February 2010

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Percy Grainger & Edvard Grieg

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

As a small child growing up in Melbourne, Percy Grainger devoured the Icelandic sagas, signed his letters “Grettir the Strong” and bounded up every available stairway. His adoring mother Rose, meanwhile, was showing him what happens to naughty boys who neglect their piano practice. In 1894, aged 12, Percy made his concert debut. The Argus declared him a remarkable instance of juvenile precocity.  Rose promptly relocated him to Europe.

In London in 1906, he met Edvard Grieg at a high-society dinner. The celebrated Norwegian composer was a physical wreck. Plagued with pleurisy, arthritis and nocturnal hallucinations, the 63-year-old was charmed at energetic young Percy’s enthusiasm for some of his lesser-known pieces. After hearing him play, the master of trollish anthems and Nordic maunderings declared Grainger “a genius that we Scandinavians cannot do other than love”. Grainger, likewise, was enthralled. Already in search of folkloric inspiration, he considered Grieg an iconoclast with an “elvish sparkle”.

The following summer, the two musicians spent a week together at the Scandinavian maestro’s home in Troldhaugen, intensively rehearsing Grieg’s piano concerto. A performance was scheduled for October in Leeds, with Grieg to conduct.

But the tiny, enervated Norseman was on his last legs. An unsuccessful Finsen Electric Light Bath treatment had failed to cure his insomnia, breathlessness and terrible nightmares. On the day before his departure for England, his heart gave out under the strain.

Although they had known each other for just 15 months, Grainger continued to champion Grieg’s work until his own death, in 1961. By then, Percy had moved permanently to the United States where the Duo-Art piano-roll sales of his ‘Country Gardens’ enabled him to indulge in some of his more flamboyant interests. These included propounding the superiority of the Nordic races, inventing a “blue-eyed” language free of Latinate impurities, designing towelling clothing and satisfying a lifelong taste for flagellation.

The composer of hundreds of pieces of music and a virtuoso performer in thousands of concerts, Percy Grainger left a large musical legacy, a sizeable collection of custom-made whips, his dental X-rays and an experimental music machine called the Kangaroo Pouch. Edvard Grieg got a day of national mourning. His ‘Morning Mood’ will be instantly recognisable to Looney Tunes fans.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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