Lifestyle, Music

Percy Grainger made himself a museum. It’s still open in Royal Parade.

May 1, 2017

Percy Grainger created Parkville’s Grainger Museum in the 1930s. Did he make the museum for a famous uncle, spouse, cousin? Nope, it was for him.

Percy Grainger made himself a museum. It’s still open in Royal Parade.

So, how and why in the world does someone make their own museum?

Grainger was a world renowned composer. You may not recognise him, but Grainger had countless famous friends and admirers overseas. He first performed at 12, gaining positive press reviews. He exploded into fame in middle age around the ‘20s. In Carlton he once gained an audience of 20,000. Also he seems to have had sadomasochistic hook-ups with a good chunk of London’s high society.

Grainger was one of the 20th’s Century’s weirdest musicians. His classical pieces included marimbas, theremins, ukeleles, people whistling and a range of musicians told to just make random sounds. He wanted to mimic nature, where the rhythm is made up and time signatures don’t matter. He was big on music ‘between the cracks’ like, say, air raid sirens. He wrote an emotional military-style march with saxophones. Some of his first additions to the museum were his whip collection and bloodstained shirts. He lived with insecurity so crushing that when the University of Adelaide asked him to be their chair of music, he refused. He owned a Gibson double guitar from 1911, except one of the guitars is actually a harp. It’s on display near his banjos.

Grainger was so open about his sex life that he filled an envelope with racy pictures of himself and his wife, then marked it ‘Do not open until 10 (ten) years after my death’. Even beyond the grave he was sharing details. There’s a failsafe letter marked ‘Read This If Ella Grainger or Percy Grainger Are Found Dead Covered with Whip Marks’ in case he or his wife killed each other with kink. There are rumours that he had an intimate relationship with his mother, but it’s unlikely. Grainger’s mother refused to touch him after she caught syphilis off his cheating father.

Also he designed music machines that he hoped would one day play better than humans. In the ‘40s. When computers enslave us, remember, he started it.

Grainger was obsessed with Vikings (the culture, not the History Channel show released 52 years after his death, but don’t put it past him – he did invent Musical Skynet). He grew up on the Norse sagas and the Victorian Era craze of telling them through classical music. People like Grainger and JRR Tolkien kept Early Medieval culture trendy for decades afterward.

Still, Grainger only tolerated the Greco-Latin word ‘museum’. Like Tolkien he was loved Anglo Saxon English, the way that Rudyard Kipling loved white people. Grainger preferred the term past-hoard-house. The Grainger Museum would be a hoarded pile of his stuff, the treasure under this intellectual dragon’s belly.

When he came up with the idea, he was at least 10 years into world fame. Museums are biographies, so why not make an autobiography? He started with the personal – those whips and shirts, revealing photos, a section for his mother who raised him practically alone before jumping to her death from a New York skyscraper. Later came his books, some music, a true hoard of letters between him and other famous composers. Some are on display, others are visible on request. His brilliant artwork (he painted too) and his early copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is enough to draw spiritual spine-chills from you local creatives.

Also he kept his mother’s hair. In a plait.

He oversaw the past-hoard-house’s construction and at times moved the bricks himself. Building was in Grainger’s family – his father designed Princes Bridge over the Yarra.

So what kind of music did he create? Not as many crashing epic sounds you’d expect. Grainger’s music can be grandiose, but it’s often wispy and subtle, generous with wind instruments and piano bagatelles. He was big on Irish folk tunes too. It’s all on YouTube. Also one time he got 30 “exceptionally strong” pianists on the same stage to play a piece.

In Grainger’s last years, he considered his career a failure. Was this past-hoard-house really the cocky hall of autobiography that he said it was, or was it the midlife crisis of someone ambitious enough to pile all their memories on the shelves of a public exhibit? Isn’t fame just a person’s way of showing off the whips, suicide notes and sex positive books inside themselves beside their going-out clothes and favourite guitars?

Grainger may have been our musical Tesla. When the 30 pianists played his suite The Warriors, critics were totally divided. It was a shattering success and an ear piercing nightmare. But there seems to have been no indifference. He divided people down the middle, he started arguments and genres. He was too provocative to be forgettable.

Also he planned for The Warriors to play beside a ballet company acting out an orgy. That image stays with a person.

The Grainger Museum is at Gate 13, Royal Parade, Parkville. Entry is free but try to show the donation box some love. It’s open every day except Saturday, 12 pm to 4 pm. Do those hours seem weird? They’re probably meant to.


Feature Image Credit:

In article Image Credit: Percy Grainger Charcoal Drawing, State Library of South Australia – B 3456, PRG 1218/3 or OH 456/1.

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