Grainger’s rambling approach to popularity

There was a thread on social media not so long ago about music that gives you the shivers. It seemed like a fun topic, when I was walking along in nasty cold weather, to be able to shiver from a remembered tune heard in my head rather than due to the extremes of climate.

If you have to shiver anyway, why not let it be a positive and even an ecstatic experience?

My current champ is Percy Grainger’s paraphrase of a Richard Strauss melody from Der Rosenkavalier. The Australian piano virtuoso already had a place in my heart with a piece I cited a few years ago that figures in the Merchant – Ivory film Howard’s End, namely the “Bridal Lullaby”. That one was already a guaranteed ticket to spinal chills, but this new one is even chillier.

In fairness the music Grainger is sampling from the Strauss opera is already pretty thrilling, likely to induce all kinds of electricity running up and down your vertebral column. When I recall parts of Rosenkavalier there are several that instantly induce paroxysms. Grainger has the good sense to boil it down to only a very small amount from Strauss. Wonderful as Strauss’s tunes are, the adventure playing a piano vocal score, imagining the complete work in your head is still virtual, because so much is missing. A paraphrase aims to somehow stand alone without the voices & the orchestra. It’s not that we’d ever trade an opera for a paraphrase, so much as the simple fact that if you’re all alone with your piano, it can be an amazing invocation of the larger work.

I made the serendipitous discovery when my friend Jim Fretz shared this on Facebook, namely the “Ramble on the love-duet from Der Rosenkavalier” by Percy Grainger. Here’s the tantalizing clip.

So of course I had to see if I could chase it down in the library. Thrill of thrills, there it was at the Edward Johnson Building library at the University of Toronto’s  Faculty of Music, and once again it’s from the “Schott Virtuoso Transcription Series”, that I’ve already lauded for the three Glenn Gould transcriptions and the stunningly beautiful editions they’ve printed.


A beautiful score from Grainger, Strauss & Schott

Maybe it’s my fading eyesight talking, but if the notes are easier to read, surely that’s a good thing, no?

Grainger’s pianism varies. In some of his pieces (for instance anything invoking a cakewalk style such as “In Dahomey”, subtitled “Cakewalk Smasher”) he demands an extroverted and aggressive approach. What is being smashed if not the piano? The instructions in his score include words such as “clatteringly” or “chippy”, or (for one of his left hand melodies) “clumsy and wildly”.  You can see where Grainger’s instructions specify “LH hammered”.

Full disclosure, before we set aside the loud & boisterous Grainger (or even the perky Percy of “Handel in the Strand”): that “In Dahomey” is much more difficult to play, as you can probably tell listening to Marc-André Hamelin, than his softer pieces.

So yes, there’s another more lyrical side to Grainger, the gentle pianism you hear in this Ramble or in other works such as the aforementioned “Bridal Lullaby”.  Another ramble that he titled “Blithe Bells” based on Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze” resembles this one, in reproducing the famous tune more or less as we know it, but adding decorations.


There’s a festive flair to the embellishments, the melody intact but seemingly dressed up for the occasion.

I can’t help noticing that there’s another dimension to virtuosity that Grainger demonstrates with these pieces, that I was struggling to understand when Stewart Goodyear premiered his new piano concerto a few weeks ago. A species of popularity or some similar concept lurks underneath this conversation, at least as an implication. At the time I was aware that one of the subtexts is the perplexing question: how does a composer gets other artists to perform their work? What if you’ve written something so difficult that other pianists can’t play it? I was very much in awe of what Goodyear had written, wondering just how playable it might be. How indeed does an opera composer get commissions? how does a composer of virtuoso music get other virtuosi interested? I can’t help including this in the conversation. Does one compose simply to make music? Or to re-phrase the old aphorism (about that falling tree-branch in the forest):

If a composer writes a song and no one sings it: is there music?

If singers find music attractive they may perhaps then sing arias or songs by that composer, thereby promoting one another. If a pianist likes what they hear, likes what they see on the page, ideally they will want to take that music out to the world, sharing their discovery. Popularity isn’t just what the audience likes, indeed that’s totally filtered by what the artist is willing to perform. Maybe we should be asking pianists what they like to play, and whether that’s a factor in their choice of repertoire. How much of what we hear performed is conditioned by what the artist likes to play, as opposed to what the audience wants to hear?  The two are surely linked, but I’m not sure that we’ve spent enough time studying the former, as a factor in what we get in response to the latter.

Grainger’s rambles are not easy but they’re also not terribly difficult.  One doesn’t have to be a virtuoso to play them: because I am no virtuoso, and I can more or less handle these slower works. I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing, only that I feel lucky that I’m not excluded, that I am able to play them and enjoy them. That too is part of the “popularity” equation.

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