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Percy Grainger: "Children's March - Over the Hills and Far Away"

And now for something completely different...

This week (and probably some of the next), the blog will focus on the band music of Percy Grainger. Although we have already discussed his masterpiece, Lincolnshire Posy, many of his other works certainly deserve recognition as well. Today, this post will explore his piece, Children's March--Over the Hills and Far Away.

Although Grainger is somewhat marginalized in the orchestral world, his contributions to the band world cannot be overstated. He wrote so many pieces for wind bands and was truly a champion of winds (especially the saxophone). Children's March was written 1916-1918 and is the only original work for winds from his "military period." More detailed information, as well as a recording, can be found below.

After making a stir in London as a pianist and composer from the opening years of the twentieth century, and doing valuable work collecting English folk song, Grainger hastily embarked for New York in the summer of 1914 as the Great War began. In America, he made a similar splash performing and having his own works widely performed. With the United States' entry into the war on April 5, 1917, popular support for the Allied effort rendered his conscientious objector stance untenable and threatened to break the large strides his career had taken. On a sudden whim on June 9, 1917, he bought a soprano saxophone and enlisted at Fort Totten as a bandsman, from which he was promptly assigned to the 15th Band of the Coast Artillery Corps, Fort Hamilton, South Brooklyn. Bandleader Rocco Resta was a friend from civilian life and Grainger spent a quietly productive time practicing wind instruments, conducting on occasion for Resta, and composing.

Among the works begun or completed during this period, the Children's March - Over the Hills and Far Away, scored for winds, percussion, and piano, is one of his happiest inspirations, encapsulating both a newly found fondness for wind sonorities and his essentially childlike nature. The piece bears no relation to the like-named, richly evocative variations of his friend Delius, composed in 1897, though both explore realms of archetypal innocence. Begun in 1916 and completed in 1918, Grainger's work is dedicated—tantalizingly and for posterity, mysteriously—to "my playmate beyond the hills." A brief excerpt "dished up for piano" (as Grainger described his arrangements) was also made in 1918 and the transcription for piano, four hands, of the entire piece followed in 1920.

A few preludizing bars bring an infectiously skipping melody quietly in to be richly varied in alternations from entrancingly confiding to riotously gay as the music modulates downward through a cycle of fifths —F, B flat, E flat, A flat—and back, though halting at the return to B flat as the music dies away, suggesting some merrily unfinished business just out of earshot. The four hands version compensates for the audacious band scoring (e.g., tambourine, castanets, snare drum, and a xylophone mallet striking a piano bass string at the peroration) with the virtuosity of splashily skirling passage work, sweeping glissandi, and sheer pulsating gusto. Grainger performed the four-hands version with his friend Ernest Hutcheson as part of a benefit concert for Moritz Moszkowski at Carnegie Hall on December 21, 1921, sharing the stage with such luminaries as Ossip Gabrilowitsch (Mark Twain's son-in-law, by the way), Alfredo Casella, Ignaz Friedman, Josef Lhevinne, Wilhelm Backhaus, and Leo Ornstein.

Percy Grainger, Children's March - Over the Hills and Far Away

United States Marine Band, Col. John R. Bourgeois, conductor

Below you can find comments on the work from various people.

Though the melody is folk-like in character, the musical content of this vital and spirited work is entirely original, with a hearty, infectious melody and lively rhythms to match. Some of the parts are challenging (e.g. horns) and considerable emphasis is placed on the woodwinds. A piano is highly desirable but the solo passages have been effectively cued into the band instruments. Frank Erickson in his revision [G. Schirmer, 1971] has made minor changes to conform to modern band instrumentation. A highly enjoyable work for players and audiences alike

--Joseph Kreines (GSJ IV/2).

Although said by some to derive from Smetana's Vltava and by others to be an eighteenth century marching song, the jolly, bouncing principal melody of this delicious little march is entirely original. The composer published it in several forms more or less simultaneously--for military band and piano (or massed pianos), in which form the composer at the end directs that a bass string of the piano be struck with a marimba hammer, piano duet, and a shortened version for piano solo. The composer directed the Goldman Band of America in the first performance of the band version and he and Ralph Leopold gave the first performance of the piano duet version, both in America. The dedicatee is 'My playmate beyond the hills' but there is no clue as to his or her identity.

--W.A. Chislett.

[Grainger's] thorough understanding and effective scoring for wind band was obviously influenced by his period of service in the U.S. Army between 1917/19, having enlisted as a bandsman (2nd Class) in the Coast Artillery Band. A brilliant and extravagant example of this ability is embodied in the Children's March, 'especially written to use all the forces of the Coast Artillery Band which I was serving in 1918.' This is one of his earliest wind compositions which required a piano as an integral part of the ensemble.

--Eric Banks (British 1).

The Children's March follows a pattern typical of most of Grainger's works, introducing a tune and then subjecting it to all kinds of harmonic, rhythmic, textural, and orchestral treatments with little alteration of the actual thematic material. A novel aspect of the score is its optional wordless part for a quartet of men's voices.

--Frank Hudson.

This is an original work for band, even though its tunes may sound like folksongs; one bears a resemblance to Smetana's The Moldau. This fascinating study in sonority calls for a bass oboe (a heckelphone is used for the Michigan State University Symphonic Band recording), low brass, tam-tam, tambourine, castanets, snare drum and piano string struck by a percussion mallet. Its form is so greatly extended that nothing like this jaunty romp is to be found in the march repertoire. The scoring was completed in February 1919. Children's March is considered to be one of Grainger's most memorable contributions to the band literature."

--Dana Perna

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