Mementoes of a maverick: inside the Percy Grainger museum

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Percy Grainger, photograph by Ruskin Studios, Melbourne, 1926.
Percy Grainger, photograph by Ruskin Studios, Melbourne, 1926.

The world’s biggest motor museum might be a holy grail for classic car buffs but it’s no place for silent worship.

At Mulhouse in eastern France, as you struggle to take in the automotive gold mine that includes 105 Bugattis, a huge musical automaton suddenly erupts fortissimo. It is an old Mortier organ that looks like a small circus, so big they had to dig a great hole to get it into the building. Coarse music to go with refined cars, but at least it’s music.

Unlike a Jean Tinguely musical sculpture just down the road in Basel, Switzerland. This too is an enormous mechanical device that combines art with sound. It’s a mad cacophony of percussive clanking and crashing hardware, an alter­native orchestra that threatens to self-destruct, as one of Tinguely’s other works actually did, bursting into flames in New York. It recalls the childish delight in hitting things with other things.

As music museums go, it’s hard to beat Europe, but there’s a fascinating one at Melbourne University, with lots of weird music machines in it. And it’s free.

The Grainger Museum, purpose built in the 1930s and now heritage-listed, begins its display with Percy Grainger’s baby booties, but when it gets to the truly astonishing musical devices and wacky instruments that rise far above mere gadgetry, the complex Grainger character emerges.

Brighton-born Percy (1882-1961) is mostly remembered (perhaps unfairly) for arranging and playing Country Gardens, a rollicking English folk ditty once favoured by piano teachers to put their students through the wringer, and as a popular pianola roll for those who could only pedal.

Percy Grainger museum costumes

Europe bound

After leaving Melbourne in his teens, Grainger’s golden hair, charisma, vivid talent and aristocratic connections saw him cut a romantic swathe through the European salons and concert halls. He only came back to Australia to visit and to organise his museum. 

Yet his successful public life in virtuoso performance is only half the story. It includes his later excursions into the design of bizarre clothing, and his quirky arrangements of sound and music based on wind noises, the sea, industrial whistles and other ready-made sources rarely exploited.

This became part of his revolutionary notion about “free” music, which is still taken seriously by avant-garde composers of electronic music. Bored with musical conventions, he replaced them with his own. No fixed rhythms, pitches or tunes; no Western-style notation; a rejection of formal scales and structure; and a disdain for what he called the tyranny of the concert hall.

This idea spelt encouragement for every amateur performer with a gum leaf, a one-string fiddle or a saw.

Grainger would have liked Tinguely.

He campaigned for music to be seen as a universal language. Brass bands and classic orchestras, local folk music, gypsy violinists or the intuitive stuff of remote tribes … all were deemed of equal significance.

People warmed to his eccentricities. He held dubious views about Nordic racial purity, proclaimed himself a greater composer than Mozart, and designed contraptions intended to make new music untouched by human hand.

Many of these musical gizmos are in his museum. Some look unplayable, more like experimental apparatus from the physics department. Indeed, one of them, the Cross-Grainger Kangaroo Pouch (!) was partly built by Barnett Cross, a physics student.

Since Grainger began and maintained the museum himself in the 1930s, you get a thorough dose of intimate detail: letters from more famous composers such as Grieg and Delius, friendship notes from Melba, rare musical scores, program notes about his performances under royal patronage.

Art bonus: two cracking portraits of him by Rupert Bunny and Jacques-Emile Blanche, plus some Norman Lindsay works, evoke the period perfectly. 

Seeking immortality

Being a prodigious pianist was not enough. Grainger wanted immortality as a composer, although the few pieces he composed were mostly quite short. He spread his original creative talent around, publicly talking up his left-field theories about a variety of issues, making art (he was a gifted draughtsman), promoting and arranging the work of other composers, exploring the music of neg­lected cultures.

As part of the visit, you hear Country Gardens hammering away in the background, and there are plenty of minor autobiographical distractions: the itchy-looking woolly garments, his old American army uniform (he joined as a bandsman after leaving England when WWI broke out), and even a special toothbrush.

It was even rumoured that Grainger wanted his skeleton to be preserved here. That didn’t happen. But it suggests the obsessive drive behind this museum, an attempt to re-assemble a life which he finally decided was a failure.

That was an assumption born of des­pair. Fortunately, this place comes to a more optimistic conclusion.

Where to find it

The Grainger Museum, Gate 13, Royal Parade, Parkville (opposite Story Street). Free. Open Sunday to Friday 12-4pm, closed Christmas and through January. 8344 5270. Visit: grainger.unimelb.edu.au

Percy Grainger museum
Written by Ronald Millar
May 21, 2017