Early British Syncopation (Percy Grainger and Constant Lambert)

[Fourth post about the forthcoming Ethan Iverson Residency in London]

For “Ethan’s Rent Party” I am joined by two brilliant UK keyboard stylists, Adam Fairhall and Alexander Hawkins. I can’t wait to hear what Adam and Alex get up to. Among other things we are all playing a song by Ray Noble….

The following are notes for two of my own selections, “In Dahomey” by Percy Grainger and the first movement of “Piano Sonata” by Constant Lambert.

Black music from America went all over the world in the first part of the 20th Century. Eventually the 1920s would be called “the Jazz Age.”

The piano was central to the incursion, especially the notated ragtime of Scott Joplin. However Joplin never toured. African-American ensembles and shows were what made it to London. On the 16th of May 1903, Will Marion Cook’s revue “In Dahomey” played at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Percy Grainger was in attendance, and the resulting concert rag “In Dahomey” (based on themes by Cook and Arthur Pryor) is a rare example of exceptionally detailed notation in the service of a syncopated style. It also tries to emulate the slide trombone. Overall “In Dahomey” is of a piece with the transcription of folk elements exploited in so much Grainger, including what many consider his greatest work, “Lincolnshire Posy.”

Apparently Grainger worked off and on “In Dahomey” for six years, but then didn’t publish it. After Ronald Stevenson finally oversaw an edition in 1987, it has become one of Grainger’s most popular piano pieces. A brilliant concert pianist like Marc-André Hamelin plays it to the virtuoso hilt, but there’s also an argument for a more quotidian approach emphasizing dance rhythm and improvised variation. Incredibly, I had an exchange on Twitter with Mr. Hamelin about this very topic:

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Grainger’s exceptional recordings of Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” and Guion’s transcription of “Turkey in the Straw” have informed some of my stylistic choices.


Exactly twenty years after Will Marion Cook played the Shaftesbury Theatre, Constant Lambert saw Will Vodery’s black orchestra in the 1923 revue “Dover Street to Dixie” at the London Pavilion. Lambert immediately began trying to assimilate a syncopated influence in his compositions, including what remains Lambert’s most famous piece, “The Rio Grande.”

The “Piano Sonata” from 1929, written when Lambert was only 24 years old, is a shade over-ambitious, especially as the three movements get longer and harder as they go along. However, the first movement is reasonably self-contained and flows along in impressive fashion. It certainly is just as good (if not better) than other “concert” jazzy works from the era by George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and a forest of lesser composers. I played it for my hip NEC students this past Monday and they were flummoxed.

My joke is that some of it sounds like things Danilo Pérez would play in the Wayne Shorter quartet. (voice memo recording w. Brooklyn construction in the background)

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Duke Ellington is a linking theme. Will Marion Cook and Will Vodery were two of Ellington’s teachers and mentors. Both Grainger and Lambert knew and respected Ellington. There’s a picture of Grainger with Ellington when Grainger invited Ellington to his NYU classroom in 1932. Lambert (who had a major career as a feisty critic) was one of Ellington most vocal supporters in the 1930s, writing in the famously caustic Music Ho! that Ellington, “…Has crystallized the popular music of our time and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz.’”

Truthfully, most of Duke Ellington’s records are proving to be more immortal than most of the compositions of either Percy Grainger or Constant Lambert. However, all of us in this game strive towards better and better appropriations and synthesis. An opportunity to study and perform Grainger and Lambert is a wonderful and decidedly syncopated event!


Bonus tracks: I feel a special connection to Constant Lambert because I adore the twelve book sequence A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Powell was close friends with Lambert and put him in Dance as composer Hugh Moreland. Lambert was also involved with literal dance: Indeed, some argue that Lambert’s greatest legacy was as the conductor of the Royal Ballet. Since I myself have been quite involved with the dance world (especially with the Mark Morris Dance Group and Dance Heginbotham), I relate to this side of Lambert as well.

While from this distance Grainger and Lambert seem to have a lot in common, I checked the indexes of the major biographies and they are barely name-checked in each other’s stories. They did meet at least once at a café table in France, in the company of composer Arthur Bliss, but that seems to be the extent of a documented connection. In the end, despite his reputation for English folk song transcriptions like the omnipresent “Country Gardens,” Grainger was a devout experimentalist, and pairs more easily with people like Henry Cowell or Ferruccio Busoni than most other composers of his era.  Lambert, for all his enfant terrible attitude in print, was actually more of an establishment figure than Grainger.