Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a piano prodigy turned composer who was known for his strange personal habits, his colorful prose, and his equally unusual music – his many admirers today still recognize that he possessed “the supreme virtue of never being dull.” Born in Australia, he began studying piano at an early age. He came to the U. S. at the outbreak of World War I and enlisted as an Army bandsman, becoming an American citizen in 1918. He went on to explore the frontiers of music with his idiosyncratic folk song settings, his lifelong advocacy for the saxophone, and his Free Music machines which predated electronic synthesizers. His many masterworks for winds include Lincolnshire Posy, Irish Tune from County Derry, and Molly on the Shore.
Children’s March was written between 1916 and 1919, during the flurry of activity that produced several of Grainger’s miniature masterworks for winds. The version for full band was premiered by the Goldman Band at Columbia University (yes, OUR Columbia University) in 1919. As with most of his music, Grainger wrote and orchestrated Children’s March with a very specific vision, but also with a widely flexible instrumentation. The piece could be played by ensembles as small as woodwind quintet with two pianos to those as large as a full symphonic band, or even a symphony orchestra (minus violins, violas, and cellos) without altering the existing parts. While this flexibility is not unusual in Grainger’s work, two features the orchestration of Children’s March set it apart from his contemporaneous works. First is the prominent inclusion of the piano, which was then unusual. Second are the two 4-part vocal passages in the piece that are intended to be sung by the members of the band. Furthermore, Children’s March is a rare instance of Grainger using original material. Most of his other enduring works were based on existing folk melodies, but Grainger devised his own–possibly his most effective original tune–in this case.
These program notes from the Carson-Newman College bands elaborate on the instrumentation (and more) of Children’s March:
In Children’s March Grainger displays his quality skills for scoring in this light and carefree work. Scored for band in 1919, Children’s March had roots within a piano solo which Grainger had composed between 1916 and 1918. At the time it was rescored, Grainger was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Artillery Band and, thus, the march reflects an orchestration to take advantage of that group’s instrumentation. In composition, Grainger was of the opinion that it is in the lower octaves of the band (and from the larger members of the reed families) that the greatest expressivity is to be looked for. Consequently we find in his Children’s March a more liberal and highly specialized use of such instruments as the bassoons, English horn, bass clarinet and the lower saxophones than is usual in writing for military band. The march was first performed by the renowned Goldman Band in 1919 and was also recorded in its original form by the same band with the composer conducting. It was dedicated to “my playmate beyond the hills,” believed to be Karen Holton, a Scandinavian beauty with whom the composer corresponded for eight years but would not marry because of his possessive mother’s jealousy.
Here is a magnificent performance of Children’s March on YouTube by the North Texas Wind Symphony. Listen for the piano and vocals:
Percygrainger.com – much general information on the composer with a focus on his wind band works.
International Percy Grainger Society – Based in White Plains, NY, they take care of the Grainger house there as well as the archives that remain there. They also like to support concerts in our area that feature Grainger’s music.
Grainger Museum – in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, at the University there.
To get an idea of Grainger the performer, here is a piano roll he recorded (live) of Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt: