Most of us can remember seminal moments when a piece of music took hold of us and refused to let go. The first track of Benjamin Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra’s recording ‘Salute to Percy Grainger’ was such a moment for this writer. The piece was Shepherd’s Hey, and in particular, I was captivated by Grainger’s counter-melody to what could be described as a perfectly ordinary tune. But his treatment of it immediately introduced a kind of wild intensity – none of the patronising fol-de-rol of folk music as some kind of lesser breed. On the contrary, Grainger regarded folk music and the singers who performed it with the deepest respect because he knew the songs came out of real life, often harsh life. And so he could persuade them to share their tunes and he in turn could apply his own late-Victorian/Edwardian classical music training to garland and enrich these songs – and to tell the story behind the song, using his many resources. As a brilliant pianist, he created piano parts that used chromatic harmonies, bi-tonality and irregular phrasing to suggest layers of meaning. In his orchestral settings, he brought new colours and shattering rhythms. Grainger is the composer of real-life music.

Think of Early One Morning, usually experienced as a gently nostalgic plea. In Grainger’s setting for string orchestra it is prefaced with a grinding prelude in the minor key and culminates in a soaring, agonised descant. Again, one of his many sea shanty settings, Shallow Brown, evokes acute tension by means of piano, guitar, mandolin and mandola tremolandos, as the anguished heroine realises her man is going to leave her. There are, in fact, many anguished and betrayed women in Grainger’s settings and one always feels the acutely personal approach he took. His mother’s life was destroyed by his gifted but alcoholic father’s syphilis; his aunt died giving birth to an illegitimate child. He was well acquainted with pain from an early age which he took on board as a stimulant to creativity, and it gave his music a raw edge.

But there was much cause for celebration as well: sometimes manic, sometimes hilarious. Try his Scotch Strathspey and Reel for orchestra and (bibulous) men’s chorus, weaving Scots and Irish tunes into a wild concoction. And his 18-minute ‘music to an imaginary ballet’ The Warriors is not about war (as Grainger explains in one of his many vivid written prefaces), but depicts peoples of all nationalities dancing in uninhibited glee.

During his lifetime Grainger kept his private life private, but he wrote about it copiously; and whether a detailed account of his flagellant activities and sado-masochistic fantasies was best placed in the museum he designed and built is an interesting question. Be it for confessional, intellectual or exhibitionist reasons, the result has probably not been what he would have wished. These sensational aspects of his life have often focused attention away from his music and have compromised the respect in which, as a musician, he has been held. Grainger was serious about his musical achievements, but he could not resist making inflammatory remarks. And his fiercely individual approach to life – whether displayed in the bath towel clothing he designed, the ‘blue-eyed’ English race he invented, his disregard for social convention, his adamant views, that extraordinary energy that meant he would never walk through a gate but always vault over it – was too much for some people, who viewed him as a kind of musical court jester.

In fact, Percy Grainger exhibited exceptional artistic gifts from his earliest years, and his culture-mad parents saw that he received all that the gold rush-enriched town of late Victorian Melbourne could offer. A home education introduced him to Dickens, Scott, Hans Christian Andersen and Kipling and he was gripped by the Norse legends and the tales of heroic deeds. From the age of five he practised the piano, supervised by his pianist mother, but he also had drama and elocution lessons with a noted actor and studied painting with one of the leading ‘Heidelberg School’ of painters. As a pianist, he became a pupil of Louis Pabst, who had trained with the great Anton Rubenstein – hearing Pabst and others play the music of JS Bach was a seminal moment. Bach became Grainger’s ideal: the many-stranded textures delighted him and he applied this technique, albeit in more fragmentary style, to his own compositions. And so in a Grainger score there is always a lot going on, though usually in subversive snatches of themes rather than one long, finally resolved continuity.

Receiving rave reviews in Melbourne as a child prodigy, the 13-year-old boy set sail with his mother for Europe and study at the Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfurt. The next five years under James Kwast produced the virtuoso piano technique that would be the foundation of a glittering concert career. The Graingers were short of money and this was the way they were to survive economically. Percy would much rather have given all his time to composition, and the situation produced an ongoing tension. But he absorbed musical experiences like a sponge – and particularly in his late teenage years he began to think daringly about new directions in music. Why should time signatures remain regular? Why should sonata form be the be-all and end-all of serious instrumental works? Why should the orchestra remain tied to ‘standard’ instruments and lay-out? Why not introduce a much larger percussion section and feature the less usual instruments – marimbas, both metal and wooden, dulcitone, tubular bells, for instance, and in the wind section such exotics as bass oboe, bass clarinet and, above all, saxophones?

Grainger was also a keen advocate for keyboard instruments within the orchestra; strongly devoted to the harmonium as well as to the notion of ‘massed’ pianos, an object only occasionally achieved for obvious reasons. Why should European musical conventions prevent exploration of non-western musics, and why should the contemporary period not explore the musical treasures of composers pre-Bach? Many, if not all of these ideas are accepted these days, but for an Edwardian, they were revolutionary. Grainger’s idea of ‘Free Music’ – music which moved in gliding tones – was another idea from his boyhood, and he later designed machines which would produce these natural sounds. The fascination with percussion had been fired by hearing the Javanese gamelan orchestra at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. All his major orchestral works, such as the brilliant suite In a Nutshell, include an extended ‘tuned percussion’ section, to exhilarating effect. Further percussion delights may be heard in his orchestrations of Debussy’s Pagodes and Ravel’s La vallée des cloches where a range of instruments – gongs, bells, marimbas and vibraphone – include pianos played directly on the strings with marimba mallets.

One of Grainger’s earliest public successes as a composer was his exquisite a cappella setting of the haunting Lincolnshire tune Brigg Fair. Delius, remarking on the similarity of their harmonies, requested permission to extend the work as an orchestral tone poem. It was typical of Grainger that he insisted on bringing to London for the Delius premiere the very folk singer, Joseph Taylor, who had ‘given’ him the song. Taylor is alleged to have stood up in the Queen’s Hall to sing along with the orchestra; and why not? Grainger went on to produce some thrilling choral repertoire, with or without orchestra. The Danish folksong setting Father and Daughter, is one of the most exciting two and a half minutes of vocal writing (and performance) if done with the required speed and expertise. Danny Deever is a little operatic scene on its own – Kipling’s gruesome portrayal of the execution of an erring soldier. Perhaps more easily included in amateur choral repertoire is I’m Seventeen Come Sunday. It demonstrates Grainger’s genius for following the story with a wealth of variety by means of countermelodies, ‘comments’ from the accompaniment, and harmonic changes.

Perhaps in reaction to his own lonely touring virtuoso’s life, it was something of a philosophy for Grainger to encourage inter-pianistic co-operation and he produced original pieces and also arrangements of orchestral works for two pianos played by four, six, eight, ten – and more – hands. The repertoire is a great resource, partly for getting to know the music in clearer form and partly for pianists to learn to listen and make a complete texture with other pianists – an exciting and revealing exercise. Works like Jutish Medley, Green Bushes and English Dance work well in these versions. His experimental Random Round for 11 hands was originally inspired by listening to the singing of the Pacific island Raratongans and makes an excellent concert work. His Hill-Song No. 1, although amazing to hear in its original 21 double-reed-instrument garb, is equally interesting as a two-piano work. His solution to ‘longer’ form starts to become clear, as the leitmotifs that appear through all his music emerge to hold the work together.

The piano is everywhere in his scores, and he produced a rich collection of solo works. In tracing the chronological development of his ideas and the influences upon him, the solo piano works tell their own story. Bach, Brahms and even Mendelssohn were early influences. The need for showy concert repertoire produced his flamboyant Paraphrase on Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers and, a few years later, his hilarious take on the ‘cakewalk’ entitled In Dahomey. The ‘hits’ – most famously Country Gardens, but also Handel in the Strand, Mock Morris, Molly on the Shore and Shepherd’s Hey – brought him concert success and an assured published income. Many more of the piano works started as instrumental pieces, but others, among them Bridal Lullaby and its improvised extension, Bridal Lullaby Ramble, while sharing some themes with other works in other genres, were nevertheless his original and first thoughts.

Research into Grainger’s background is something of a revelation. Yes, he had a damaged childhood and sought solace in some unusual ways. But the real interest is surely how someone could turn all these experiences into such fantastic music. Some of the most intimate repertoire can be found in Grainger’s solo song settings. Particularly in his songs for tenor voice, we seem to enter his own inner world. Settings of folk songs, along with poems by Kipling, Burns, and Swinburne, include a strange, trance-like Afton Water, a gruesomely graphic The Twa Corbies and two settings of Kipling’s Dedication (Mother O’ Mine) – horrendous to sing but totally effective in achieving Grainger’s aim to ‘wrench the heart-strings’. That is the quality that comes through much of his work, and the sheer force of it stirs both the heart and the guts.

Penelope Thwaites