Title: An Anthem for a New Democracy: Percy Grainger’s Choral Ambitions for Australia presented by Philip Eames
Abstract: Australian-American Composer Percy Grainger has a substantial, if relatively neglected output of choral music. Both his turbulent relationship with the Australian public and his obsession with leaving a legacy have been thoroughly documented. This includes in his own correspondence with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where he expressed dismay at the poor reception to his most ambitious pieces.
At the crossroads of these themes, the Marching Song of Democracy (1901-1916) is one of Grainger’s substantial and original choral works. The origins of the Marching Song were undoubtedly highly ambitious: a punishingly chromatic a cappella work for 23-part marching ensemble. It was commenced at the time of Australia’s federation and, inspired by Walt Whitman and American society, is one of the most spectacular instances of what he termed “democratic polyphony.” Further, it shows early yet compelling evidence of the developing “Free Music” concept he regarded as his most progressive achievement. The piece appears to have been viewed by Grainger as his cultural contribution to the developing Australian society, thereby hoping to position himself as a trailblazer placing the country on the world stage.
This presentation traces the Marching Song’s somewhat devolutionary trajectory from its ambitious choral origins to its more accessible and eclipsed versions, its mixed performance history, decidedly lukewarm Australian reception and its ultimate withdrawal from the public eye. In doing so, I aim to paint a full picture of the work, which was all at once highly personal, radically innovative, and the catalyst that spurred Grainger’s antagonistic relationship with Australia. By bringing the Marching Song of Democracy out of an uncharacteristic self-censorship and into the spotlight, we allow it to be viewed as something of a “missing link” in understanding Grainger, unifying his sense of Australian identity with his progressive nature.