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.
Country Gardens is an English folk tune that Cecil Sharp collected in 1908 and passed on to Grainger, who played improvisations on it during his World War I tours as a concert pianist for the US Army. According to Grainger, it is a dance version of the tune “The Vicar of Bray“. Once published in its original piano form, the tune brought Grainger great success. However, it was not among his favorite compositions. To quote Keith Brion and Loras Schissel‘s score of the Sousa edition:
Later in life, despite the steady stream of income from its royalties, the fame of Country Gardens and the widespread public association of this work as being his best known piece, came to haunt Grainger. Mentally, it became his albatross. He came to think of his own brilliant original music as “my wretched tone art.”. He once remarked, “The typical English country garden is not often used to grow flowers in; it is more likely to be a vegetable plot. So you can think of turnips as I play it.”
When asked in 1950 by Leopold Stokowski to make a new arrangement for Stokowski’s orchestra, Grainger obliged with a wildly satirical version that literally sticks out its tongue at the success of the little tune. In 1953, he rescored that arrangement for band. Reflecting his mood at the time, it is a bitingly sophisticated parody that was to become his only band setting of the music.
There are a great many different versions of Country Gardens, including at least four for band. Here is the bitingly satirical one from 1953 by Grainger himself:
There is another that John Philip Sousa arranged in 1925 with Grainger’s blessing:
And another that Brant Karrick arranged from Grainger’s piano version in 2013:
And yet one more arranged by Tom Clark in 1931 that is out of print and does not get played anymore. As you can hear, all but Grainger’s treat the tune as a light romp. But that is just the tip of this piece’s iceberg, lest we forget Grainger’s 1950 orchestral version:
Or his original piano version from 1918 (here played twice):
Or the Muppets’ 1977 four hands (paws?) piano version:
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 the New York metro area that feature Grainger’s music.
Grainger Museum – in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, at the University there.