This Friday, the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, conducted by Eric Hewitt, performs “The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart,” by the Australian-American composer, theorist, and pianist Percy Grainger, a work inspired by Grainger’s experiences in World War I. Though a pacifist, Grainger was also nervous about his image; he solved the dilemma by concertizing in support of the Red Cross and volunteering as a United States Army bandmaster.
In the Army, he observed recruits practicing with bayonets; the reminder of the conflict — and pacifism’s struggle against such universal mobilization — made Grainger think of Christians in ancient Rome. The resulting piece was less a call to action than a record of Grainger’s mood. “It points no paths,” Grainger once said. “It simply is grouchy. It simply grumbles at the sad condition of tyranny and torturing.”
Grainger first started sketching the work in 1918, during the First World War; he completed it, in a version for orchestra, during the Second. In 1948, he rescored it to fulfill a commission from the League of Composers. By that time, Grainger was, simply, grouchy — or at least bitter about a musical career that had, in many ways, fizzled out.
Grainger was used to going his own way, to the point of eccentricity. His musical curiosity was vast, extending from indigenous instruments to electronic music, from folksong to Duke Ellington and George Gershwin; then again, Grainger controversially stumped for what he called “Nordic” culture, even purging his own English of words that were, etymologically, insufficiently Anglo-Saxon. The obsessive musical innovator’s own ideas of what he called “free music” were ignored in favor of neoclassical and serialist developments. “The Power of Rome” exemplifies many of Grainger’s free-music ideas, its scaffolding of Romantic melody filled in with dense, chromatic, impressionistic passing harmonies, swimming in tonality. The sound is fascinating, but, by the standards of the avant-garde, it was already old-fashioned.
The work hovers in a rich limbo of expressive dissatisfaction. The ironies of Grainger’s wartime service pervade it. Grainger was all too aware that, whatever his innovations, his celebrity would forever be linked to the light, infectious pop-classical music he wrote for his charity tours; at the same time, despite his disdain for the military, Grainger’s stint as a bandmaster proved one of his most creatively energizing experiences. Grainger’s most signal musical achievement was, perhaps, that such contradictions made it into his music intact.
The Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble (Eric Hewitt, conductor) performs music by Andy Vores, Richard Wagner, Tim Leonelli, Percy Grainger, and Christopher Jon Honett, March 27 at 8 p.m. at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre (admission is free, but tickets are required; 617-496-2222; ofa.fas.harvard.edu/boxoffice).
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.