“The Origins of Percy Grainger’s

Approach to Choral Music"


In Sing Out (Australian National Choral Association), Vol.36, No.3, 2019

Full Text:

The Australian-American composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961) expressed many opinions, musical and otherwise, throughout his life. That he thought of himself foremost as a choral composer[1] is an opinion little known yet significant to choral musicians. Like most aspects of his life, Grainger’s approach to writing for choirs was highly idiosyncratic and his contribution to this field ran the length of this career. Those who have performed a choral work by Grainger are unlikely to forget it, typically characterised by quirky score directions, difficult chromatic polyphony, considerable range demands, and the division of the standard SATB into many independent parts. Further, the choral music of Percy Grainger contains elements that anticipate some of his most quintessential compositional innovations, particularly the concept of ‘democratic polyphony,’ where all voices are free to contribute equally to the whole as a collective of independent melodies. As such, to examine these features, as well as the context of their origins in the tutelage of the singing teacher Théodore Gérold, brings to light Grainger’s distinctive approach to choral writing and the aesthetics behind them.

As a young student in 1895 Grainger and his mother travelled from Melbourne to Frankfurt-Am-Main to study at the Hoch Conservatorium. Finding a mutual incompatibility with his appointed composition teacher, Iwan Knorr, by 1896 Grainger had found a new mentor in the retired lithographer and amateur musician Karl Klimsch. An unconventional influence, Grainger would later state that ‘he (an amateur) was my only composition teacher; and I (a wild Australian) was his only composition pupil.’[2] One of the early tangible effects of this relationship was Klimsch’s encouragement of Grainger to explore Scottish folksong,[3] which Grainger avidly pursued, initially in the form of solo voice and piano settings. This engagement with the human voice quickly escalated into an interest in both accompanied and unaccompanied choral settings from 1898, and by 1900 over half of the compositions commenced were for chorus, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Grainger’s Early Compositions by Medium

One particularly remarkable and ambitious choral project, the Marching Song of Democracy, was commenced in 1901. Inspired by Walt Whitman, American democracy and Australian federation, it was originally intended ‘for voices and whistlers only … performed by a chorus of men, women, and children singing and whistling to the rhythmic accompaniment of their tramping feet as they marched along in the open air.’[4] The initial sketches of the work were written for an impressive 23-part chorus with independent chromatic melodic lines clashing to create a formidably dense and complex choral texture. However, the extreme difficulties inherent in the original sketches posed major musical and logistical challenges that Grainger, a keen innovator, even sought to address through mechanical assistance.[5] However, atypically for Grainger the adventurous choral concept was abandoned after 1902, and the piece was drastically rewritten as a work for SATB chorus and orchestra between 1908-1916. Regardless of its incomplete status, the substantial sketches of the Marching Song would remain the most intricate choral work Grainger attempted, and many of the techniques and characteristics contained within them would filter into his later choral music and play a significant role in defining his approach to this repertoire.

It is significant that in May 1901, shortly after work on the ambitious Marching Song had commenced, Percy Grainger approached Théodore Gérold (1866-1956), a Frankfurt-based ‘teacher of singing’[6] for lessons pertaining to choral composition. While Gérold is today known for his later career at the University of Strasbourg,[7] in his earlier professional life he had moved to Frankfurt in 1890[8] in order to study with the renowned baritone Julius Stockhausen at his Stockhausen’sche Gesangschule, eventually becoming established as a singing teacher in his own right.[9] Described as a scholar ‘with unusually wide interests,’[10] his expansive output, from Schubert to the art of French singing in the 17th century,[11] would eventually also include the singing treatise Kleine Sänger-fibel, highlighting his authority on vocal technique. Gérold’s presence in Frankfurt overlapped entirely with Grainger’s, and it is unsurprising after his departure from Knorr, and with a developing interest in choral music, that the young Grainger would seek the kind of expertise Gérold offered, either of his own accord or encouraged by Klimsch. It is possible that Grainger felt a potential weakness of craft in the area of composition technique, with Klimsch’s mentorship not based upon an ‘institutional German musical education.’[12]

This influence of these lessons with Gérold is unusually tangible, as the results were written down shortly afterwards on 29 May 1901 as part of Grainger’s manifesto Methods of Teachings And Other Things.[13] Similarly, in a sketchbook called Musical Scraps numerous hypothetical fragments of the Marching Song were worked out alongside a series of questions and answers regarding choral possibilities. Both sources were marked ‘With Gerold,’[14] linking them and the issues contained therein with the challenges he was facing when writing expansively for choir. In a wider sense, this provides rare explicit evidence of technical advice having a direct compositional impact on the young Grainger. 

Evidence suggests that four major areas stem from the encounter. These deal with vocal compass, register qualities, the relationships between voices and the balancing of choral forces. The encounter is of particular significance not only as many of choral techniques discussed specifically relate to expanding Grainger’s use of the chorus in the original Marching Song of Democracy, but also that it would mark the beginning of Grainger’s definitive approach to choral writing.

1) Compass

Compass, defined here as the outer extremes that a composer may assign any given voice, is an essential musical parameter to respect when writing for choir.[15] Predictably, the first section of the Methods of Teachingprovides an expansive list of available vocal types for the chorus, followed by a list of pitches defining each voice’s compass and various tessitura characteristics (see Table 2 below). The compass limits provided by Gérold are generous, typically both higher and lower than the equivalents provided by Berlioz in his orchestration treatise.[16]Where Berlioz maintains a practical degree of caution when asking vocalists to sing at extremes,[17] Gérold‘s suggestions appear more optimistic. However, while Berlioz advocates using a chorus divided into six parts[18][SSTTBB, possibly with added altos] Gérold’s extensive division of the chorus  [SSMAACTTßBB] in practice would allow singers to better match with their ideal range, with only a few truly capable high and low singers required to deal with the extremes. 

Grainger’s subsequent exploration of choral forces in this manner can be readily observed, with the Marching Song also featuring an extensive vocal division [SSSAAACTTTßßBBB]. Similarly, inclusion of less-common vocal types included in Methods of Teaching, such as boy soprano, boy alto and contraltino voices, coincide with their first appearance in the Marching Song sketches. Most importantly, Grainger’s utilization of the suggested compass limits can also be observed. The following examples represent the summarised compass information outlined in Methods of Teaching (Described Range – combining all soprano parts where relevant) placed alongside the respective limits of a pre-encounter choral work: the Love Verses from ‘The Song of Solomon’ (1899-1900) (Fig. 1) and the post-encounter Marching Song (Fig. 2).[19]

Figure 1: Methods of Teaching Compass vs. Love Verses from ‘The Song of Solomon’[20]

Figure 2: Methods of Teaching Compass vs. Marching Song of Democracy Sketches

From these comparisons, it is evident that in the Love Verses, prior to the encounter with Gérold, Grainger was conservative in his use of higher registers, particularly for soprano, tenor and bass voices. Afterwards in the Marching Song, he began to push much closer to the limits, to the extent that almost every valid part matches the described ranges within a semitone at one or both extremes. This level of adherence indicates a deliberate desire on Grainger’s part to explore the full range potential of each voice in a choral setting. 

2) Register Qualities

Another important idiosyncrasy that connects the Methods of Teaching with the sketches is a section pertaining to register qualities. When outlining ranges, Grainger shows the delineation of up to four registers: brust, mittel, kopf stimme (chest, middle, and head voice) and falsetto, outlined in Table 2. 

Table 2: Voice Types and Register Ranges in Methods of Teaching[21]

The optimal and weaker ‘stimmen’ for certain parts are also identified. For instance, the boy soprano’s middle voice (F4-D5) is labelled as ‘weak sometimes not at all,’[22] while the chest (C4-A4) and head (C4-E6) voices are listed as ‘good’ and ‘strong’ respectively. Conversely, the chest voice for the boy alto is deemed the strongest with a register from E3-C5. The optimising of vocal placement, especially within a many-voiced texture is also subsequently evident in the Marching Song sketches. An extended appassionata passage for boy soprano/alto exhibits Grainger writing almost entirely within each voice’s strongest range, as summarised in Figures 3 and 4. Although there is some overlap between the registers, the passages are nonetheless situated within the upper (Soprano) and lower (Alto) extremes that can only be reached by their strongest respective register. 

Figure 3: 

Figure 4: 

Register is not the only aspect concerned here. The qualities that could be extracted from a vocalist were also important considerations imparted to Grainger. From the Methods of Teaching, ‘nasal’ vocal qualities are to be ideally employed with higher pitches and open mouths in contrast to ‘throaty’ qualities more suited to the lower pitch and closed positions.[23] It can be seen from Grainger’s application in the Marching Song sketches that these have been interpreted as guidelines for shaping the choral timbre. Grainger experiments with numerous such directions by exploring various permutations of open and closed mouth positions with nasal and throaty qualities. A prominent boy alto entry in particular, is to be ‘very throaty’ in its performance, which coincides with the lowest writing in the sketches for this part reaching a low F#3. This indicates a direct application of Gérold’s advice that ‘low down sounds best throaty,’[24] while the baritone and bass accompaniment at this point is deliberately weakened with instructions of ‘closed mouth’ and ‘not nasal’ despite being relatively high in pitch. 

Additionally, the ambitiously high registers listed in the lower men’s voices are accompanied by a strong interest in falsetto, epitomized with the musing and example (Fig. 5) in Methods of Teaching: ‘It would be possible to cultivate extremely high fals[etto] in low bass so that the following would be possible:’[25]

Figure 5: Bass Falsetto (Methods of Teaching and Other Things)[26]

Methods of Teaching contains the assertation that the ‘High tenor’s falsetto [is] difficult to distinguish from natural voice. [The] Baritone has more natural contrast … [and the] Bass has [the] most contrast.’ In addition to the above example, Grainger reiterates this preference for lower voice falsetto in the Marching Song sketches (Fig. 2) where he specifies falsetto to be used in the baritones, over the tenor parts. This direction is notably at odds with Berlioz’s Treatise, which conversely encourages the use of tenor falsetto, while stating the baritone and bass falsetto are ‘really rather disturbing.’[27]

3) Relationships Between Voices

The remaining areas discussed with Gérold move beyond purely technical considerations and more directly affect the Marching Song’s concepts of vocal independence and equality. In the Musical Scraps this takes the form of a series of statements regarding the relationship of voices, and appears as a paraphrase of the questions worked through ‘with Gerold.’[28] Under the heading ‘Relation of Voices’ Grainger notes the basic precept: ‘a high v[oice] (or voices) can go lower than accomp[anying] lower voices and still sound melodic.’[29] One such example used is illustrated in Figure 6. 

Figure 6: Example from Musical Scraps p.28

However, reservations are noted with regard to the inverse approach, that is, a low melody beneath higher accompaniment. Instead, Gérold generally cautions, ‘will not sound melodic if not much stronger.’[30] In the following example (Fig. 7) Gérold’s response to Grainger’s query on the matter is recorded that the threading of the bass line through the static altos is acceptable ‘if 12 basses against weak accomp[animent].’[31]

Figure 7: Example from Musical Scraps p.28

This principle of threading voices through others with the aim of keeping the melodic nature of line preserved is explored under various scenarios, such as with solo voice against choir. As discussed further below, this processencouraged Grainger to interweave complex polyphonic webs, an essential technique within his typically dense choral textures (see Figures 8-10).

4) Choral Balance

The issue of establishing a functional choral balance forms another major section in Methods of Teaching. Grainger writes that ideally ‘there are no notes of any voice stronger than any of any other v[oice] in balanced distribution,’[32] providing two examples (large and small) of how this may be aided by a balanced choir make-up. Summarized in Table 3, the large choir option bears a strong resemblance to the total combination employed in the Marching Song sketches (Table 4). Generally, these distributions appear to favour heavier bass and soprano sections; however, as noted earlier, the actual inner lines are generally more numerous, both in number of singers and total number of parts. While the actual numbers of vocalists are not explicitly stated in the Marching Song sketches, Table 3 shows a similar adaptation of this pattern, with a large number and similar variety of inner voice parts.

Table 3: ‘Balanced’ Large Choir Divisions[33]

Table 4: Choir Divisions in the Marching Song of Democracy

In contrast to the five-part Love Verses (Fig. 1), Grainger appears encouraged by the suggested eleven-part chorus listed in the Methods of Teaching to further subdivide his choral forces into an impressive fifteen ‘choral’ parts.[34] Furthermore, the translation between women and boy ensembles is made explicit here, providing some insight as to the absence of the former in the Marching Song and highlighting the fact that according to Gérold, the boy counterparts have similar overall ranges.[35]


The inevitable overlap of nineteen distinct vocal parts, many of them for the same voice type, inevitably results in a quasi-texturalist approach to choral composition. Coupled with the expanded use of compass, this many-voiced conception of the choir encourages spectacular instances of voice crossing. While the Marching Song was abandoned in choral form, Figure 8 presents a projected linear representation of the first sketch, with the tangled contours of voices, loosely falling and rising together in wave-like motion.

Figure 8: Linear Representation of Voices in the first Marching Song Sketch

Although an extreme case, the entangled texture would become an idiosyncratic feature of Grainger’s choral music,[36] particularly in works such as Irish Tune from County Derry (Fig. 8) and Australian Up-Country Song (Fig. 9). Here, the similar wide-ranging melodic contours and numerous vocal parts (between six and ten respectively) result in inevitable clashes and crossings between not only neighbouring but also more distant voices.

Figure 9: Linear Representation of Voices in Irish Tune from County Derry (1912)

Figure 10: Linear Representation of Voices in Australian Up-Country Song (1928)

Fundamentally, this sort of part-writing is best reflected in what Grainger would term ‘democratic polyphony,’[37] or his ‘Australian ideal of a many-voiced texture in which all, or most, of the tone strands … enjoy an equality of prominence and importance.’[38] It cast aside conventional characteristics of distinct melody and bass lines and subservient inner voices in order to encourage a clashing polyphonic mass of sound. This concept is particularly effective in an a cappella medium, frequently chosen by Grainger, where the voices are on an equal footing in terms of timbre and projection and was specifically intended for the Marching Song, with an impressive display of perhaps his most ambitious polyphony.

Grainger’s own writings from the time reflect these attitudes. Later in the Methods of Teaching,[39] Grainger penned a separate section entitled ‘Marching Songs’ indicating that he held particularly high hopes for this style of music, characterised as ‘Australian Marches for open-air singing to the tramping feet. Sort of national walking songs.’[40] Nationalistic and democratic ideals are fully formed in this section, containing polyphonic implications, with independence of the voices highlighted as an essential quality. Grainger elaborates:

Notwithstanding harmonic oneness I want there to be a strong sensation of each voice [or set of voices in the case of momentary gathering into batches] shouting its own shout, rhythming on its own, banging in and leaving off just anywhere … The old build of melody and its harmonic support must … away, here all must be felt in line, line atop, lines abottom, line amiddle, lines of voices each alone, lines of voices in bodies; just a farflung whole to be guessed out of the weld-together of many free-swapping … and equal-in-importance parts. [41]

This description directly applies to the early sketches of the Marching Song of Democracy, distinguished by the shifting masses of voices unaligned in phrasing and dynamics, merging, diverging, and entering the mix freely.Likewise, the choral music Percy Grainger would go on to write is similarly many-voiced, polyphonically dense and rich in voice crossing, often calling upon demanding vocal ranges. While Karl Klimsch’s mentorship was unquestionably vital to the young Grainger, the tangible influence of Théodore Gérold observed here raises the possibility that other unknown technical specialists may have also played a role in developing his compositional approach. In this case, the lessons with Gérold strongly correlate with Grainger’s detailed technical knowledge of the abilities and attributes of the chorus and appear to have had a significant impact on his choral composition. This applied both in the general sense, and in the more particular sense of addressing the incredible polyphonic challenges he had faced with his Marching Song ambitions. Regardless of the work’s eventual abandonment, it served to function as a testing ground that refined Grainger’s distinctive style of choral composition. 

[1] Percy Grainger to Hubert J. Foss, 15 August, 1931, The All-Round Man: Selected Letters of Percy Grainger, 1914-1961. ed. Malcolm Gillies and David Pear. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 108.

[2] Lewis Foreman, ‘Grainger and His Contemporaries’ in The New Percy Grainger Companion, ed. Penelope Thwaites (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2010), 177.

[3] Ibid., 178.

[4] Percy Grainger, Marching Song of Democracy, (New York: G. Schirmer, 1916), 2.

[5] ‘I have in mind a little mechanical affair for use throughout choruses for prompting hard entries … it will consist of a hollow hole-bored tube with a syringe-like airbag at one end.’ Percy Grainger, ‘Methods of Teaching and Other Things,’ (unpublished manuscript), Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, 60.

[6] Albert Schweitzer, J.S. Bach, vol. 2, trans. Ernest Newman, (New York: Dover Publications, 1967), 408.

[7] Gérold would later become an influential musicologist and theologian.

[8] David Hiley and Jean Gribenski, ’Gérold, Théodore,’ Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press, accessed 27 November, 2016,


[9] ‘Herr Theodor Gerold, teacher of singing in Frankfort, [sic] … was associated for many years with Stockhausen in his teaching work.’ Albert Schweitzer, J.S. Bach, 408.

[10] Hiley and Gribenski, ‘Gérold, Théodore.’ 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lewis Foreman, ‘Grainger and His Contemporaries’ in Thwaites, The New Percy Grainger Companion, 177.

[13] Grainger, ‘Methods of Teaching and Other Things,’10-16.

[14] Grainger, Percy. ‘Musical Scraps, Percy Grainger,’ MG3/102-6-10. Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, 28-29.

[15] If fundamentally inexact, due to the considerable deviation of individual voices.

[16] Hector Berlioz, Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary, trans. Hugh Macdonald (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 248.

[17] ‘A good number of singers will stop short at passages where the composer takes them up to a high A or Bb, or will make nasty forced falsetto notes’ Ibid., 247

[18] Ibid.

[19] Falsetto notes are indicated by diamond noteheads and the range capabilities of similar voice types were fused together – for instance, the slightly different extremes of Tenor 1 and Tenor 2, as Grainger’s texture constantly merges and subdivides these voices in the sketches.

[20] NB: The 8va only applies to the upper notes in the men’s parts

[21] All pitches here are described using the conventional terminology of middle C being C4. Grainger, ‘Methods of Teaching and Other Things,’ 10-11

[22] Ibid., 12.

[23] Grainger, ‘Methods of Teaching and Other Things,’ 13.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 14.

[26] Ibid., 12.

[27] Berlioz, ‘Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise,’ 252.

[28] Grainger, ‘Musical Scraps,’ 28-29.

[29] Grainger, ‘Methods of Teaching and Other Things,’ 15.

[30] Ibid., 14.

[31] Grainger, ‘Musical Scraps,’ 28

[32] Grainger, ‘Methods of Teaching and Other Things,’ 14.

[33] Ibid., 14.

[34] With an additional four solo lines and four whistling parts.

[35] Ibid., 12.

[36] Philip Eames, ‘Whose Line is it Anyway? Untamed Polyphony in Percy Grainger’s Marching Song of Democracy Sketches,’ (PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2017), 214-241.

[37] Percy Grainger, ‘Hill Song No.1,’ in A Source Guide to the Music of Percy Grainger, ed. Thomas Lewis (White Plains, N.Y.: Pro/Am Music Resources, 1991), 171.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Grainger, ‘Methods of Teaching and Other Things,’ 58.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

© 2020 Philip Eames

info@philipeames.com   |   Sydney, Australia 2000

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