Percy Grainger Biography

Percy Grainger, an Australian-born pianist, composer, and arranger, played a significant role in the revival of British folk music in the early 20th century. Known for his experiments in modern music, Grainger’s musical talents were inherited from his accomplished pianist mother, Rose. Despite a troubled family life, Grainger’s prodigious skills and charming persona allowed him to quickly build a reputation as a pianist and composer. Following his mother’s passing, he dedicated himself to educational work and remained active in the music scene well into his 70s. His life story was the inspiration for the 1999 film Passion.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: George Percy Grainger
  • Died At Age: 78
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Ella Viola Brandelius Ström (m. 1928–1961)
    • Father: John Harry Grainger
    • Mother: Rose Annie Aldridge
  • Born Country: Australia
  • Composers
  • American Men
  • Died on: February 20, 1961
  • Place of death: White Plains, New York, United States
  • Ancestry: Australian American
  • Notable Alumni: Hoch Conservatory
  • Education: Hoch Conservatory

Childhood & Early Life

Percy Grainger was born on 8 July 1882, in Brighton, Colony of Victoria, Australia. His father, John Grainger, was an English-born architect who had emigrated to Australia. He was also an artist and had wide cultural interests. His wife, Rose Annie Aldridge, was an accomplished pianist. She was the daughter of prominent Adelaide hotelier George Aldridge.

John was a heavy drinker who had sexual relations with multiple women and as a result he contracted sexually transmitted disease. He even fathered a child with another woman despite being married to Rose. John and Rose had a strained marriage due to his promiscuity and separated in 1890.

Rose was an ambitious woman with a domineering personality. She home-schooled Percy and also taught him how to play the piano. The young boy was talented and gifted in music. He went on to give his first public performance as a pianist at the tender age of ten. He composed a piece called “A Birthday Gift to Mother” in 1893.

In 1895, Rose and Percy went to Europe so that the boy could study further under reputed maestros. He studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main for four years. Meanwhile, his mother became an English teacher.


Percy Grainger befriended a group of British students, including Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner, Norman O’Neill, and Cyril Scott and Norman O’Neill, with who he formed the Frankfurt Group. All the young men studied under German music teacher Iwan Knorr, who encouraged them to develop their individuality in musical expression.

Rose fell ill in 1900 and could no longer work. To earn some money, Percy started giving piano lessons and public performances. His first solo performance was in Frankfurt on 6 December 1900.

By 1901, he was confident of making it big as a concert pianist and left for the United Kingdom with his mother. Talented, charming, and good-looking, he was received warmly by the music lovers in London and was able to find wealthy patrons soon after his arrival. He was often invited to perform concerts in private homes.

One of his patrons introduced him to Queen Alexandra, who was much impressed by his musical talents. She began to attend his performances regularly. In the ensuing years, he continued to grow in fame and became acquainted with popular personalities, such as singer Adelina Patti and pianist Ferruccio Busoni.

During this period, he began to compose in earnest. He composed several Kipling settings and orchestral pieces. His composition “Hill Song Number 1” (1902), an instrumental piece, was much admired by Busoni. He also composed “Train Music” and “Charging Irishrey” in the same period.

After attending a lecture given by the pioneer folk-song historian Lucy Broadwood in 1905, Percy Grainger developed a keen interest in recording and collecting English folk songs. In the ensuing years, he gathered more than 300 native folk songs from all over the United Kingdom and assembled Edison cylinder recordings of these songs.

He continued to rise in stature as his music began to gain widespread popularity. He met and befriended prominent figures in the music world, including Richard Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Frederick Delius, and Debussy. Well-established by now, Percy Grainger began the large-scale publishing of his compositions in 1911. Many of his works were performed in concerts arranged by Balfour Gardiner at London’s Queen’s Hall in 1912. In the next couple of years, many of his works were performed to great acclaim.

First World War broke out in 1914, and Percy Grainger moved to the United States of America. He began his first American tour in February 1915 and performed at New York’s Aeolian Hall. He played two of his own compositions and a few works by Brahms, Bach, Chopin, and Handel.

In 1917, America entered the war and he enlisted as a bandsman in the U.S. Army with the 15th Coastal Artillery Corps Band in New York City. He made frequent appearances as a pianist at Red Cross and Liberty bond concerts in his 18 months’ service. He left the army in 1919 and resumed his career as a concert pianist, giving around 120 performances a year. He also led a course in piano technique at Chicago Musical College.

His mother died in 1922, leaving him devastated. He kept himself busy with educational work in schools and colleges throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He worked as a professor of music at New York University (NYU) for one year.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Percy Grainger played regularly in charity concerts, performing in a total of 274 charity events during the war years. He was physically and mentally exhausted by the time the war ended.

He stopped composing after 1950 and made his last Carnegie Hall appearance in 1954.

Family & Personal Life

Percy Grainger was extremely close to his mother, Rose, giving rise to speculations that their relationship was incestuous. He had sadomasochistic interests and was sexually involved with numerous women. He became sexually involved with an older woman, socialite Lillith Lowrey, in exchange for patronage. He was briefly engaged to a girl named Margot Harrison in 1913, but the relationship never culminated in marriage.

In 1928, he married Ella Ström, a Swedish-born artist. Ella already had a daughter from a previous relationship with who he formed a warm bond.

He was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery in October 1953. His bout with the disease would continue for several years. His health continually declined in the late 1950s, and he died on 20 February 1961, at the age of 78.

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