Percy Grainger: Children's March (Over the Hills and Far Away)

I can vividly remember being 17, it probably was my favorite age so far.  I was still too young to even begin to contemplate that there was a real world beyond the county in which I resided.  I had a job.  I had a truck.  I had no concept whatsoever that this life of mine I led would change so vastly and erratically over the next decade and a half.  Like many teenagers, I had no concept of my own mortality.  I had plans, but everyone has plans.  Guidance counselors make a solid living off of telling youngsters that in order to be successful at life you must have a plan.  So we all made our plans.

So I had my plan, but it didn't seem real. It just was a thing. It was like a print of a renaissance painting you buy at Hobby Lobby to hang in your hallway so your friends think you have a sense of culture.  It was a fad.  It wasn't tangible, but it would become part of my identity and take form as the so-called plan was forged against reality and hewn from the puerile marble of my vision of "adult-land" as I left high school and thus became my first foray into this brave new world laid before me.

One thing I didn't expect was fatherhood.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) is someone we've discussed before.  A couple times, actually.  Since we usually delve into a bit on the composer's personal history, I'll take most of that as read today and if you're really interested you can click around and find out something on your own through catching up, why not.  I will share a bit about this Children's March piece of his though.  Grainger, as you might know, was a voracious consumer of folk music of his time.  It had become a bit of a hobby amongst his musical contemporaries to find these wonderfully well-kept tunes in the English countryside and transform them into symphonic masterpieces for any number of instruments, voices and the like.  Grainger was well-known as a pianist, so many of his pieces ended up as piano music initially, but in his heart was a special place for the wind band, and some of the finest literature we have for that ensemble comes from good ol' Percy himself.

In 1917, following the entrance of the United States into World War I, Grainger joined the US Army as a saxophonist, but also had a strong will to learn the oboe.  At some point while visiting Denmark in 1904 he had come to know a Scandinavian woman named, Karen Holten.  They corresponded frequently and were romantically involved over the course of a decade.  While in the service, Grainger penned his "Children's March (Over the Hills and Far Away)" and dedicated it to his "playmate beyond the hills", which historians presume was indeed Ms. Holten.

Courtesy of the Grainger Museum (1909)
Now, I proceed delicately because if you know nothing of Percy Grainger, you might be a bit surprised to learn that the man had some issues.  He was into the sadomasochism scene in a large way.  He also had an unusually intimate relationship with his mother, that some claim was incestuous.  I'll leave you to your devices to suss out the truth there, but his relationship with Ms. Holten was indeed hampered by his mother's jealous nature and they remained "playmates", last seeing each other in 1953 when Grainger went to Denmark for an operation for his abdominal cancer, to be performed by her brother.  Karen died that same year.  

Percy and his mother, Rose Grainger (1920)
This piece of music is unique in the fact that it is a Grainger original.  As I stated before, Grainger was renowned for his skill at arranging, but an original melody is a bit of a rarity.  Despite this novelty, it does not disappoint.  He treats it as it were any other folk tune and cycles it through various tonal and textural variations, exploiting the instrumentation of the Army band of which he was a member at the time of composition.  He also wrote the work simultaneously for piano score.

To me the piece exemplifies the innocence of childhood, of first love, of discovering the world about you.  You take so much for granted, you drift from your roots, you aimlessly wander back again and again.  And through it all, it's a journey of self-discovery, of rebirth.  I feel so detached from that 17-year-old, so much so that I feel that iteration of me has long-since expired, replaced by another, supposedly more mature and stoic version that will ultimately be uprooted and replaced.  It's like we're forever in beta testing on our personalities, our existence.  Constantly updating and releasing patches to compensate for our life's sometimes injurious experiences.  Grainger's work here captures a youthful and pristine part of that journey, very near the beginning, but just at the precipice of letting go and beginning our journey over the hills rising in the distance.

I hear my son a lot in listening to this work.  I hear his jubilant exploration of the environment that surrounds him, and it makes me fall back into a similar state of mind.

I wrote what you're about to read a while ago.  It was originally a Facebook post, but I think it fits the message of today's entry quite well:

"Here's my thoughts for tonight. Yesterday, I was putting my son to sleep in a Pack 'N' Play at my mother-in-law's house. We have been traveling a great deal in the past week or so and he had grown accustomed to my wife and I sleeping in the same room as he. Prior to this, he was an absolute piece of cake to put to sleep. Read a few books. Goodnight kiss. Plop him in bed. Lights. Door. Done. Since the traveling, he's gone a bit haywire. I think he misses the companionship of us bunking in the same room. So, to solve the problem, sometimes we will lay on the floor by his crib as he goes to sleep. 
"So yesterday evening, he's all done and we're looking at the same situation. I grab a stuffed toy and use it as a makeshift pillow and settle in on the carpet, trying to make it look comfortable and convincing. After all, he wants to believe I'm going to sleep too. After some initial shuffling and getting comfortable, I can tell he's winding down and begins breathing slow, deep breaths and drifts off to whatever dream land a 17-month-old kid can conjure up. It must be something! 
"I start thinking. It's really easy to do while looking at him. I see the whole of existence in my son. The moment he came into being, was the moment I truly realized that one day I will die. I've said before, his existence makes me realize that mine is finite. Maybe that's the way of things? For so many years as an angst-filled teenager I felt invincible. I took risks, most of them stupid, and endangered my life in so many reckless ways. Not much changed through my 20's until I got a "real" job. 
"In this moment, next to my son, I realize another thing. Something so darkly sinister, I imagine most parents don't dwell on it often or worse just simply shut it out entirely. It's this: 
"No matter how hard I try- I can never completely protect my son. No one can. 
"It's evident every single day! He sprints around like an ant with a sugar crystal. BOOM! Coffee table. 
"If I can't protect from running into the coffee table everyday, how can I protect him from a random act of violence? I think about the parents of the children in Connecticut often. God knows they did their best and more too. 
"Life is painful. It's just so, so utterly, tragically painful. 
"My son starts to stir a bit. He grabs his "Doggy" and pulls it tightly against his little chest instinctively. His breathing settles down, back to the familiar rhythm. 
"I begin to think about a dear friend of mine, whose children are in college and beyond. He's resting at home in an empty house with his wife. I think about the welcome serenity and calm being returned after two decades or more of racing around with kids. I think about that respite in contrast to my present situation with the toddler tearing full speed into large heavy things and falling down a lot. I think about how it will feel, knowing that you can say, "Job well done! The kids did alright!" I think about being alone with the wife. Alone with no kids. 
"But I also think about the journey. Because every station in life is just that, a stopping off point. Nothing ever really stays constant for long. We strive so hard to get to the destination only to find that once we arrive, we're already packing our bags for the next one. Kindergarten. Middle School. High School. College. Job. Family. House. Kids: Kindergarten Middle High College Job House Family Grandkids: Kindergartenmiddlehighcollege  
"So I'm laying on the floor. And I'm enjoying the moment. I'm taking a picture on the train, because when it's all said and done- I want my memories from the trip."

We can stop the passage of time no more than we can hold back the tides nor fix the moon in the sky.  These are things that come to pass, and will pass.  Again and again.  We control so little of our destiny, but we are given to cherish that which we hold dear while we are able, without a second thought to the erosion of the moment.

Such a beautiful lesson taught so well by someone so small in stature.

Over the hills and far away!

See you next Friday.


Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra
Conductor: Timothy Raynish
A Chandos Recording