The eventful life of Australia’s first international male celebrity, Percy Grainger (1882–1961), is revealed with the exhibition Facing Percy Grainger opening at the National Library on 6 July 2006.

Percy Grainger was a virtuoso pianist, inventor, folk song collector and arranger, composer of salon music and experimental free music, musical theorist, and social commentator. Also an obsessive autoarchivist, he left a diverse and internationally recognised collection numbering over 100 000 items.

The exhibition contains over 200 works from the Grainger Collection, the University of Melbourne and the National Library’s collection. Modified musical instruments, emotive letters, quirky clothing, rarely seen paintings, revealing photographs, and surprising memorabilia are gathered together to reflect Grainger’s talents, extreme ideals and intricate contradictions.

Director-General, Jan Fullerton AO said the exhibition was an exceptional opportunity for Australians to re-evaluate one of Australia’s neglected but fascinating cultural icons.

“Facing Percy Grainger is a colourful diverse exhibition that sheds light on a complex and highly talented individual. Most of the objects on display have a personal resonance because they were collected by Grainger himself. I am delighted that items from the National Library’s collection can complement those from the Grainger Collection held by the University of Melbourne to give a complete picture of the man,” she said.

The son of John Grainger, a well-known Melbourne architect and Rose Aldridge, who was to become the dominant influence throughout his life, Percy Grainger was a child prodigy. He gave his first public recital in Melbourne at age 12, and soon after went to Germany with his mother to further his training as a pianist and composer. Between 1901 and 1914 they lived in London, where Grainger’s talents flourished.

While in London he befriended the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, whose love of national music inspired Grainger to look closely at English folk music. With the aid of a phonograph he collected folk songs from which he made many famous arrangements.

In 1914 Grainger and his mother moved to America, where he lived the remainder of his life. Although he always described himself as Australian, Grainger became an American citizen. During a brief spell in US army bands he wrote the song ‘Country Gardens’, which many people now equate with his name.

After World War I, Grainger continued his hectic life of concert tours and lectures, which included visits to Australia in the 1930s. During this time he designed and took an active role in building the Grainger Museum in the grounds of the University of Melbourne. In 1922 Rose Grainger committed suicide, leaving him devastated. In 1928, Grainger married the Swedish artist, Ella Ström.

An original thinker, and ahead of his time, Grainger did much to publicise medieval European music and the music of other cultures. Towards the end of his life he worked on producing ‘free music’—music not limited by time, or pitch intervals. The free music machines he created are regarded as the crude forerunners of modern electronic synthesisers. Percy Grainger died in New York aged 78 and is now buried in the family grave in Adelaide, South Australia.

Facing Percy Grainger is co-curated by ANU musicologist Dr David Pear and Brian Allison, Curator Exhibitions and Partnerships, the University of Melbourne with the assistance of Martin Terry, Exhibitions Curator, National Library of Australia.

Also celebrating Grainger’s multifaceted life is a superb book, edited by Dr David Pear. Beautifully illustrated and containing essays by distinguished Grainger specialists including Brian Allison, Malcolm Gillies, Michael Piggott, Barry Peter Ould and Eleanor Tan, Facing Percy Grainger makes a significant contribution to the scholarship surrounding this contradictory character. RRP $24.95. Available through the National Library Bookshop and online at

A dedicated website found at accompanies the exhibition and details Grainger’s life and his world as a performer, composer, theorist and collector.

Facing Percy Grainger
Exhibition Gallery, National Library of Australia
6 July – 15 October 2006
Open daily, free
Volunteer Guides in attendance 10 am- 4 pm daily

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