Percy Aldridge Grainger - British Folk-Music Settings No. 22 "Country Gardens" (1918)
Lionised as a pianist and feted as a composer, Grainger had written about ninety solo piano music. Among these works, one-third of them, including Country Gardens, are based on music composed by others. The Morris Dance tune that this piano setting is based on was provided by Cecil Sharp in 1908. Upon receiving it, Grainger roughly sketched it for two whistlers and a few instruments for accompaniment. It had not been worked out for piano until ten years later.
Grainger had lived in several countries during his life. It was the United States, the territory where he spent most time in, that the current piano version was completed. When serving as a bandsman in the American Army during World War I, he was often called on to improvise on Country Gardens’ tune on the piano at Liberty Loan concerts which raised money for the war effort. The audience was always thrilled by it, resulting in his decision to put the work on paper in Spring 1918. The finalised work was gifted to his mother on her birthday, and was later dedicated to Grieg, who once publicly expressed admiration for Grainger’s intelligence and artistic insight.
To reach the unsophisticated audience, Grainger wrote some small-scale music such as Country Gardens. The tuneful and light-hearted nature had successfully allowed this work to become very popular that it broke the publisher’s previous sales records, he had nevertheless developed a growing abhorrence towards it. As a composer with strong interest in writing experimental works, Grainger found these well-liked small pieces badly scored and designed. He therefore rearranged Country Gardens for wind band in 1953 using various new instrumental colours, despite his hatred for it.
Apart from the differences in keys and metres between the dance tune and the piano setting, another major dissimilarity is the reversed order of the three phrases. With Grainger’s love of contrasting instrumental colourings, this work covers more than six octaves on the piano and an extensive range of dynamics is explored. To assist pianists in interpreting it as desired, Grainger had put detailed indications down on the score, for example, “very gently and smoothly”, “violently”, “very sharp”, “fist” and so on. Together with the numerous dynamic and pedal markings, pianists are able to imitate his powerful playing, stark contrast in tones, and subtle pedalling, making the music band-like. One last point the composer added, “A country garden, in the English sense, is not a flower garden. It is a small vegetable garden. So, you may think of turnips, if you like as I play.”