That Chief Undercurrent of My Mind': Percy Grainger and the Aesthetics of English Folk Song

Article excerpt

Exactly a century after its publication, Percy Grainger's article 'Collecting with the Phonograph' stands as a towering monument to his dedication to English folk song and to his insight into the subtle performance practices of its performers. Yet Grainger's role in the history of English folk song remains a perplexing one, for he collected only for a short period between 1905 and 1909, before moving away to focus on, among other things, Danish folk song, electronic music, and his career as a concert pianist. This article provides a contextual background in which Grainger's English folk song collection can be seen as an extension of his complex and often radical modernist musical aesthetic.


The Percy Grainger English folk song collection, assembled between 1905 and 1909, is both celebrated and infamous: celebrated for the remarkable insights it contains concerning the complex performance practices of English folk singers; infamous for the scandal it caused when Grainger's article 'Collecting with the Phonograph' was published in the 1908 issue of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (hereafter JFSS). Grainger's transcriptions - a morass of minute detail nearly bewildering to the eye of even the most musically literate singer - and polemical analysis of the musical style and aesthetic judgement of traditional singers were rejected by the Editing Committee of the JFSS, a rejection made quite clear in the form of a caveat placed in the article in which the committee distanced itself from Grainger's work.

After the passage of a century since the publication of Grainger's article, it seems easy to dismiss such controversy as merely the rumblings of the larger conflict between folklore studies and the then nascent stages of what would eventually become ethnomusicology. After all, Grainger is rightly celebrated as a harbinger of ethnomusicology, having made detailed studies of many non-Western musical cultures during a period when it was still unusual for practitioners of Western art music to do so, and it would seem inevitable that the conflict between viewpoints old and new should produce tectonic friction in the folk music community. However, old-fashioned though we might today consider some of the methods of the collectors of the Folk-Song Society (hereafter FSS) in the early years of the twentieth century, the members of the Editing Committee were far from being narrow-minded Luddites. Collectors such as Anne Gilchrist, Cecil Sharp, and Lucy Broadwood had all made contributions of inestimable value to the study of English folk song, and had welcomed many different perspectives into the scholarly folk song community. What was it about Grainger's work on English folk song that got the FSS riled up to the point that they felt it necessary to discredit his work in such a public manner?

To answer this question, we must look not to the FSS but to the wider context of Grainger's musical philosophy. Grainger was, of course, not merely a collector, bur a pianist and composer who spent much of his life nurturing a musical aesthetic dedicated to what he called Free Music, an ultra-modernist form of music in which traditional Western musical elements such as rhythm, harmony, and diatonic melody would give way to unprecedented rhythmic complexity and micro tonality. Others have commented on the likely influence of folk music on the development of this musical aesthetic, but little attention has thus far been paid to the possibility of the influence of such an avant-garde musical philosophy upon Grainger's folk song collecting. It is my contention that it was Grainger's avant-garde aesthetic that allowed him such penetrating insight into English folk music: essentially, that it was his willingness to hear and give aesthetic value to those sounds and ideas that did not conform to traditional Western art music principles that led him to his iconoclastic conclusions. When we examine Grainger's article in the JFSS with this new contextual perspective in mind, the harsh polemic and denunciation of the collecting methods of the FSS come to the fore far more than they do simply on a reading isolated within the context of folk music discourse in England in the early years of the twentieth century. …