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.
Grainger made several different settings of Shepherd’s Hey, which is based on a folk tune collected by the British folk song expert Cecil Sharp. The first setting, for “room-music 12-some” (Grainger’s “blue-eyed English” phrase for chamber ensemble) first appeared in 1909. The band version came in 1918. This coincides with the end of Grainger’s stint in the US military, which appears to have been instrumental (no pun intended) in sparking his interest in band music. The tune itself is a Morris dance, a centuries-old tradition of fluid, group dancing from England. Still, Grainger insists on his 1913 piano solo score that “This setting is not suitable to dance Morris dances to.” Ever the contrarian, Grainger also said that “where other composers would have been jolly setting such dance tunes I have been sad or furious. My dance settings are energetic rather than gay.”
Read more about Shepherd’s Hey at the Percy Grainger Society, the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, and the University of Wisconsin Music Department. Also look at this extensive analysis of the piece at band-chat.net, and check out the solo piano score for free at Project Gutenberg.
The Cleveland Symphonic Winds play Shepherd’s Hey:
Among the many versions of this piece that exist, this pianola one is a highlight:
Here’s an actual Morris dancing troop dancing to the tune of Shepherd’s Hey. The words: “I can whistle, I can sing, I can do most anything”:
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.