By any standard, Percy Grainger’s life was unusual. Raised — eccentrically – at home in Melbourne, Australia, by his mother, Grainger was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, at the age of 13 to continue his music studies. After six years in Frankfurt he moved his base to London, teaching, concertizing, and collecting folk songs. With the beginning of World War I Grainger moved to the U.S., where he quickly became very popular. He served in the U.S. Army for two years, playing oboe and soprano saxophone and instructing bands. His mother committed suicide in 1922, jumping from a New York skyscraper, and Grainger severely curtailed his concert engagements. He returned to folk song collection and later to teaching. In 1928 he married the Swedish poet Ella Viola Ström on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, after a concert in which he conducted the world premiere of his own Bridal Song: To A Nordic Princess (he was also a racist who believed in Nordic superiority). After two more concerts at the Bowl, Grainger and his bride left for their honeymoon, a hiking tour of Glacier National Park.
Grainger’s music can be every bit as odd as the man. Composed 1913-16 and dedicated to Frederick Delius, The Warriors: Music to an Imaginary Ballet had its West Coast premiere on that same concert at the Bowl, just before To a Nordic Princess. “No definite program or plot underlies the music, though certain mind-pictures set it going,” the composer wrote. “Often scenes of a ballet have flitted before the eyes of my imagination in which the ghosts of male and female warrior types of all times and places are spirited together for an orgy of warlike dances, processions, and merry-makings, broken or accompanied by amorous interludes; their frolics tinged with just that faint suspicion of wistfulness all holiday gladness wears.”
A tireless inventor of musical technical devices and forms as well as actual mechanical instruments, Grainger stressed a “fourth tonal group” (in addition to strings, woodwinds, and brass) in The Warriors: a percussion battery consisting of three pianos (sometimes played with mallets on the strings), two harps, celesta, glockenspiel, bass glockenspiel, xylophone, and marimba – very weird and extravagant for the time. He valued this group for its clarity and transparency of sound which he found particularly useful for what he called “double-chording,” a sort of pantonality with “unrelated chord-groups passing freely above, below, and through each other, without regard to the harmonic clash resulting therefrom.”
This is Grainger’s longest single work, nearly 20 minutes of sustained fantasy. It has 15 distinct themes (none of them traditional or popular, the composer assures us) and eight sections. These are the alternation of fast martial and orgiastic dances with slow, langorous interludes that Grainger described above. The concluding dance orgy “is broken off suddenly while at its height, whereupon the work ends with an abrupt anti-climax.”
— John Henken