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.
Colonial Song began life as a piano solo. Grainger wrote it in 1911 as a gift to his mother, Rose. It represents a comparatively rare instance of Grainger relying on an original melody rather than extant folk sources. Grainger created versions of the piece for different ensembles, as small as piano trio and as large as symphony orchestra. The military band version appeared as a result of Grainger’s time in the US Army bands. See more about Colonial Song on wikipedia.
But why write about these 2 pieces together? Grainger neatly sums up the connection between Colonial Song and 1914’s Gumsuckers March, as well as the significance of his original melody, in this tidy program note:
A “Gum-Sucker” is an Australian nick-name for Australians born in Victoria, the home state of the composer. The eucalyptus trees that abound in Victoria are called “gums”, and the young shoots at the bottom of the trunk are called “suckers”; so “gum-sucker” came to mean a young native son of Victoria, just as Ohioans are nick-named “Buck-eyes”. In the march, Grainger used his own “Australian Up-Country-Song” melody, written by him to typify Australia, which melody he also employed in his Colonial Song for two voices and orchestra, or military band.
This note comes from the Wind Repertory Project, and is attributed to Grainger himself.
Here’s Colonial Song in a rendition by the Royal Australian Navy band:
Now the US Coast Guard band plays Gumsuckers. The Colonial Song theme should pop right out at you!