Edvard Grieg
Percy Grainger
The Live Musicians
The Pianola and Duo-Art
2L and the Recording
History of the Project
Contacts and Information

Percy Grainger listening to one of his Duo-Art Music Rolls, New York, c. 1916.

Percy Grainger was an Australian by birth, but his concert career took him mainly to Britain and the United States, though he travelled widely in Europe and elsewhere. Between 1901 and 1914 he lived in London, England, where on 15 May 1906 he met Grieg at the home of Sir Edgar Speyer, an American-born financier and philanthropist. As Chairman of the Queen's Hall Concert Board for many years, Speyer was responsible for underwriting the losses incurred by the Promenade Concerts, and he became the close friend of a number of well-known composers, including Elgar, Debussy, Richard Strauss and Grieg. As a result of this introduction, Grainger and Grieg formed an immediate friendship, and Grainger volunteered to turn the pages for the older man at a Queen's Hall concert on 24 May.

Grainger's relationship with his own father was intermittent, since his parents had separated in the 1890s, while the Griegs had lost their only child, Alexandra, to meningitis in 1869, so the brief musical friendship that developed between the two men bore a remarkably close similarity to that of father and son. For ten days at the end of July 1907, Grainger visited Grieg at Troldhaugen, the composer's home near Bergen in Norway, and Grieg was moved to write in his diary that "I had to become sixty-four years old to hear Norwegian piano music interpreted so understandingly and brilliantly. He breaks new ground for himself, for me, and for Norway. And then this enchanting, profound, serious, and childlike naturalness! What a joy to gain a young friend with such qualities!"

Grieg, Grainger, Nina Grieg and Julius Röntgen at Troldhaugen, July 1907.

Later that year, Grainger played Grieg's Piano Concerto in the Leeds Festival in England, and it had been intended that Grieg himself should conduct, but he fell ill in Bergen on the way to the North Sea ferry, and died shortly afterwards. His place was taken by Charles Villiers Stanford, musical director of the Festival, and Grainger's state of mind when playing the Concerto, which he had studied in great detail with his older friend, can hardly be imagined. It certainly remained a centrepiece of his concert repertoire, and in the early 1920s he published his own edition of the work. Fifty years on, in 1957, Grainger was still playing the Grieg Piano Concerto, and his performance with the Aarhus Municipal Orchestra in February of that year remains legendary.

Arrangements for Pianola - The Orchestrelle Company, London
Like many composers of the time, Percy Grainger would have encountered the player piano in the course of his everyday life, and especially in situations of concert-giving. Aeolian Hall in London was not only one of the most popular chamber music venues in town, it was also the main showrooms of the Orchestrelle Company, the European subsidiary of the Aeolian Company in New York, manufacturers of the Pianola and other roll-operated instruments. Grainger had given a piano recital there in June 1907, and a large concert of his chamber works took place in May 1912, with singers and a small orchestra.

The Concert Platform and Aeolian Pipe Organ at Aeolian Hall, London, c. 1915.

On these and other occasions, Grainger would have been compelled to pass by many roll-operated instruments to get to the concert hall, and no doubt the Orchestrelle Company's managers made themselves known to him at the same time. As a result, Percy became interested in making arrangements of folk-songs on pianola roll, as an extension to the "elastic" scoring which was one of his enthusiasms at the time. Pianola versions of Molly on the Shore and Shepherd's Hey were both published in 1914, with Grainger's youthful energy and innate good humour pouring out of the music, in ways that mere human hands would have found quite impossible to manage.

A page from "Shepherd's Hey", dished-up for Pianola by Percy Grainger, London, 1914.

Both Molly on the Shore and Shepherd's Hey are currently available on CD, performed by Rex Lawson on the Pianola, on the NMC record label, and further details may be found at the NMC website.

NMCD 136 - British Music for Pianola - Rex Lawson, NMC Records, May 2008.

Recordings for the Duo-Art - The Aeolian Company, New York
Grainger removed to the USA in September 1914, only days after the World War had broken out. He ended up settling there for the remainder of his life, but the immediate reasons for his sudden departure from England were in part his mother's worries for his safety, and also his ambition to become Australia's first composer of worth, which he did not want to jeopardise by service at the War Front. Once the USA joined in the conflict in 1917, Grainger enlisted in the military as a member of the 15th Band of the Coast Artillery Corps.

The development of his American concert career was meteoric, and he was managed by Antonia Sawyer, a concert agent and former opera singer whose offices were located in the Aeolian Hall building on West 42nd Street. It was only natural that he should gravitate towards Aeolian's new Duo-Art reproducing piano, and by May 1915 he was signed up as an exclusive artist. Grainger remained on this roster for some fifteen years, during which he recorded around seventy rolls for the instrument, including both the Grieg and Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos.

Percy Grainger at a Duo-Art Demonstration Concert, Philadelphia, March 1924.

It is said that Grainger enjoyed editing the rolls himself, presumably to correct wrong notes and enhance dynamic effects, and he certainly expressed the opinion that the Duo-Art represented him, not as he actually played, but as he would like to have played! The two piano concertos were issued as solo rolls, to be accompanied by orchestra in demonstration concerts, and the Grieg was also available, with Grainger's own accompaniment added to the roll, for listening at home. Percy subsequently participated in several publicity drives for the Duo-Art, often using special alternating rolls, during which he would sometimes play by hand, and sometimes sit still while the Duo-Art took over.