Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a piano prodigy turned composer who was known for his strange personal habits, his blunt and 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.
In a personal oeuvre marked with many singularly interesting pieces, The Immovable Do is a true gem, both conceptually and musically. According to Grainger himself in the Joseph Kreines edition of the score:
The Immovable Do (composed 1933-1939) draws its title from one of the two kinds of Tonic Sol-fa notation, one with a “movable Do” (“Do” corresponding to the key-note of whatever key the music is couched in, from moment to moment; so that the note designated by “Do” varies with modulation) and the other with an “immovable Do” (in which “Do” always stands for C). In my composition–which is not based on any folksong or popular tune–the “immovable Do” is a high drone on C which is sounded throughout the whole piece. From the very start (in 1933) I conceived the number for any or all of the following mediums, singly or combined: for organ (or reed organ), for mixed chorus, for wind band or wind groups, for full or small orchestra, for string orchestra or 8 single strings. It seemed natural for me to plan it simultaneously for the different mediums, seeing that such music hinges upon intervallic appeal rather than upon effects of tone color.
In the wind band score (which, he notes, can also serve for woodwind choir, clarinet choir, or saxophone choir), Grainger goes on to make specific notes for this version (e.g., lower clarinet parts “should enjoy a numerical superiority of players,” make sure the drone is “clearly and richly” audible, etc.). He also flings the door wide open for further flexibility of instrumentation in groups of all sizes, ending with the following:
Any or all of the combinations for Wind instruments may be joined, in performance, with any or all of the other versions–organ, mixed chorus, full orchestra, string orchestra, etc. The composition is naturally fitted to be used on occasions (such as high school and competition festivals) when many different organizations are massed together.
For any ensemble, the difficulty of this piece does not lie in the individual parts, which are for the most part very approachable and straightforward. The Immovable Do is rather an exercise in ensemble skills. Achieving a perfect drone requires extreme sensitivity to intonation. A clear portrayal of line and melody, especially in the context of the ever-present drone, comes only with active listening and balancing throughout the entire ensemble. Grainger’s dynamic details only come across if the entire ensemble treats his markings with care and if each player understands their role in the texture. The Immovable Do is thus a wonderful educational piece for any band looking to improve their collective sound. Some other Immovable Do facts:
- If using the “movable Do” system of solfege (which Grainger describes above), the piece could have been called The Immovable Sol, given that the piece is (mostly) in F, and the drone is on C, the fifth note of the F scale, also known as “Sol.”
- He was also known to call the piece The Cyphering C, using a definition for “cyphering” (“cypheering” in some instances) unknown almost anywhere else.
- Some accounts say that he first conceived the piece after the C key on his personal harmonium got stuck. Rather than fix it right away, he improvised around it and ended up with this piece.
Listen to the wind band version:
And the orchestra version (led by fierce Grainger advocate Frederick Fennell):
And the harmonium version – watch her set up the drone at the beginning:
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.