Printer Friendly

That chief undercurrent of my mind': Percy Grainger and the aesthetics of English folk song.

Exactly a century after its publication, Percy Grainger's article 'Collecting with the Phonograph' stands as a towering monument to his dedication to English folk song and to his insight into the subtle performance practices of its performers. Yet Grainger's role in the history of English folk song remains a perplexing one, for he collected only for a short period between 1905 and 1909, before moving away to focus on, among other things, Danish folk song, electronic music, and his career as a concert pianist. This article provides a contextual background in which Grainger's English folk song collection can be seen as an extension of his complex and often radical modernist musical aesthetic.


The Percy Grainger English folk song collection, assembled between 1905 and 1909, is both celebrated and infamous: celebrated for the remarkable insights it contains concerning the complex performance practices of English folk singers; infamous for the scandal it caused when Grainger's article 'Collecting with the Phonograph' was published in the 1908 issue of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (hereafter JFSS). Grainger's transcriptions - a morass of minute detail nearly bewildering to the eye of even the most musically literate singer - and polemical analysis of the musical style and aesthetic judgement of traditional singers were rejected by the Editing Committee of the JFSS, a rejection made quite clear in the form of a caveat placed in the article in which the committee distanced itself from Grainger's work.

After the passage of a century since the publication of Grainger's article, it seems easy to dismiss such controversy as merely the rumblings of the larger conflict between folklore studies and the then nascent stages of what would eventually become ethnomusicology. After all, Grainger is rightly celebrated as a harbinger of ethnomusicology, having made detailed studies of many non-Western musical cultures during a period when it was still unusual for practitioners of Western art music to do so, and it would seem inevitable that the conflict between viewpoints old and new should produce tectonic friction in the folk music community. However, old-fashioned though we might today consider some of the methods of the collectors of the Folk-Song Society (hereafter FSS) in the early years of the twentieth century, the members of the Editing Committee were far from being narrow-minded Luddites. Collectors such as Anne Gilchrist, Cecil Sharp, and Lucy Broadwood had all made contributions of inestimable value to the study of English folk song, and had welcomed many different perspectives into the scholarly folk song community. What was it about Grainger's work on English folk song that got the FSS riled up to the point that they felt it necessary to discredit his work in such a public manner?

To answer this question, we must look not to the FSS but to the wider context of Grainger's musical philosophy. Grainger was, of course, not merely a collector, bur a pianist and composer who spent much of his life nurturing a musical aesthetic dedicated to what he called Free Music, an ultra-modernist form of music in which traditional Western musical elements such as rhythm, harmony, and diatonic melody would give way to unprecedented rhythmic complexity and micro tonality. Others have commented on the likely influence of folk music on the development of this musical aesthetic, but little attention has thus far been paid to the possibility of the influence of such an avant-garde musical philosophy upon Grainger's folk song collecting. It is my contention that it was Grainger's avant-garde aesthetic that allowed him such penetrating insight into English folk music: essentially, that it was his willingness to hear and give aesthetic value to those sounds and ideas that did not conform to traditional Western art music principles that led him to his iconoclastic conclusions. When we examine Grainger's article in the JFSS with this new contextual perspective in mind, the harsh polemic and denunciation of the collecting methods of the FSS come to the fore far more than they do simply on a reading isolated within the context of folk music discourse in England in the early years of the twentieth century. This new perspective not only allows us to see the many advanced and revolutionary aesthetic methodologies Grainger brought to his work on English folk song, but highlights the critical undercurrent of the article and makes plain those elements that the Editing Committee of the FSS must have found so objectionable.

As might be expected, Grainger has sometimes proven to be a polarizing figure in the folk scholarship community. Dave Harker came very close to exonerating Grainger from any wrongdoing in his highly critical account of the folk song revival at the beginning of the twentieth century, only to rescind such an order at the last moment and dismiss him in much the same manner as he did most of the other collectors. (1) More recently, Gwilym Davies and Michael Yates have provided insightful accounts of Grainger's collecting activities, as well as considerable background to his difficult relationship with the FSS. (2) The immediate predecessor to my current examination of Grainger was C. J. Bearman's 'Percy Grainger, the Phonograph, and the Folk Song Society'. (3) Bearman's meticulous research provides important information about Grainger's relationships with his colleagues in the FSS, the contentious issue of the use of the phonograph, and even some invaluable facts about the phonograph machine itself. However, laudable though he considered much of Grainger's work to be, Bearman believed that Grainger's reputation is not commensurate with the quality of his work, writing that Grainger has benefited from the 'denigration of [Cecil] Sharp' and that he has become simply 'one of the "alternative" heroes to whom no real criticism has been applied'. (4) As valuable as Bearman's article undoubtedly is, it soon becomes clear that Grainger's role in it was essentially that of a foot soldier in the ideological struggle that has taken place in English folk music scholarship in recent years. In essence, for Bearman, Grainger was, to use Bearman's own parlance, simply a stick with which to beat Dave Harker and the Marxist left in general.

It is not my intention to respond to Bearman's criticisms directly, but to demonstrate instead that Grainger's work in English folk music contains unexplored levels of complex subtlety and nuance that resonate deeply with his avant-garde modernist aesthetic. It is my contention that Grainger is celebrated as an 'alternative' hero not because he is the 'enemy of the enemy' of the Left, but because he was, in fact, a different sort of collector altogether. This examination consists of three sections. The first is an examination of the musical principles of Grainger's Free Music, both realized and idealized, and the influences that fed it. In the second I explore Grainger's writings concerning the aesthetics of folk musicians. The third is a close reading of Grainger's article in the JFSS, which yields a number of new interpretations based on the perspective obtained through the examination of his wider musical aesthetic. The amount of quotation is, by necessity, extensive, particularly in the third section, where quotation is preferable to appending the entire article. It has also seemed best to allow Grainger to speak for himself in many instances, particularly when his words are clearly bristling with polemic directed at the FSS. This approach will not only grant Grainger the credit he deserves for his insight, but also perhaps recreate some of the sense of discomfort the FSS must have felt upon seeing his work for the first time.

Free Music

Grainger's first published declaration of Free Music was simply entitled 'Free Music', and was published in Recorded Sound in 1938. (5) In typical manifesto style, Grainger clearly illuminated his target and the weaponry he intended to use in his assault:
 Existing conventional music (whether 'classical' or popular) is tied
 down by set scales, a tyrannical (whether metrical or irregular)
 rhythmic pulse that holds down the whole tonal fabric in a vice-like
 grasp and a set of harmonic procedures (whether key-bound or atonal)
 that are merely habits, and certainly do not deserve to be called
 laws [...] It seems to me absurd to live in an age of flying and
 yet not be able to execute tonal glides and curves. (6)

With this short statement, Grainger advocated what seemed like the complete destruction of the existing musical compositional methodology in favour of vaguely defined 'tonal glides and curves'. This being his first Free Music manifesto, he was necessarily short on the details of Free Music, although he had been advocating many of the musical elements that would make up this new musical aesthetic for many years. In the following section, I will deal with the concepts of Free Music as I have distilled them into the following four properties: (i) melody; (ii) form; (in) rhythm; (iv) machine-music and Platonic forms.

(i) melody

Grainger was by no means the only one to react against the stringencies of traditional melodic ideas. Carl Dahlhaus, in his assessment of the late nineteenth-century musical aesthetic, wrote: 'Periodic structure, the musical equivalent of "verse" form, is open to the charge of creating opportunities for empty rhetoric and interpolations which express little or nothing. Melody, as popularly conceived, is characterized above all by rhythmic regularity, by the use of symmetry and repetition. (7) In a rather extreme application of this idea, Grainger decreed that his music would therefore avoid any repetition of melodic material, saying that not only was it the equivalent of a speaker repeating the same statement, but that it was undemocratic in singling out the theme for special treatment and relegating other melodies to the subordinate role of episodic material. (8) A fine example of this idea is found in Hill Song No. 2, a piece of about four and a half minutes' duration which took Grainger six years to compose, between 1901 and 1907 (a period of time that, not without coincidence, covers the first years of Grainger's folk song collecting in England). Figure 1 shows the first seven bars of Hill Song No. 2, in which periodic structure and repetition of material, outside of the ornamental quality of the sixteenth-note figure, are avoided. True to his word, the 141-bar work contains no strict repetition whatsoever.


The origin of this melodic idea most likely came from Richard Wagner's concept of 'endless melody', as found in The Artwork of the Future. (9) As Dahlhaus explained, 'endless melody' was a rejection of empty melodic formulae and sequential padding. Melody was that which was eloquent and graceful, while that which was unmelodic was dull and repetitive. 'Endless melody' did not mean that the music continued unabated without any caesura, but that cadential formulae, when they did occur, should be varied and imaginative, nor simply the continuous application of standard cadential patterns of the sort every musician is taught in classes on harmony and counterpoint. (10) This definition seems to fit Grainger's idea of non-repetition of melodic material quite well, particularly given Grainger's frequent attestation to Wagner's influence over his life and music.

Grainger's opposition to set scales and the embrace of 'tonal glides and curves' was designed to lead to a musical language in which all intervals, even those smaller than the semitone, were available to the composer. (11) Grainger was already exploring the possibility of intervals smaller than the semitone before 1904, when he wrote: 'What is partially sympathetic to me is that the human voice [...] has all possibilities of pitch, is not bound to certain notes only [...] but can make twenty & more divisions of the half-tone, & can slide at will from note to note.' (12) The dare of between 1902 and 1904 for this document, which is a letter to his composition teacher Karl Klimsch (1841-1926) in Frankfurr, is significant, for Grainger had spent a brief period of time under the tutelage of Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin in 1903. Busoni's radical and iconoclastic book of 1907, Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, caused a remarkable stir, not least for its wholehearted embrace of a musical language that employed an alternative measurement of intervals: 'We have divided the octave into twelve equidistant degrees, because we had to manage somehow, and have constructed our instruments in such a way that we can never get in above or below or between them [...] Yet Nature created an infinite gradation--infinite! Who still knows it nowadays?' (13)

Busoni's answer to this problem was the employment of the 'tripartite' tone, or the division of the whole-tone into thirds, thus creating an ultra-chromatic system in which the whole-tone scale was divided into a series of eighteen one-third tones. He noted, however, that the result of this division would be the loss of the semitones as well as the minor third and perfect fifth, a loss that he considered too heavy a price to be paid. Yet Busoni had a solution to this as well, for by performing the same tripartite division on the whole-tone scale lying a semitone higher than the original, thus creating two overlapping sets of whole-tone scales divided into thirds, an entirely new series of tripartite tones would be available in addition to the preserved intervals of the minor third and perfect fifth. (14)

For Busoni, these ideas amounted to little more than theoretical speculation, for tripartite intervals seem to have found no place in his own compositional methodology. They would, however, find a welcoming host in Grainger, who had already been considering the application of micro-intervals to his own music. The relationship between the young Grainger and the gregarious virtuoso composer was a difficult one, but it was significant. As I shall demonstrate, Busoni was one of the unnamed sources to whom I believe Grainger continued to look for inspiration during the formation of his own musical aesthetic. Grainger referred to Busoni often, but always in the context of Busoni's affirming conclusions that Grainger had already drawn, as in the following from 1915:
 It is, of course, widely known that many races use quarter-tones
 and other divisions of the scale smaller than those hitherto in
 vogue in Europe, and Ferruccio Busoni's illuminating pamphlet 'A New
 Esthetic of Music' contains some very clear-sighted suggestions for
 the use of third-tones and other close intervals--suggestions which
 I fondly hope the near future may see carried to experience. My own
 experience with such small intervals has been in the 'waiatas' and
 chants of the Maoris of New Zealand. (15)

Grainger attributed his inspiration for the use of micro-intervals to those non-Western musics to which he had already been exposed in and around Australia. There is no reason to doubt his assertion, but neither should we discount the possibility that these intervals, as well as many other topics of interest, were bandied about during his short period of study with Busoni in 1903. Grainger's ideas concerning the application of these intervals differed somewhat from those of his mentor. Busoni imagined composers approaching or quitting notes derived from tripartite divisions of the whole-tone in much the same way as one would with any other note--either by conjunct or disjunct melodic motion--thus making the distinction between his system and that of traditional Western music mainly one of tuning. Grainger, however, advocated glissandi as the primary means of creating melodic contour in his Free Music. Indeed, many of Grainger's later Free Music compositions, such as Free Music #1 for Four Theremins, from 1936, demonstrate how important this species of melodic contour was to his musical aesthetic. In this sense, Grainger's advocacy of micro-intervallic notes lacked the mathematical sophistication of Busoni's method of tripartite division, though it was just as radical an endorsement of the expansion of melodic materials available to the Western art music composer. To put it in somewhat anachronistic terms, if Busoni's system was an example of what we would now refer to as 'microtonality', Grainger's was more akin to what we might instead designate 'omnitonality', in which the finer gradations of tripartite tones were subsumed to the larger brush strokes of glissandi lines.

Regardless of the differences between such approaches, there can be little doubt that Grainger possessed a predilection for tuning systems and intervallic divisions that fell well outside the norm of Western art music, and that this interest must have bound Grainger and Busoni together in common cause. None of Grainger's published works from this period shows any tendency towards the use of micro-intervals, for, like many composers working in the early years of the twentieth century, including Busoni, Grainger probably had no idea how, in the pre-electronic music age, such a musical vision might be realized on instruments designed solely for the expression of well-tempered music. For this, Grainger had to wait for more than three decades. Nevertheless, it is vital to recognize that Grainger's musical aesthetic was, from a very early period, attuned to alternative intervallic divisions and methods of tuning to those found in art music, and that this would therefore put him on an entirely different footing from many other collectors when he encountered the musical practices of folk singers in England.

(ii) form

In the aforementioned letter of 1904 to Karl Klimsch, Grainger wrote: 'My task has not been to conform to existing formal conventionalities - still less to create new ones - but rather to clear away all structural & formal limitations (regularity of bars, beats & phrases, themes, motives, sections) barring the way to the realization of my style-ideals.'(16)Indeed, given the impossibility of thematic development engendered by Grainger's restriction on the repetition of melodic material, traditional structures such as sonata form would have no real application. Reaction against the stringencies of musical form and structure was not unique to Grainger, and the tide of voices clamouring for release from the imposition of form had been rising steadily throughout the nineteenth century.(17) Busoni had also called for the transcending of form when discussing the idea of absolute music in 1907:
 This sort of music ought rather to be called the 'architectonic',
 or 'symmetric', or 'sectional', and derives from the circumstance
 that certain composers poured their spirit and their emotion into
 just this mould as lying nearest them or their time. Our lawgivers
 have identified the spirit and emotion, the individuality of these
 composers and their time, with 'symmetric' music, and finally, being
 powerless to recreate either the spirit, or the emotion, of the time,
 have retained the Form as a symbol, and made it into a fetish, a
 religion [...] Is it not singular, to demand of a composer
 originality in all things, and to forbid it as regards form? No
 wonder that, once he becomes original, he is accused of
 'formlessness'. (18)

For Busoni, music was at its highest and most potent when it was absolute and non-programmatic. Yet absolute music was merely a stepping stone to what he referred to as 'Ur-Musik'. Ur-Musik was a concept that was vaguely defined at best, but one gets a sense of what he meant in what is perhaps the most famous passage from the New Esthetic: 'Indeed, all composers have drawn nearest the true nature of music in preparatory and intermediary passages (preludes and transitions), where they felt at liberty to disregard symmetrical proportions, and unconsciously drew free breath.' (19) Busoni saw non-thematic and episodic passages in which thematic development is absent as the closest approximation to Ur-Musik. The similarity to Grainger's philosophy of non-repetition of melodic material in Free Music, in which thematic development would thus be impossible, is unmistakable here. The relationship between Ur-Musik and Free Music seems particularly apparent in that they both advocated melodies without thematic development of motivic material within a non-architectonic formal framework.

(iii) rhythm

Free Music was to be free of'tyrannical rhythmic pulse'. The idea of 'beatless music', in which no regular pulse exists, had occurred to Grainger as early as 1899 when he began experiments into 'music in which no standard duration of beat occurs, but in which all rhythms are free, without beat cohesion between the various polyphonic parts'.(20) Vaguely defined though it was, the idea would appear to be that standard rhythmic patterns would be overcome through the density and equality of the polyphonic texture. Grainger met with difficulty early on in bringing the idea to fruition, both in performance and notation. Hill Song No. 2, with its constantly shifting metres and sinuous melodic line, represents an early attempt to come to terms with this idea. He performed the piece in a piano reduction for Busoni in 1907, after which Busoni expressed interest but criticized Grainger for the manner in which the irregular rhythms were presented on the page, saying that it was easier on the eyes if they could be written within the bar instead of granting a new bar to each rhythmic unit. Grainger seems to have been all too aware of notational deficiencies, both on his part and on the part of standard musical notation, as is evidenced by the 'Beatless-Notation Machine' document from 1902-3, in which he discussed the possibility of an electronic instrument that was capable of playing complex rhythms using an advanced form of graphic notation. (21) Grainger also wondered whether or not Busoni had taken the rhythmic lessons he had learned from him and disseminated them around Europe, eventually to reach the ears of Igor Stravinsky. (22)

(iv) machine-music and Platonic forms

Towards the end of the Free Music document, Grainger described the means by which Free Music might be realized in performance:
 Free Music demands a non-human performance. Like most true music, it
 is an emotional, not a cerebral, product and should pass direct from
 the imagination of the composer to the ear of the listener by way
 of delicately controlled machines. Too long has music been subject
 to the limitations of the human hand [...] A composer wants to speak
 to his public direct. Machines [...] are capable of niceties of
 emotional expression impossible to a human performer. (23)

Grainger's assertion that machines are capable of emotional performance beyond that of human performers seems extraordinary. However, his aesthetic of Free Music was one based very much on strict Formalism. It was in the musical material itself, particularly its intervallic relationships, that the true emotional and aesthetic value of the music could be found, and not in the medium of its performance. The idea that machines could convey the music even more precisely than could the human performer implies that the emotional worth of the music would, in fact, be higher when performed by a flawless machine.

Grainger's statement that music should pass 'direct from the imagination of the composer to the ear of the listener' therefore advocated bypassing the performer. However, it also raised the possibility of eliminating another element traditionally considered essential in the production of music: notation. It is here that Grainger waded into difficult and far-reaching aesthetic territory, for which I must once again turn to Busoni for assistance.

One of the most famous passages from Busoni's New Esthetic is the following: 'Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form [...] Again, the performance of a work is also a transcription, and still, whatever liberties it may take, it can never annihilate the original. For the musical art-work exists, before its tones resound and after they die away, complete and intact.' (24) This is a difficult and enigmatic idea. One might initially interpret it as simple self-aggrandizement on Busoni's part, trying to marshal some aesthetic support for his many piano transcriptions of the works of other composers to be considered meritorious musical works in themselves. Yet it is not quite that simple. According to this scheme, the composer's act of simply writing the music down on paper is an act of transcription, and the performance of the music is yet another level of transcription. Some of the confusion is cleared up if Busoni's definition of 'transcription' is loosened to mean not merely the transference of musical material from one medium to another (such as his transcription for piano of J. S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ), but something more akin to the descriptive analysis an ethnomusicologist might produce after having listened to a piece of folk music, such as Grainger's English folk song transcriptions. 'Transcription' might therefore be read as 'subjective interpretation', of which the performance is yet another 'subjective interpretation', thus creating an interpretation twice removed from the 'ideal' version of the music. The difficulty with this is that it relegates the composer to the level of transcriber, as though the music existed with or without the composer's presence, like a musical tree falling in a forest. Such a Platonic view of music is difficult to reconcile with Busoni who was himself a composer and subscribed to the popular nineteenth-century idea of the musical genius.

Nevertheless, Busoni expanded his view in later years to remove any doubt about the Platonic nature of his musical aesthetic:
 In a similar relationship electricity was there from the beginning
 also before we discovered it; just as everything still undiscovered
 was in being from the beginning, and is therefore also now in being;
 so, too, the cosmic atmosphere teems with all forms, motives and
 combinations of past and future music. To me, a composer is like a
 gardener to whom a small portion of a large piece of ground has been
 allotted for cultivation; it falls to him to gather what grows on
 his soil, to arrange it, to make a bouquet of it; and if he is very
 ambitious, to develop it as a garden. (25)

The possibility that composers might be pseudo-ethnomusicologists trying to capture what they can on paper of existing musical works seems difficult to fathom, but Grainger also subscribed to this idea. In 1937 he wrote: 'I believe, with Busoni, that every composition is already an arrangement or transcription, because no existing medium ever compares to the ideal medium dwelling in the composer's imagination.' (26) The qualification 'dwelling in the composer's imagination' is an important one, for it readmits the composer into the musical equation, instead of relegating him or her, as Busoni did, to the role of explorer of undiscovered forms in the nebulous musical ether.

It is at this point that I can return from the detour into Busoni's aesthetics with an enhanced view of Grainger's advocacy of the mechanical performance of Free Music. By making the machine responsible for performance, either without the need for notation or, as he described in his 'Beatless-Notation Machine' document, with a uniquely specific notation that the instrument itself was capable of producing, Grainger eliminated the notation and performance stages and brought the whole musical process much closer to a perfect realization of the ideal form of the music. (27) Busoni had also written about the mechanical performance of music in the New Esthetic, mentioning the work of Dr Thaddeus Cahill and his efforts to transform electric current into musical sounds. However, this was simply to be a means of obtaining the microtonal divisions he was advocating, which posed a difficulty that he admitted he had no hope of overcoming on his own. (28) It was a solution to a performance--not an aesthetic--difficulty.

Grainger's advocacy of mechanical performance was far more complex than a simple solution to performance-related problems. Rather, it was an integral element of his Free Music aesthetic, and he spent the last forty years of his life struggling to find or develop machines that were capable of fulfilling all the Free Music criteria. (29) Finally, following the dictum of Varese that 'the composer and the electrician will have to labour together', Grainger enlisted the engineer Burnett Cross to help him develop the Free Music machines that would perform the music he had heard only in his mind. (30) In 1972 Cross published a short article, entitled 'Grainger Free Music Machine', in which he provided a detailed examination of the machine he had developed with the composer. (31) Sadly, this development took place long after the point in Grainger's life when he had been considered musically relevant, and his Free Music is therefore limited to a few home recordings of the Free Music Machine and a handful of commercial recordings based on the very few sketches that survive.

Grainger's philosophy of the art of the folk

Grainger's initial exposure to the European obsession with folk culture at the end of the nineteenth century probably came, as it did for many nationalist composers, from the writings of Richard Wagner. Indeed, Vic Gammon has written that the power of Wagner's Volk theories, which were, in turn, derived from those of Herder, had a considerable hold over the nationalists and folk enthusiasts of Das Land ohne Musik, despite the pronounced anti-German sentiment of that period. (32) As with all things relating to Wagner, however, the relationship between what he wrote and what he meant was not always a simple one, and Wagner's das Volk was a concept that bore little resemblance to the idea of 'the folk' as it was taken up by folk song enthusiasts in England. Wagner, following Herder, was more concerned with das Volk as a location for the preservation of remnants of an original ur-language, which was thought to be far more complex, musical, and poetic, than the degenerate language of modern society. (33) For Wagner, das Volk was an ahistorical species, not a group of people with whom he had any real interest in associating. Nevertheless, if we read Wagner literally, perhaps naively, as both Grainger and other collectors almost certainly did, he seems to celebrate folk culture not as a quaint and delightful antiquarian object to be condescendingly admired by the artistic elite, but as a powerful voice in the creation of the Artwork of the Future: 'Who, then, will be the Artist of the Future? The Poet? The performer? The musician? The plastician? - Let us say it in one word: the Folk. That selfsame Folk to whom we owe the only genuine Artwork, still living even in our modern memory, however much distorted by our restorations; to whom alone we owe all Art itself.' (34)

Wagner seems to have invested 'the folk' not only with considerable influence, but also with an aesthetic judgement as discerning and capable of genius as that of any art music composer. He also recognized that artistic creation was not merely the property of the aesthetically trained elite artist, but that it was a purely human instinct, found in the highest degree among the folk, thus anticipating what ethnomusicologists would later recognize, namely that ordinary people are artistically inventive and often create music of a personal style with considerable skill.35 He also recognized, however, that the denizens of art music rarely see folk culture as anything other than an object to be seized and transformed--like a rough-edged rock, to be tumbled over and over until it became polished and presentable. In this regard, Wagner could almost seem to have been writing not just about the nationalist schools of composition that would spring up all over Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, during which time composers tumbled the rough rock of folk culture until it was smooth enough to support their ideas of national musical styles, but also about the ideas and methods of folk song collectors themselves, particularly members of the FSS.

A very literal reading of Wagner's ideas about das Volk thus provides what must have seemed a sort of manifesto for collectors of folk song in England. For his part, Grainger took some important lessons away from his literal reading of Wagner: most notably. that folk music is not only as valid as art music, but that the two ought to be created as equals. For Grainger, folk music was not merely a surrogate for the creative power of art music, it was itself art music--and the practitioners of art music were intelligent and often brilliant creative artists who made individual artistic choices about the music they performed. Indeed, in a moment of insight almost Marxist in tone, Grainger wrote in 1915: 'Not only does the commercial slavery of our civilization hold out to the average man insufficient leisure for the normal growth of the habit of artistic expression (unless he shows talents exceptional enough to warrant his becoming a professional artist) but the many decorums of modern society deny to most of us any very generous opportunities for using even our various (unartistic) life-instincts to the full.' (36)

It was a lack not of talent that prevented the folk from becoming elite artists, but of leisure time. However, this was far from what Grainger considered a lamentable situation, for he considered the sort of non-specialization, or what he termed 'all-roundedness', that prevented an excess of leisure time to be a very positive attribute. He wrote: 'Society offers such careers of joy, variety, and expansiveness to courageous individuals of non-specialist proclivities. Yet it may seem that there is but little official recognition of the fact that it is non-specializing all-roundedness that lies at the root of human greatness.' (37) The All-Round Man' was one who filled many different roles--as hunter, gatherer, farmer, or musician--as many people did in earlier stages of human history and continue to do in some parts of the world today. That the 'All-Round Man' could not specialize in music was a positive attribute because music was simply one aspect of his existence. This is perhaps an idealized view of the hardship and toil many individuals in rural and non-industrial societies face, but what is important here is that Grainger celebrated the folk not because of the imagined simplicity of their lives, but because of their moral and aesthetic complexity. In essence, the folk were artists and the entirety of their lives was their art-work.

This perception is very much connected with Grainger's dismissal of the teleological philosophy of music history. In essence, he believed that all music, of all periods of time, from all over the world, was aesthetically valid regardless of its level of complexity, and that the specifically Western markers of aesthetic and moral value were not applicable to the vast majority of music from around the world, particularly that of the folk. This is not to say that he disapproved of or disavowed the idea of cross-pollination between various musical practices. Indeed, he testified that many elements of Free Music, such as the use of micro-intervals, were inspired by the music of non-Western cultures. However, he also began to see a complexity in folk music that demanded a special kind of musical mind; music might be equal all over the world and throughout time, but that did not mean that all musicians were capable of accessing the upper levels of complexity of all these styles simply by virtue of being musicians.

In 1915, perhaps as a veiled swipe at his FSS colleagues, Grainger wrote:
 [Folk music] is generally far too complex (as regards rhythm,
 dynamics, and scales) to appeal to listeners whose ears have not
 been subjected to the ultra-refining influence of close association
 with the subtle developments of our latest Western art music [...] As
 a rule folk music finds its way to the hearts of the general public
 and of the less erudite musicians only after it has been 'simplified'
 (generally in the process of notation by well-meaning collectors
 ignorant of those mote ornate subtleties of out notation alone
 fitted for the task) out of all resemblance to its original self.
 Nor is this altogether surprising when we come to compare town
 populations with the country-side or 'savage' folk to whom we go for
 the unwritten material. (38)

"The complexity of folk music, therefore, was actually beyond the grasp not only of cultured listeners, but even of musicians whose eats were not attuned to such sounds. Collectors therefore required far more than just a good ear and a grounding in traditional theories of harmony and rhythm in order to understand the subtle nuances of folk song - they also required an aesthetic sensibility that superseded conventional Western musical practice:
 The fact can hardly be too often emphasized that it is largely the
 'hyper-modern' men who prove to be the most susceptible to the lure
 of 'primitive' music, which not only confronts them with a simplicity
 (in certain directions) refreshing to them by reason of the sharp
 contrast it affords to art music, but which also contains certain
 elements of extreme complexity, particularly as regards rhythms and
 dynamics, to which the modernist may turn to increase the range of
 his ornate compositional resources; the artist with the healthiest
 appetite for complexity can generally be relied upon to possess the
 strongest craving for simplicity also. (39)

It was not, then, mere modern composers, armed with atonality and serialism, who were equipped to deal with the complexity of 'primitive' music, but 'hyper-modern' composers. This is an enigmatic statement upon which Grainger did not expand. One might assume that he meant composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, or Ruth Crawford Seeger, all of whom wove interests in folk music with ultra-modern and avant-garde compositional aesthetics. Further exploration of this idea in the context of Grainger's JFSS article will reveal, however, that the hyper-modern composer, the only one who can really 'get' folk song, was in fact the composer who had fully embraced the Free Music philosophy, which was necessary in order to provide a sonic and aesthetic palate that was capable of appreciating fully the complexity of folk music. Thus, the only musician who could really understand folk song was Percy Grainger.

The aesthetics of 'Collecting with the Phonograph'

With a more vivid picture of Grainger's musical aesthetic in place, many of the intricacies of his article on 'Collecting with the Phonograph' come to the foreground more plainly. (40) The purpose of this section is to recover the traces of the Free Music aesthetic from within the article and so to cast a new light on the criticisms to which Grainger was subjected. Indeed, it is the criticisms themselves that not only assist in the recovery effort but also demonstrate that the members of the FSS, far from the Luddites they may appear to have been, had gleaned very well Grainget's meaning, both overt and covert.

(i) background, caveat, and the democracy of the phonograph

Grainger's article appeared as the entirety of issue no. 12 of the JFSS in 1908. It was standard practice, as it is now, for submissions to the JFSS to be circulated to an editorial board for suggestions for their improvement prior to publication. In the spirit of common cause and camaraderie, articles featuring song transcriptions were often published with additional comments from editorial board members in which they would comment on their own experiences with a song. Some members, such as Anne Gilchrist and Frank Kidson, also supplied references to the songs in print, as well as textual histories. The article is dated May 1908, but, as Michael Yates has indicated, it contains references to points raised by Cecil Sharp in a letter of 23 May 1908.41 One of Grainger's notes is dated 20 June 1908, (42) and so the publication must date from at least late June or early July of 1908.

Grainger was anxious about the publication of the article, working when his touring schedule permitted and even retranscribing from the cylinders the songs he had chosen as examples. (43) What made him perhaps even more nervous was the possible reaction of his FSS colleagues to what he planned to say in the article:
 I hope in a few days that the worrying part of the Folks. Journal
 will be on the way to he behind me. It's so hard to state one's
 views with needful strength without letting out also that chief
 undercurrent of my mind: that none of the rest collect properly or
 thoroly. It's all a game that Cecil Sharp & crew after sitting on
 Stanford & crew for their laziness & unthoro'ness should in their
 turn be softly sat on for the same 'touch of nature'. (44)

Grainger knew already that what he was saying was contentious and that there was the possibly that his colleagues would look upon it unkindly. As it turned out, he need not have worried whether or not they would detect 'the undercurrent' of his mind, for on p. 159 of the JFSS the FSS Editing Committee inserted its famous caveat into the text:
 The Editing Committee, in considering Mr. Grainger's theories which
 are based on most careful observations, wish to point out that the
 general experience of collectors goes to show that English singers
 most rarely alter their mode in singing the same song. About the
 value of the phonograph as an aid to collecting there can be no
 doubt; whether it is sufficiently perfect as yet to be preferred as
 a substitute for the human ear is still a disputable point. Similar
 careful records and analysis of the performances of trained singers
 and instrumentalists would therefore be of great value in helping to
 determine this. (45)

Whether or not FSS Editing Committee members did actually feel personally insulted is impossible to discern from such a statement. Yet the caveat contains an undercurrent of its own, one that senses quite clearly the aesthetic torrent flowing through Grainger's mind and the impact it could have on the future of folk song collecting. In the following pages, I shall provide a close reading of the article itself in order to highlight those sections that demonstrate most clearly Grainger's aesthetic motivations and the subtle textual references to which the FSS reacted so strongly.

The musical expressions of people outside of" the circle of the artistic elite were very important to Grainger, who sought to break down the barriers between high art and folk art and to make all music accessible to everyone. One important element of this conviction was his concept of 'elastic scoring', whereby music was arranged so that it might be playable by any instrumental ensemble, especially those that were more likely to be found among the working class. Grainger had similar hopes for the impact of the phonograph on the activity of folk song collecting:
 It cannot be too widely known that the phonograph puts valuable
 folk-song, sea-chanty, and morris-dance collecting within the reach
 of all possessed of the needful leisure and enthusiasm [...] It is,
 however, of the utmost importance that such records be handed over
 for their translation into musical notation to none but collectors
 and musicians highly versed in the wide possibilities of musical
 notation, and if possible dowered with insight into, and experience
 of, the vast realms of irregular rhythm. (46)

The phonograph therefore held a democratizing power through its ability to allow anyone to collect folk songs, even rural working-class singers themselves, if they should so wish, provided they could find some of the valuable leisure time enjoyed by wealthier collectors. Any proprietary feelings towards the material felt by the members of the FSS would crumble when confronted with the utilitarian phonograph machine. Grainger went even further when he stated that the music needed to be handed over to those Versed in the wide possibilities of notation [...] and irregular rhythm'. Based on his previous assertions about the incorrect and sloppy methodologies of his peers, such a collector and transcriber was not likely to be found among members of the FSS. Who, then, would be best suited to the task of penetrating the depths of this music, music of such complexity as to escape the inadequate ears and notation of the FSS collectors? According to Grainger, such an individual was the 'hyper-modern' man who was an exponent of Free Music: in other words Percy Grainger himself, and any of his future disciples.

Grainger's ideal scenario would therefore consist of musical amateurs and singers, perhaps even the folk singers themselves, collecting and recording folk songs on the phonograph, and bringing the material to Grainger or his approved colleagues for correct transcription and analysis, thus bypassing the FSS and its seemingly primitive methodologies altogether. As 1 will demonstrate throughout this section, this is just one of many instances in which Grainger implied the obsolescence and eventual overthrow of FSS methods. There would thus appear to be a small grain of truth in Dave Harker's assertion that the members of the FSS were perhaps somewhat threatened by the phonograph and its potential to neutralize the relationship between collector and singer, not for any sinister ideological reasons, but simply because Grainger saw the phonograph as a means of squeezing collectors out of that relationship altogether. (47) Essentially, he saw a future without a need for the FSS.

(ii) the fetish of the song

Grainger's introduction to the FSS and to the live performance of English folk song came on 11 April 1905 at the folk song competition that was held as a part of the Brigg Music Festival. John Bird credited Grainger and Everard Feilding as the prime instigators of the folk song competition in the festival that year. (48) However, Grainger never seems to have acknowledged that it was his idea, for the unpublished introduction to his English collection, dating from September 1940, states that the competition was organized by Gervase Elwes, Lady Winefride Elwes, Everard Feilding, and other unnamed persons. (49) Furthermore, Kay Dreyfus has pointed out that the tone of the letter Grainger wrote to Lady Winefride on 13 April 1905 seems to indicate that the inclusion of the folk song competition was her idea. (50) The entry criteria, possibly penned by Frank Kidson, who was a judge at the event, read as follows:
 Class XII, Folk Songs. Open to all. The prize in this class will be
 given to whoever can supply the best unpublished old Lincolnshire folk
 song or plough song. This song should be sung or whistled by the
 competitor, but marks will be allotted for the excellence rather of
 the song than of its actual performance. It is specially requested
 that the establishment of this class be brought to the notice of old
 people in the country who are most likely to remember this kind of
 song, and that they be urged to come in with the best old song they
 know. (51)

This short paragraph quite aptly describes the relationships many collectors had with folk songs. Collectors often made the idea of the song a sort of fetish, so much so that they not only ironed out any inconsistencies between the performance and their idealized vision of the tune, but they also very often failed to record names and vital information about the performers themselves. The song was an object, a complete thing unto itself, which admitted little if any influence from any elements of its rendering in performance.

Grainger cleared his own space in folk music scholarship by taking aim at the song fetish right at the outset of his article:
 To my mind the very greatest boon of the gramophone and phonograph is
 that they record not merely the tunes and words of fine folk-songs,
 but give an enduring picture of the live art and traditions of
 peasant and sailor singing and fiddling; together with a record of
 the dialects of different districts, and of such entertaining
 accessories as the vocal quality, singing-habits, and other personal
 characteristics of singers. And a knowledge of such points is every
 bit as indispensable to good renderings of folk-music as is
 experience of the traditions of cultured music to its proper
 interpretation. I think that most folksong enthusiasts who have had
 the good luck to hear the singing of gifted folk-singers and
 chantymen, must feel that much of the attractiveness of the live art
 lies in the execution as well as in the contents of the songs, and
 will surely welcome the ability of the gramophone and phonograph
 to retain for future ages what is otherwise but a fleeting
 impression. (52)

Grainger was being provocative in this statement, for he knew very well that his fellow collectors did not at all feel that way and that he was making a direct attack upon their musical aesthetic. He followed this up by making his position in the matter quite clear: 'an array of normal tunes," however lovely, cannot compensate me, personally, for the least little (preservable) manifestation of artistic creativeness and versatility on the part of gifted peasant and seafaring singers that is allowed to die with them, unrecorded for ever'. (53) It was the performance, not the song itself, that Grainger valued. In a reversal of the FSS aesthetic, in which the performance was merely a delivery method for the song as fetish object, Grainger saw the song as a vehicle for the beauty of the performance. The extent to which he went to capture the intricacies of such performances is shown in Figure 2.



The presentation of 'Lord Bateman' must have been striking for the Editing Committee, for, instead of using a single stanza as representative of the entire tune, Grainger placed the nine stanzas end to end to create a unified song of ninety-six measures in length. In doing so, he sought to demonstrate that the songs were far from being simple repetitions of the tune to different textual stanzas:
 In whatever ways folk-song may appeal to individual enthusiasts
 coming to it fresh from other planes of culture [...] it seems
 incontestable that to the folk-singer himself it appeals first and
 foremost as 'narrative song', and that, for him, words and music are
 practically inseparable. To most folk-singers, the tune of a song
 in (say) its fifth verse is not merely a repetition of the tune of
 Verse one' sung to different words, but is, rather, the particular
 music to those particular words [...] the creatively-gifted
 folk-singer or chantyman [will] evolve more or less profuse melodic,
 rhythmic, and dynamic variants our of his 'normal tune' to meet the
 emotional needs of different verses, and match their changing
 word-rhythms; all in accordance with his dim sense for an organic
 whole. (54)


Once again, Grainger dismissed the notion of architectonic form. Strophic form may not possess the same sort of structural integrity claimed by traditional classical forms such as the sonata, but one must remember that Grainger did not subscribe to any fundamental difference between high and folk art, and he therefore felt free to criticize each with critical tools derived from the study of the other. He stated unequivocally that folk song is not in a strophic form at all, but that the melody is so wedded to the words as to produce a music in which each part is equally vital. In order to make sure that his contentious point was not missed by the reader or by the FSS, he wrote: "This linking together of the repetitions of tunes, as well as of the halves of tunes, into an unbroken rhythmic flow embracing the full length of each song, bespeaks some sense for a closely-knit formal whole, and seems to me a distinct advance upon mere repetitions of a tune with random gaps in between.'(55)In this passage, Grainger was unquestionably stating that his conception of folk song was better than that of his colleagues. Furthermore, because the music was a 'closely-knit formal whole', the idea that collectors might rewrite sections of melody or words in order to make them more presentable, as well as ironing out the subtle melodic and rhythmic variations that gave the song so much of its character, was tantamount to the desecration of art.



The detailed notation of extremely subtle rhythmic and melodic variations was a particular bone of contention between Grainger and the FSS. For most collectors, such variations were primarily the result of memory lapse, nervousness, and the inevitable vocal degradation of many of the singers, most of whom were well beyond middle age. As a result, they were viewed by most collectors as mistakes the singers had made in the rendering of an ideal form of the song, and it was therefore the task of the collector and transcriber to iron out these inconsistencies in order to recover the tune. Grainger had a very different perspective:
 It is my experience that, in the case of singers with alert memories,
 very little of even the minutest details is random, but that the
 smallest rhythmic irregularities are repeated with no less unifotmity
 than are regular rhythm [...] This frequent uniform repetition of
 irregularities, goes, to my mind, to prove that very many of them
 are not mere careless or momentary deviations from a normal, regular
 form, but radical points of enrichment, inventiveness, and
 individualization, evolved in accordance with personal
 characteristics, and hallowed and cemented by consistent usage.56

Singers, therefore, intended to sing as they did. This was an exceptionally challenging statement, for one of the ideas that had been cemented by consistent usage by the FSS was that melodies were based on the ecclesiastical modes, and that the many tuning problems encountered by singers did not detract from that fact. After having transcribed the tunes he had recorded on the phonograph, by slowing them down in order to determine their most minute melodic details, Grainger stated that not only were the odd intervals in the melody intentional, but that they were based on a very specific musical practice. He determined that of the seventy-three songs transcribed in the article, forty-five were major and twenty-eight were modal. However, he believed that most of these latter were in a mode that was a hybrid blend of the modes, explaining that 'in their modal singing the intervals of the third and seventh are mutable and vague, although the tonic, the second, the fourth, the fifth, and in most cases the sixth, are usually strikingly definite and well-adhered to'.(57) In what is perhaps the most influential and oft-quoted passage from the article, he wrote:

 My conception of folk-scales, after a study of them in the
 phonograph, may be summed up as follows: that the singers from whom
 I have recorded do not seem to me to have sung in three different
 and disrinct modes (Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian), bur to have
 rendered their modal songs in one single loosely-knit modal
 folk-song scale, embracing within itself the combined Mixolydian,
 Dorian, and Aeolian characteristics.(58)

For some collectors, this was tantamount to heresy, as the idea that English folk song was modal had considerable currency in the folk song scholarship community.(59) Indeed, the caveat placed in the article by the Editing Committee testifies to how strongly they felt about the situation. However, Grainger was not alone in his analysis. Cecil Sharp, in his 1907 book English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions, had also determined that certain scale degrees showed a tendency to fluctuation involving intervals smaller than the semitone.''(60) Why, then, was Grainger's statement such a problem?


The answer lies in a fundamental aesthetic distinction between Grainger and Sharp concerning the role such ornaments and variations had in the context of the song. For Sharp, such ornaments were just that: ornaments. Their purpose was to ornament a fundamentally stable interval and were therefore of secondary importance in the context of the melodic outline of the entire song. For Grainger, however, such fluctuations were not merely ornaments, but an integral part of the tune, for it was the possibility of subtle manipulation of pitch that allowed the singer to avoid the strict repetition of melodic material throughout the song, thereby making the song not simply a sequence of repeated stanzas, but a free-flowing, almost through-composed whole.


This is where knowledge of Free Music comes in rather handy. Grainger placed great emphasis on the idea of not repeating melodic material in Free Music, an idea be derived from Wagner's concept of 'endless melody, and his musical aesthetic was thus already well attuned to this concept when he encountered English folk song. Figure 3 shows Grainger's transcription of' Lord Melbourne' as sung by George Wray on 28 July 1906, transcribed with the aid of a phonograph recording. What becomes clear in this transcription is that the extent of variation between stanzas was often so extreme that the melodic materials in each one bore little resemblance to the others. What Grainger described elsewhere as a 'regular riot of individualistic excrescences and idiosyncrasies of every kind', (61) was something to which perhaps only he, with his already established conviction that melody should consist of something other than the periodic eight-bar phrase, would have been sensitive.


Grainger's assertions led to some amusing back and forth commentary in the article itself. As mentioned above, the editorial method allowed Grainger to respond to criticisms, with both criticism and response sometimes ending up in the article, thereby giving the reader a better idea of the debate taking place. Figure 4 shows Grainger's transcription of 'Rufford Park Poachers' as sung by Joseph Taylor on 4 August 1906. Figure 5 shows 'Georgie' performed by the same singer on the same day. In both cases, J. A. Fuller Maitland identified the odd-time signatures (5/8 in 'Rufford Park Poachers' and 5/4 in 'Georgie') as brief pauses created by exaggerated accents and wayward rhythms. In Fuller Maitland's terms, such irregularity was simply individual taste, which was secondary to the fundamental regular rhythms that lay underneath vulgar expression. However, later in the article, Grainger appears to respond directly to this sort of criticism:

 I am well aware that many of the minute rhythmic irregularities of
 the above (such as the 3/16 bars) are mere wayward and theoretically
 unimportant lengthenings and shortenings of rhythms fundamentally
 regular. Nevertheless their presence added to the extreme quaintness
 of Mr. Wray's rendering, and I feel there may be value in as literal
 as possible a translation into musical notation of all his
 details. (62)

In the case of 'The White Hare', sung by Joseph Taylor on 28 July 1906 (Figure 6), it was Cecil Sharp who covertly challenged Grainger's transcriptions:
 The modal uniformity, which is usually characteristic of
 Mixolydian-Dorian tunes, seems in this case to be lacking. The first
 phrases are pure Dorian, and the remaining ones equally pure
 Mixolydian [...] Consequently this strikes me as a clear instance of
 a folk-air that modulates, though without change of tonal-centre
 (akin to the modulation of tonic-minor to tonic-major in modern
 music). It is a pity that Mr. Taylor could only remember a single
 verse. It is just possible chat if he could have continued his song
 he might have modified his tune in the later verses. I have so often
 found that a singer will sing the first verse of a song differently
 from the others; this is usually, although not invariably, because
 he has not got thoroughly into his stride. (63)

The difficulty this tune presented is found in the movement between minor thirds in the first half of the piece and major thirds in the last six bars. Grainger attributed this to the mutability of the third scale degree. Sharp was willing to grant the possibility that Grainger had transcribed it correctly, but preferred to interpret the problematic thirds as indicative of modulation akin to an extended tierce de picardie cadential figure, in which a piece in a minor key moves to the parallel major for the final cadence. He also subtly hinted that Taylor himself may have been to blame for his initial modulation, implying that this might have been evidence of warming-up, or perhaps even nervousness inspired by the use of the phonograph.





Grainger's response (dated 20/6/08) was directly to the point:
 Since I wrote the above, Mr. Taylor has recalled six verses of the
 song closely resembling the words in Traditional Tunes, and has had
 a record made of it by the Gramophone Co. He seemed to me to keep
 throughout to the plan of the above; i.e., invariably singing minor
 thirds in the upper octave, and major thirds in the last six bars,
 and mostly minor thirds in the lower octave throughout the rest of
 the tune.(64)


The format of the editorial comments thus not only allows us to see the arguments brewing between Grainger and the FSS, but the extent of the efforts of the Editing Committee to challenge Grainger's findings, as well as Grainger's well-planned counter-strategies, which effectively take the sting out of his colleagues' criticisms.

(iii) transcriptions, ontology, and the folk song of the future

Grainger's suggestion of the primacy of the performance event as the locus of a song's artistic merit hints at a deeper agenda regarding musical ontology:
 The more I hear talented traditional singers in the flesh, and study
 phonograph records of their singing, the stronger grows my personal
 feeling that any noting down of an individually gifted man's songs
 that does not give all possible details of all the different verses of
 his songs, and, in certain cases, of his different renderings at
 different times [...] cannot claim to be a representative picture
 of such a man's complete art and artistic culture, but only a portion
 of it; hardly more representative of his whole artistic activity and
 import than is a piano arrangement of an orchestral score.(65)

The analogy of the piano arrangement of the orchestral score is significant, for it brings to mind Busoni's difficult aesthetic regarding the ontology of music and the nature of transcription.(66) Busoni's essentially Platonic aesthetic was that all music exists prior to performance and, possibly, prior to composition. The music exists in an ideal form (whether in the mind of the composer or in the transcendent metaphysical ether is never made clear) before the notes are put down on paper. As a result, any attempt by the composer to bring such music into a mundane existence is essentially a transcription of an already existing piece of music. Furthermore, a performance of that piece is also a transcription, but now it is a transcription of a transcription, with each level of transcription being merely an imperfect rendering of a perfect original.(67) The imperfection of each level of transcription, its failure to live up to the previous stage of transcription, as well as the ultimate failure of all transcriptions to do justice to the Platonic original, is critical, for it was the task of composer and musician to get as close as they could to that original form, using whatever means at their disposal. In a sense, this accords with the views of the traditional collectors of the FSS: the performance by the singer was merely an imperfect rendering of a perfect original, with the difference here being that the original was not metaphysical but possibly a broadside ballad or some other original version of the song. Also, for the FSS collectors, the transcription was not an imperfect rendering of the performance but was in fact one step closer to the perfect original, for one may recall that many collectors considered it their task to strip away the individual performance elements of the song in order to get at the original that must surely lie underneath. While there may have been subtle differences between Busoni and the FSS, the important common element is that there was an untainted original of which the composer/collector had to attempt to recover the traces.

Grainger's paradigm was one of compression and revolution, for by shifting the locus of artistic merit from the ideal original to the performance itself, the performance became the song, and Grainger's extremely complex transcriptions became imperfect transcriptions of a perfect original. For Busoni, the original was a thing unto itself that could never be completely accessed in the material world. For Grainger, the performance was the thing unto itself, a thing that could be recorded with the phonograph and transcribed to the best of his ability. There was no need to restore the original to its immaculate state, as the FSS tried to do, as the original existed in its immaculate state in its perfectly accessible performance.

Yet as complex and meticulous as Grainger's transcriptions were, they were by their very nature imperfect because they were still a stage removed from the original performance. The phonograph was thus the initial stage in the development of automated machines that would do away with tradirional notation, transcription, and human transcribers altogether. Grainger had already been theorizing about such possibilities with the 'Beatless-Notation Machine' from 1902, and had discussed the possibilities of such technology with John William Strutt (1842-1919), author of Treatise on the Theory of Sound, over lunch on 9 April 1908.(68) Grainger also noted the work of Dr Marage in Paris, who had produced an article in the Windsor Magazine in January 1908 entitled 'Photographing Sound' and was constructing a machine that could 'note all the details of pitch, duration, dynamics, and vowel-sounds with the needful accuracy'.(69) Grainger saw the phonograph as merely the seed of increasingly autonomous mechanized progeny of the future which would render the task of traditional notation and transcription obsolete.

This goes some way towards explaining the phrasing of the Editing Committee's caveat with respect to the phonograph: 'whether the phonograph is sufficiently perfect as yet to be preferred as a substitute for the human ear is still a debatable point. (70) This is a seemingly curious statement, for Grainger at no point suggested that the phonograph itself was anything more than an aid to the human ear. The machine did not do the transcription. It was Grainger, armed with a metronome, pitch pipe, highly trained ear, and a burgeoning modernist aesthetic, who did the transcription. The FSS was not warning about Grainger's current methods but about those to come, for the tenor of Grainger's argument was unmistakable: the future of folk music transcription lay in machines that could access and record folk song in a perfect and impersonal manner, in much the same way that the future of Free Music lay in machines that could perform such music in emotional ways unattainable by human beings. Machines were part of Grainger's musical aesthetic and, as their role increased, human intervention would naturally retreat. (71) The folk singer, as both performer and composer, and thus the only location of the music, was integral to the scenario and could never be replaced by a machine. It was simply a new sort of scenario that Grainger envisioned: a singer to create the music and a mechanized automaton to record and transcribe it.

Grainger also believed that machines would be able to provide an answer to some of the most vexing problems of notation. Grainger's transcriptions demonstrate that, although he advocated the dynamic possibilities of traditional notation, he was clearly straining against its limitations in his attempt to capture the minute nuances of the music he heard. Traditional Western notation had, like language, evolved over time to meet the needs of the community it served: that of Western art music musicians and composers. For Grainger, however, the complexity of the music he was trying to capture far outstripped that of the language by which it could be conveyed. In other words, the semiotic system of traditional notation had far fewer signifiers available to it than it had signifieds that required representation. This was an obstacle that many in the field of comparative musicology had encountered and had attempted to rectify, with various degrees of success, and one that would soon enough be met with in the field of art music composition as well, as the extended notational experiments of composers such as John Cage demonstrate. (72) During his study of folk song in England, Grainger worked with the notational language he had available to him, that in which he had worked all his life, though he seemed determined to push it to its limits. His later Free Music experiments, from the 1930s until the end of his life, were written to be performed on his own specially designed 'Free Music Machines', which read a type of graphic notation created by the composer himself. In addition to his interest in the work of sound engineers such as Strutt and Marage, these developments indicate that Grainger saw machines as playing a vital role in allowing music to escape the semiotic quandary in which he considered it to be mired.

Grainger also had little time for another of the obstacles thrown up by the FSS concerning the use of the phonograph, namely the fear it was alleged to inspire in the singers. Many collectors were wary of the phonograph because they claimed it could intimidate and even frighten singers into performing far below their abilities. Grainger's relationship with his singers seems to have demonstrated not only that singers, being intelligent and curious human beings, adapted quite well to the phonograph, but that it was very often the manner of the collectors themselves that spelled the difference between success and failure in phonograph recording:
 In fact, when once the strangeness of the new method is over, it is
 far less upsetting to folksingers and chantymen than having their
 songs noted in the ordinary way, as it is such a boon to them not
 to be continually stopped during their performances. Not only does
 their memory tend to be far more accurare when they are free to sing
 a song through from end to end (having to stop only at the end of
 the run of each wax cylinder, i.e. about 2 1/4 minutes), but their
 unconscious sense for rhythmic and dynamic contrasts and dramatic
 effects - in the case of those few singers who indulge in the
 latter - has such incomparably greater scope. (73)

According to Grainger's account, the novelty of the phonograph not only excited the curiosity of the singers but actually raised their performance abilities, because they no longer felt constrained by the limitations of having to repeat both melody and words to a collector and amanuensis. No less an authority than Bela Bartok related a similar anecdote:
 The girls are too shy to sing to strange city folk, and often one is
 compelled to flatter some village beauty for an hour or so before
 she consents to sing one little song. Her voice is shaky as she
 raises it - but the ice is broken at last. The melody is set down,
 the text noted, and now for the phonograph. But a new difficulty
 arises. Fears are voiced as to whether ones 'soul will not be
 bewitched by this devilish thing with the great mouthpiece'. This
 obstruction is finally overcome, the song recorded and immediately
 reproduced for the benefit of the public at large. There is
 indescribable astonishment and rapture of the crowd around the
 researcher! 'How is it possible?' 'Why, that's her own voice coming
 out of the devil-machine.' And a voice is heard from the audience:
 'Oh, I want to sing into it too, as well as she,' and now matters are
 well under way. The wildest rivalry ensues; everybody wishes to hear
 his or her 'own voice' sound forth from the apparatus. Work is kept
 up at a feverish speed until midnight--the people never tire. (74)

Perhaps the richest irony is that the phonograph Grainger initially used was in fact owned by the FSS and was therefore quite possibly used subsequently by Lucy Broadwood, Cecil Sharp, and/or Ralph Vaughan Williams, all members of the Editing Committee that had previously objected to its use. (75)

The art of English folk song

By 1931 collectors of folk song in England believed that their task was finished. As A. H. Fox Strangways told the FSS: 'There are no more folk-songs, only variants, to collect', (76) thus revealing the extent, even twenty-three years after Grainger's article, to which collectors still valued the songs themselves as antiquarian objects, as well as the continuing dismissal of the folk singer's art. For Grainger, however, the folk musicians were to be celebrated as artists in their own right, and this meant a rejection not only of the idea of the song as an object, but also of the folk community as possessed of a single 'folk aesthetic' with which musical decisions were made in an evolutionary and communal manner:
 However predominantly communal the broad evolution of folk-songs (and
 chanties?) has been, and still is, there surely can be no question of
 the extreme individualism of the only tangible manifestations of this
 evolution; i.e. the different versions of different singers [...]
 Gifted folk-song and chanty singers of exceptional temperament stand
 out as gloriously from their fellows of less attractive emotional
 fibre in this, as in any other branch of art and life; and it is to
 such peasant and sailor talents that collectors need to go for
 valuable versions of heart-stirring grip [...] Behind all this
 variegated mass of personal characteristics the collector, and the
 student of accurately noted variants, may feel the throb of the
 communal pulse, but each single manifestation of it is none the
 less highly individualistic and circumscribed by the temperamental
 limitations of each singer. (77)

The evolutionary theory of Cecil Sharp is the obvious target here, for such a theory denied the aesthetic autonomy of the individual artist and instead enslaved him or her with the chains of communal art. Grainger celebrated more than simply the music of the folk. He also celebrated their lives. As mentioned above, it was not the idealized simplicity of the rural lifestyle, a view so popular among his colleagues, but the complexity of their lives, their 'all-roundedness', that appealed to him:
 H. G. Wells, the novelist, who was with me during a 'folksong hunt'
 in Gloucestershire, on noticing that I noted down not merely the
 music and dialect details of the songs, but also many characteristic
 scraps of banter that passed between the old agriculturalists around
 us, once said to me: 'You are trying to do a more difficult thing
 than record folk-songs; you are trying to record life'; and I
 remember the whimsical, almost wistful, look which accompanied the
 remark. But 1 felt then, as I feel now, that it was the
 superabundance of art in these men's lives, rather than any
 superabundance of life in their art, that made me so anxious to
 preserve their old saws and note their littlest habits. (78)

His celebration of the lives of the folk singers was not something Grainger could share with most of his colleagues. Even Edvard Grieg, for whom he had tremendous admiration as a champion of Norwegian folk song, could not quite bring himself to embrace the rough-hewn edges of rural singers. Grainger related an anecdote that occurred after Grieg had removed some lyrics to a drinking song which he considered inappropriate. Grainger had advocated leaving them in, as he preferred the roughness in folk song to be presented as it was:
 Grieg said: 'That is the difference between you and me & in our
 approach to folksong. I am always a Romantiker & you are a
 scientist.' That is true. But it is also true that I feel piously
 (worshippingly) towards the personalities of the country folk who
 have preserved folkart for us thru the ages & consider no detail of
 their art-life & artistic point-of-view unworthy of preservation
 [...] Grieg brought more to folksong than he took from it. It is his
 middleclass, cosmopolitan sophistication brought to bear on folksong
 that made such a rich combination. It is significant what he told
 me of his years in Hardanger, or wherever it was: 'I wanted to like
 the peasants & to feel at one with them. But when the drinking bowl
 was handed around & I saw the stain of chewed tobacco in its rim I
 just felt sickened.' (79)

Contrary even to his friend and idol, Grainger saw folk song, as well as folk life, not as an object to be collected or a musical idea upon which to formulate a national musical style, but as a legitimate aesthetic object that demonstrated aspects of talent and genius in its creators.


Despite the protestations of the FSS concerning his methodology and predictions for the future, the value it placed on Grainger's article can be measured in monetary figures. C. J. Bearman has determined that while the printing costs for issue no. 10 of the JFSS were [pounds sterling]34 19s., and those for no. 11 were [pounds sterling]46 15s., those for no. 12, Grainger's issue, were [pounds sterling]66 6s., mostly due to the length of Grainger's musical examples. His article therefore devoured more than half of the annual [pounds sterling]120 income of the FSS. (80) It seems as though the FSS was aware of the value of Grainger's work, whether it agreed with it or not.

Julia C. Bishop has raised the intriguing possibility that Grainger's article might have had some influence on the work of the American collector James Madison Carpenter, who collected folk song in Britain between 1928 and 1935. (81) Although she states that Carpenter did not explicitly mention Grainger, his views on transcription, the importance he saw in collecting the entire tune instead of representative stanzas, and his extensive use of mechanical sound recording might indicate that he was, to some extent, aware of Grainger's work. This could mean that Grainger's philosophy of folk song, or at least his collecting methodology, found at least some fertile soil for growth in the years following the publication of 'Collecting with the Phonograph'. As Carpenter's prolific collection remains unpublished, though the subject of extensive study, we shall perhaps have to wait somewhat longer in order to determine if signs of Grainger's influence are to be found there.

Grainger's transcription methods have had a considerable impact on the study of English, Anglo-American, and Anglo-Canadian folk music. Many of his ideas, particularly about transcription, the primacy of the performance event, and the artistic validity of all musical utterances, are now commonplace in ethnomusicology, and the impact of his radical aesthetic is thus somewhat lessened today. Nevertheless, as Grainger framed many of the ideas concerning folk music that are now considered doctrinal, it is important to account for his work by considering the material out of which it was forged. By creating a patchwork philosophy of modernism, some original and some borrowed from numerous unacknowledged sources, which was ostensibly designed to further his own compositional activities, he brought a unique aesthetic to bear on the collecting and assessment of folk song. Unlike his friend Grieg, Grainger contributed ideas of inestimable and long-standing value to the study of folk song, in addition to the inspiration he took from it.


I am very grateful to the Editorial Board of the Folk Music Journal, especially Dr David Atkinson and Dr Peter Cooke, for their invaluable assistance and patience in hammering this paper into a presentable format.


(1) Dave Marker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British 'Folksong' 1700 to the Present Day, Popular Music in Britain (London: Open University Press, 1985), pp. 207-09.

(2) Gwilym Davies, 'Percy Grainger's Folk Music Research in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire, 19071909', Folk Music Journal, 6. 3 (1992), 339-58; Michael Yates, 'Percy Grainger and the Impact of the Phonograph', Folk Music Journal, 4.3 (1982), 265-75.

(3) C. J. Bearman, 'Percy Grainger, the Phonograph, and the Folk Song Society', Music and Letters, 84 (2003), 434-55.

(4) Bearman, p. 435.

(5) Percy Grainger, 'Free Music', in Grainger on Music, ed. by Malcolm Gillies and Bruce Clunies Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 293-94.

(6) Grainger, 'Free Music', p. 293.

(7) Carl Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism, trans. by Mary Whictall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 54.

(8) Margaret Hee-Leng Tan, 'Free Music of Percy Grainger', Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, nos. 45-46 (January-April 1972), p. 33.

(9) Richard Wagner, The Artwork of the Future, in Richard Wagner's Prose Works, vol. 1, trans. by William Ashton Ellis (New York: Broude Brothers, 1966), p. 121. See also Dahlhaus, pp. 54-55.

(10) Dahlhaus, p. 56.

(11) Hee-Leng Tan, p. 23-24.

(12) Percy Grainger, 'My Musical Outlook', in Grainger on Music, pp. 13-28 (p. 19) (Grainger's italics).

(13) Ferruccio Busoni, Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, in Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (New York: Dover, 1962), pp. 73-102 (p. 89).

(14) Busoni, pp. 93-94.

(15) Percy Grainger, 'The Impress of Personality in Unwritten Music', in Grainger on Music, pp. 43-64 (p. 53).

(16) Grainger, 'My Musical Outlook', p. 17.

(17) Robert P. Morgan, 'A New Musical Reality: Futurism, Modernism, and "The Art of Noises'", in Modernism/Modernity, 1.3 (1994), 1-41.

(18) Busoni, pp. 78-79.

(19) Busoni, p. 79.

(20) Hee-LengTan, p. 23.

(21) Percy Grainger, 'Beatless-Notation Machine', in Grainger on Music, pp. 29-34.

(22) Percy Grainger, Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger, ed. by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear, and Mark Carroll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 256.

(23) Grainger, 'Free Music', p. 294.

(24) Busoni, pp. 85-86.

(25) Ferruccio Busoni, The Essence of Music and Other Papers, trans. by Rosamond Lay (New York: Dover, 1957), p. 199.

(26) Grainger, Self Portrait, p. 201.

(27) Grainger, 'Beatless-Notation Machine'.

(28) Busoni, p. 95.

(29) Hee-LengTan, p. 35.

(30) Lonce Wyse, 'Free Music and the Discipline of Sound', Organised Sound, 8(2003), 237-47 (p. 240).

(31) Burnett Cross, 'Grainger Free Music Machine', Journal of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, nos. 45-46 (January-April 1972), 17-20.

(32) Vic Gammon, 'Folk Song Collecting in Sussex and Surrey, 1843-1914', History Workshop journal, no. 10 (1980), 61-89.

(33) Helene M. Kastinger Riley, 'Some German Theories on the Origin of Language from Herder to Wagner', Modern Language Review 74 (1979), 617-32.

(34) Wagner, p. 205.

(35) John Blacking, A Commonsense View of All Music: Reflections on Percy Grainger's Contributions to Ethnomusicology and Music Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 46.

(36) Grainger, 'Impress', p. 46.

(37) Percy Grainger, 'The Specialist and the AllRound Man', in Grainger on Music, pp. 312-17 (p. 316).

(38) Grainger, 'Impress', pp. 44-45.

(39) Grainger, 'Impress', p. 82.

(40) Percy Grainger, 'Collecting with the Phonograph', Journal of the Folk-Song Society, 3.3 (12) (1908), 147-242.

(41) Yates, p. 274 n. 1.

(42) Grainger,'Collecting', p. 191.

(43) The Farthest North of Humanness: Letters of Percy Grainger 1901--1914, ed. by Kay Dreyfus (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1985), p. 209.

(44) The Farthest North of Humanness, p. 172.

(45) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 159.

(46) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 150.

(47) Harker, pp. 194-95.

(48) John Bird, Percy Grainger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 117.

(49) Jane O'Brien, The Grainger English Folk Song Collection (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1985), p. 21.

(50) The Farthest North of Humanness, p. 45.

(51) Bird, p. 117.

(52) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 150.

(53) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 154.

(54) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 153.

(55) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 155.

(56) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 155.

(57) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 158.

(58) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 158 (Grainger's italics). Peter van der Merwe has speculated that the many instances of false-relations involving both major and minor sevenths grinding against one another simultaneously in the music of Henry Purcell might indicate that such sevenths were actually performed as neutral sevenths. This, he writes, would be the case particularly when the seventh was an apical seventh, or the climax of an ascending melodic line that returned to scale degree six instead of leading back to the tonic. See Peter Van der Merwe, Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 101.

(59) Richard Sykes, "The Evolution of Englishness in the English Folksong Revival, 1890-1914', Folk Music Journal, 6.4 (1993), 446-90 (p. 479).

(60) Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (London: Simpkin; Novello; Taunton: Barnicott & Pearce, 1907), pp. 71-72.

(61) Grainger, 'Impress', p. 49.

(62) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 205.

(63) Grainger, 'Collecting,' p. 190.

(64) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 190. Taylor's recording of 'Georgie' for the Gramophone Company is included on the 12-inch LP Unto Brigg Fair: Joseph Taylor and Other Traditional Lincolnshire Singers Recorded in 1908 by Percy Grainger (Leader LEA 4050, 1972). My own listening to this later version of'Georgie' (the one to which Grainger referred in the article) reveals that Taylor keeps to the plan indicated by Grainger with remarkable consistency. The recording also reveals some other interesting things. At 01:49 Taylor stumbles over the words 'And all the men', marking the entry into the end of the stanza, at which point a barely audible voice in the background appears to supply him with the words. This voice can be heard intermittently throughout the rest of the track. Grainger noted that the words Taylor 'recalled' were very similar to those found in Frank Kidson's Traditional Tunes, and what is very possible is that the voice on the track belongs to Grainger and that Taylor did not recall the words at all but learned them anew at Grainger's request. Grainger may have been fudging the truth on this point slightly in order to be able to counter effectively Sharp's criticism, for as the example without accompanying text in the article shows, Taylor had forgotten the words entirely. It was, perhaps, not merely prompting that Taylor needed, but to relearn the words. There is some further evidence for this in Grainger's correspondence with Taylor's daughter, Annie Allen. In a letter of 20 September 1906, Allen wrote to Grainger: 'My father has been asked to sing some "Old Folk Songs" at a concert in Ferriby and he wondered if you would be so very kind as to lend him your book of songs for a day or two, to copy out the words of one or two songs' (University of Melbourne, Grainger Museum, Percy Grainger Collection, Incoming Correspondence, PG 209-227, Bay 1, Box 55). In the next letter, dated 1 5 October 1906, Allen wrote: 'p.s. I will return the Kidson book tomorrow' (Incoming Correspondence, PG 209-227, Bay 1, Box 55). Grainger and Taylor clearly had an established history of using Frank Kidson's Traditional Tunes to fill in gaps in Taylor's memory of song texts.

(65) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 151.

(66) Busoni, p. 86.

(67) Given Busoni's proclivities towards transcriptions of works for piano, one could say that a performance of his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor lor organ by J. S. Bach is a transcription of a transcription of a transcription of a perfect original.

(68) The Farthest North of Humanness, p. 206. Grainger related that Strutt appeared to be bored and uninterested in his ideas.

(69) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 152.

(70) Both Anne Gilchrist and Cecil Sharp had suggested that the phonograph exaggerated and amplified elements that were merely of minor importance to the song and thus deserved no real place in Grainger's transcriptions. Grainger ("Collecting', p. 148) responded directly to these criticisms as follows: 'It is possible to note clown from the machine difficult and very fast tunes with far greater accuracy if the speed-screw be screwed down until the record is running much below its original pitch and speed [...] It has been suggested to me that by this method one is overapt to note down many minute details which play a practically negligible part in the complete impression of the song at full speed in actual performance. While realizing that there may be much truth in this objection to the above desctibed method I cannot say that my personal experience so far has led me to share it. I have not noticed that new and unlooked-for details revealed themselves in songs when run much below their original speed, but rather only that already noticed enticing points became as it were enlarged and graspable where before they had been tantalizingly fleeting and puzzling. My experience is, however, very limited, as I have never slowed down any records of songs but such as disclosed at their full speed a greater richness of detail than I could satisfactorily cope with at that rate.' For the letters containing the criticisms by Gilchrist and Sharp, see Yates, pp. 266 - 70.

(71) There is an unmistakable irony in the fact that although Grainger embraced mechanized means of realizing his musical ideals, he shared Wagner's distaste for increased industrialization as well as the encroachment of the urban landscape on rural areas of England. However, Grainger's use of machines did not supplant entirely the role of the human being. Machines were never intended to substitute for the role of the composer, only for the performer. To revert to the vocabulary, if not the ideas, of Busoni, the perfect original music always resided in the mind of a human composer, or, in the case of folk song, a pet former.

(72) For more, see James Grier, The Critical Editing of Music: History, Method, and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 24-28; Ter Ellingson, 'Notation, in Ethnomusicology, ed. by Helen Myers (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 153-64; Ter Ellingson, 'Transcription', in Ethnomusicology, pp. 110-52.

(73) Grainger, 'Collecting', p. 147.

(74) Bela Bartok, 'The Peasant Music of Hungary', in Bela Bartok: Studies in Ethnomusicology, translated nnd edited by Benjamin Suchoff (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), p. 139.

(75) Bearman, p. 455.

(76) Yates, p. 271.

(77) Grainger, 'Collecting', pp. 163-64.

(78) Grainger, 'Impress', p. 48.

(79) Grainger, Self-Portrait, p. 251.

(80) Bearman, p. 436.

(81) Julia C. Bishop, 'The Tunes of the English and Scottish Ballads in the James Madison Carpenter Collection', Folk Music Journal, 7.4 (1998), 450-70 (pp. 453-55).
COPYRIGHT 2009 English Folk Dance and Song Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Freeman, Graham
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Previous Article:The calling-on song in the North-West of England - Part II.
Next Article:The North of England musical tournament: history of the sword dance competition trophies.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters