man would stand for a minute or two and sing him a song in the most natural way in the world." 

In 1921, having achieved a level of fame and wealth, Grainger bought a large property in White Plains, New York, an inner suburb of New York City, where he lived the rest of his life. He maintained an active concert schedule while tending to his mother’s medical condition, which now had become so serious that Rose suffered from delusions and nightmares almost daily. Sadly, her condition never improved. In 1922, while her son was touring on the West Coast, Rose hired a car to take her to Aeolian Hall, a concert hall in Midtown across from Bryant Park and the New York Public Library where her son often would perform. She strolled around the hall before eventually climbing to the 18th floor where she threw herself from the window onto W. 42nd St. The death of his mother plunged Grainger into a deep depression, and he temporarily retreated from performing in public. With less time spent traveling, Grainger increased his teaching schedule, reaching more and more students who might not otherwise have had the guidance of a world-famous pianist. It was no surprise to anyone who knew him that the death of his greatest tutor, his mother, led Grainger to transition from primarily a performer to a full-time teacher.

Like his first composition, Molly on the Shore (1907) was written as a birthday present for his mother. In a letter to a friend, Grainger wrote of his work: “In setting Molly on the Shore, I strove to imbue the accompanying arts that made up the harmonic texture with a melodic character not too unlike that of the underlying reel tune. Melody seems to me to provide music with initiative; whereas rhythm appears to me to exert an enslaving influence. For that reason I have tried to avoid regular rhythmic domination in my music – always excepting irregular rhythms, such as those of Gregorian Chant, which seem to me to make for freedom. Equally with melody, I prize discordant harmony, because of the emotional and compassionate sway it exerts.”

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Grainger’s Molly on the Shore on October 8th, 2019: Skip The Line >>>

Luke Smith