The Lads of Wamphray Ballad: Percy Grainger strikes a blow for “the common folk”

The World Premiere of Percy Grainger's Lads of Wamphray Ballad, arranged for Wind Ensemble and SATB chorus by Chalon Ragsdale

Performed by: University of Arkansas Wind Ensemble - Dr. Chris Knighten, director

University of Arkansas Collegiate Chorale - Drs. Stephen Caldwell and Jeffrey Murdock, directors

Soloists: Morgan Cavanah, soprano
Judd Burns, tenor
John Lackey, bass

Conducted by Stephen Caldwell

Recorded at the Faulkner Performing Arts Center
Fayetteville, Arkansas, April 23, 2018

“the composer has wished to express the devil-may-care dare-deviltry of the cattle-raiding, swashbuckling English and Scottish borderers of the period so grimly yet thrillingly portrayed in the border ballads collected and published by Scott, Motherwell, Jamieson, Johnson, Buchan, Kinloch, Swinburne and others.” (Percy Grainger)

The Australian-American pianist and composer Percy Grainger’s attraction to the “Border Ballads” of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), published in Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1802, sprang from a varied set of motivations. Grainger’s trip to Scotland while a student at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt in the summer of 1900 with his mother Rose, funded by their friend and his composition teacher, the lithographer Karl Klimsch, affected him deeply. He later described this trip as “the most important single artistic influence” of his life (Bird, Percy Grainger, p. 46). Grainger’s Hillsongs, which he thought were his greatest compositions, were started the next year.

Grainger was motivated by an appreciation for the work of Scott, but also by a desire to promote the music and culture of Northern European countries, which he viewed as being smothered by the cultural influences of Germany, Italy, Austria and Russia. Grainger, and a cadre of other British musicians, were determined to promote British accomplishment in art, and particularly early British accomplishment, including music, and other art, including folk art, from the “pre-Bach” era.

Grainger had other motivations to promote music celebrating folk of a rustic background. Grainger only received about 3 years of formal education, and considered himself “a product of non-education.” He had been exploited, to an extent, by the London upper class as a “salon pianist” during his 1901-1914 London career, a circumstance he deeply resented, and he claimed to thoroughly enjoy the austere life of a U.S. Army Private First Class bandsman from June 1917 – January, 1919 (“it suits me right down to the ground”)

Grainger’s admiration for self-educated and working-class folk was part of the attraction that led him to collect folk songs from such folks as English working class people, farmers, and old-timers living in the poorhouse. He respected their musicianship and artistry, and viewed folk art as providing unlimited encouragement for the demonstration of individuality by the performer.

“If a folk singer has a voice with a wide tonal range he freely extends melodies to show off the full compass of his voice. Conversely, a voice with a small range necessarily narrows the compass of his tunes.”

Grainger set three works of Scott’s for a variety of settings - The Lads of Wamphray Ballad (and, during the same period, The Lads of Wamphray March); The Twa Corbies; and Lord Maxwell’s Goodnight (a setting of selected portions of the ballad “Lord Maxwell” from Scott’s Minstrelsy). In addition to the Border Ballads collected by Scott, Grainger also set “faux Border Ballads” of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), the Pre-Raphaelite author and poet who wrote contemporary verse in the style of Scott’s Border Ballads, chief among these The Bride’s Tragedy, which Grainger cast as a major work for large orchestra and double chorus.

Grainger wrote The Lads of Wamphray Ballad in a typical Grainger “white heat” (he would later estimate that he never spent more than eight days a year composing…). The music was written in 4 days between December 5 and 20 of 1904 (do your math; he would have been 22) and scored between August 23 and September 12 of 1907, with final touches rendered on October 25, 1907.


We’ve already seen how encouragement and support from his friend Karl Klimsch helped Grainger discover and study new resources with the folk music of Scotland. Grainger encountered another “encourager” in Major John MacKenzie-Rogan, Director of the illustrious Band of HM Coldstream Guards. We’ll talk about the Major (and later Lieutenant Colonel) and his role in introducing Percy Grainger to the Wind Band in our next episode of “In a Nutshell.”

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