A Nordic Obsession

The tale of a flame-haired, freckled 10th-Century Icelandic outlaw seems like a very strange place for an Australian composers' fascination with Nordic culture to begin. Yet as a 10 year old boy, Percy Grainger discovered the Saga of Grettir the Strong, followed shortly after by Beowulf, and a life-long obsession began. This obsession started with a piano duet he wrote as a young child entitled Beowulf, complete with Viking swords and boar helmets drawn in the margins, and culminated with his being awarded the St. Olav Medal in 1954 by King Haakon of Norway, for his long promotion of Edvard Grieg's music.

Grainger is perhaps best known nowadays for his extensive work arranging folksongs, and was one of the first composers to use recording devices to capture native folk singers. For the most part, these were British folk songs: Molly on the Shore, Country Gardens, Handel in the Strand and Irish Tune from County Derry, which we all know today as Danny Boy. His love of folksongs and Nordic culture combined on several occasions, with a collection of Danish Folksongs arranged into a suite for orchestra, organ and piano, as well as his suite La Scandinavie - a rare jaunt into the world of chamber music - for cello and piano.

The melodies Grainger uses in the suite's five movements come from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with the solo Danish entry being none other than one of the country's two national anthems. The suite alternates between serious and often patriotic songs and more light-hearted dances. The suite's most impassioned melody is found in the second movement Vermelandsvisa, which was later made famous by jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane as Dear Old Stockholm. Written when he was just 20 years old, La Scandinavie shows Grainger's prodigious skill for arranging folksongs, as well as the ability to achieve a balance of moods when putting together a suite.