Princes Bridge, Melbourne, designed by John Grainger
Percy Grainger's father, John Grainger, was an English-born architect who emigrated to Australia in 1877. He won professional recognition for his design of the Princes Bridge across the Yarra River in Melbourne. In October 1880 he married Rose Annie Aldridge, daughter of Adelaide hotelier George Aldridge. The couple settled in Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne, where their only son, christened George Percy Grainger, was born on 8 July 1882.
John Grainger was an accomplished artist, with broad cultural interests and a wide circle of friends. These included David Mitchell, whose daughter Helen later gained worldwide fame as an operatic soprano under the name Nellie Melba. John's claims to have "discovered" her are unfounded, although he may have offered her encouragement. John was a heavy drinker and a womaniser who, Rose learned after the marriage, had fathered a child in England before coming to Australia. His promiscuity placed heavy strains upon the relationship, particularly when Rose discovered shortly after Percy's birth that she had contracted a form of syphilis from her husband. Despite this, the Graingers stayed together until 1890, when John went to England for medical treatment. After his return to Australia they lived apart; the burden of raising Percy fell to Rose, while John pursued his career as chief architect to the Western Australian Department of Public Works. He also designed Nellie Melba's home, Coombe Cottage, at Coldstream.
An 1880 lithograph of the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, venue for Percy Grainger's early concerts, October 1894
Except for three months' formal schooling as a 12-year-old, during which he was bullied and ridiculed by his classmates, Percy was educated at home. Rose, an autodidact with a dominating presence, supervised his music and literature studies and engaged other tutors for languages, art and drama. From his earliest lessons Percy developed a lifelong fascination with Nordic culture; writing late in life he maintained that the Icelandic "Saga of Grettir the Strong" was "the strongest single artistic influence on my life". As well as showing precocious musical talents, he displayed considerable early gifts as an artist, to the extent that his tutors thought his future might lie in art rather than music. At the age of 10 he began studying piano under Louis Pabst, a German immigrant then considered to be Melbourne's leading piano teacher. Grainger's first known composition, "A Birthday Gift to Mother", is dated 1893. Pabst arranged Grainger's first public concert appearances, at Melbourne's Masonic Hall in July and September 1894. The boy played works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Scarlatti, and was warmly complimented in the Melbourne press.
After Pabst returned to Europe in the autumn of 1894, Grainger's new piano tutor, Adelaide Burkitt, arranged for his appearances at a series of concerts in October 1894, at Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building. The size of this enormous venue horrified the young pianist; nevertheless, his performance delighted the Melbourne critics who dubbed him "the flaxen-haired phenomenon who plays like a master". This public acclaim helped Rose to decide that her son should continue his studies at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany, an institution recommended by William Laver, head of piano studies at Melbourne's Conservatorium of music. Financial assistance was secured through a fund-raising benefit concert in Melbourne and a final recital in Adelaide, after which mother and son left Australia for Europe on 29 May 1895. Although he never returned permanently to Australia, Grainger maintained considerable patriotic feelings for his native land, and was proud of his Australian heritage.
Grainger aged 18, towards the end of his Frankfurt years
In Frankfurt, Rose established herself as a teacher of English; her earnings were supplemented by contributions from John Grainger, who had settled in Perth. The Hoch Conservatory's reputation for piano teaching had been enhanced by the tenure, until 1892, of Clara Schumann as head of piano studies. Grainger's piano tutor was James Kwast, who developed his young pupil's skills to the extent that, within a year, Grainger was being lauded as a prodigy. Grainger had difficult relations with his original composition teacher, Iwan Knorr; he withdrew from Knorr's classes to study composition privately with an amateur composer and folk-music enthusiast, Karl Klimsch, whom he would later honour as "my only composition teacher".
Together with a group of slightly older British students – Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner, Cyril Scott and Norman O'Neill, all of whom became his friends – Grainger helped form the Frankfurt Group, whose long-term objective was to rescue British and Scandinavian music from what they considered the negative influences of central European music. Encouraged by Klimsch, Grainger turned away from composing classical pastiches reminiscent of Handel, Haydn and Mozart, and developed a personal compositional style the originality and maturity of which quickly impressed and astonished his friends. At this time Grainger discovered the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and began setting it to music; according to Scott, "No poet and composer have been so suitably wedded since Heine and Schumann."
After accompanying her son on an extended European tour in the summer of 1900, Rose, whose health had been poor for some time, suffered a nervous collapse and could no longer work. To replace lost income Grainger began giving piano lessons and public performances; his first solo recital was in Frankfurt on 6 December 1900. Meanwhile he continued his studies with Kwast, and increased his repertoire until he was confident he could maintain himself and his mother as a concert pianist. Having chosen London as his future base, in May 1901 Grainger abandoned his studies and, with Rose, left Frankfurt for England.
Before leaving Frankfurt, Grainger had fallen in love with Kwast's daughter Mimi; in an autobiographical essay dated 1947 he admits to being "already sex-crazy" at this time. John Bird, Grainger's biographer, also records that during his Frankfurt years Grainger began to develop sexual appetites that were "distinctly abnormal"; by the age of 16 he had started to experiment in flagellation and other sado-masochistic practices, which he continued to pursue through most of his adult life. Bird surmises that Grainger's fascination with themes of punishment and pain derived from the harsh discipline to which Rose had subjected him as a child.