Percy Grainger-Spoon River (SATBBs)

Percy Grainger's relationship with the saxophone was both joyous and far-reaching. He included the saxophone (sometimes singly, other times within a complete family) in many of his orchestral, chamber, band and solo works. Grainger was convinced of the ideal musical qualities of the saxophone from his very first encounter with the instrument. In a 1943 round letter to his friends, he reminisced:

Around 1904, Balfour Gardiner & I heard our first sax-reed (a tenor) near Frome, Somerset. A man in a country band played one to us. And I knew then & there that I was hearing the world's finest wind-tone-tool - the most voice-like, the most mankind-typed.

His enthusiasm was such that he owned both a soprano and baritone and he enlisted in a World War I armed forces band playing the soprano saxophone! His extensive public writing about the saxophone was effusive in praise, extolling its virtues to the highest degree. A typical example comes from the preface to Lincolnshire Posy, in which Grainger asserts: " my ears the saxophone is the most expressive of all wind instruments - the one closest to the human voice. And surely all musical instruments should be rated according to their tonal closeness to man's own voice!..."

Grainger was especially interested in the sonority of instrumental families, and his particular favorite was the family of saxophones. For many years he wanted to write for saxophone ensemble, but was unable to find an appropriate group to try out his works. In the summer of 1943 Grainger had a particularly strong and interested group with which to work, and he enthusiastically wrote out saxophone ensemble parts to many of his own arrangements and original settings, including Lisbon, The Four Note Pavane, Prelude in the Dorian Mode, and others.

My arrangement of Spoon River for SATBBs saxophone ensemble attempts to extend Grainger's interest and tradition of saxophone writing to some of his more popular works. This version follows Grainger's original instrumentation for Lisbon and can be played in a set along with my arrangements of Shephard's Hey and Irish Tune from County Derry. Spoon River was known as a 19th century American fiddle tune and was first heard by Captain Charles H. Robinson at a country dance in Bradford Illinois in 1857. He sent it on to Edgar Lee Masters, the author of the poem anthology Spoon River, and Masters in turn passed it along to Grainger. It was published as the second in Grainger's projected series of American Folk-Music Settings.

In "dishing up" Spoon River for an "elastically scored" ensemble, Grainger wrote of ". . . preserving a pioneer blend of lonesome wistfulness and sturdy persistence." It is my hope that the unique vibrancy and brilliance of his writing is maintained in my adaptation, and that players will imbue the music with the spirit and enjoyment for which Grainger was known.

Paul Cohen

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