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Uncovering the story of Percy Grainger’s wine glasses

It is a curious fact that hidden away in the sheet music archive here in Oxford, we have a set of three wine glasses dating back to the 1930s stored in a dusty old suitcase with luggage tags attached, that rarely sees the light of day. The glasses are particularly curious in that they are tied with string to cardboard bases, and have sticky labels attached with musical notes and instructions written on them.

Image copyright Oxford University Press / J Butson. Do not use without permission.

We know the glasses date from the mid 1930s primary because the newspaper they are wrapped in helpfully provides the date – October 1936. Some fascinating snippets of news from the era include ‘Catering for the unexpected dinner guest’, and ‘Old beauty secrets meet modern means’. The newspaper also provides advice for women on how to wear a turtleneck with style (if you’re a young woman with a ‘round neck’ you can get away with wearing the neck turned down, but for an older woman it is recommended to ‘wear a draped scarf’!)

In the spirit of archaeological explanation, we are now able to reveal that these three glasses were, as far as we know, assembled and labelled by none other than the renowned Australian composer, Percy Grainger (1882-1961), for use in performances of his work, A Tribute to Foster.

A Tribute to Foster was composed between 1913 – 1931, intended as a gift to Grainger’s mother, who sadly committed suicide in 1922.

Image copyright Oxford University Press / J Butson
Image copyright Oxford University Press / J Butson. Do not use without permission.

The work is based on Stephen Foster’s song, ‘Camptown Races’ which Grainger remembered his mother singing to him as a child. The work is scored for 5 solo voices, mixed chorus, solo piano, orchestra (or a second piano) and ‘a large army of wineglasses and glass bowls of greatly varying sizes and pitches (their rims rubbed by wet fingers)’ – Grainger. The wineglasses are heard during the middle ‘lullaby’ section of the work. Once filled with water to the point marked on each glass, if a finger is licked and run around the rim, the correct musical note is produced in the form of a ‘hum’.

Image copyright Oxford University Press / J Butson
Image copyright Oxford University Press / J Butson. Do not use without permission.

A set of 79 wine glasses (image shows just a selection) to be used in a performance of A Tribute to Foster is kept by the Grainger Museum in Melbourne, which was set up by Percy Grainger himself as a monument to his life and works.

The reason why Oxford University Press only has three glasses now is unknown – perhaps a larger set existed in the 1930s, but subsequently some became lost/damaged. Looking at the score, it appears that only a few notes are actually required of the glasses, so perhaps the set was originally larger, but only intended to be a small ‘reference’ set that could then be expanded by the choir when a performance was taking place. There is unfortunately no one who can give us a definitive answer to this question, so we can but surmise.

In the 1930s the glasses held by Oxford University Press were hired out as part of the performance materials for the work. This may explain why they are stored in a (now wonderfully vintage) red-brown leather suitcase, which was evidently posted out to anyone wishing to perform the work. The address label directs them to return the glasses to Soho Square (where Oxford University Press once had offices).

Image copyright Oxford University Press / J Butson
Image copyright Oxford University Press / J Butson. Do not use without permission.

Nowadays, anyone wishing to perform the work would have to find suitable wine glasses of their own, and fill them to the correct level to produce the notes required by the score. This has not deterred conductors however, with at least 4 performances of the work having taken place in the last 10 years. In the clip below, you can watch a performance of A Tribute to Foster from the Last Night of the Proms (2000), conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Featured image credit: From score of ‘A Tribute to Foster’ by Percy Grainger showing entry of musical glasses. Image copyright: Oxford University Press / J Butson. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Jim Breen

    I sang in a performance of this work in 1967. It was the the orchestra and choir of the University of Melbourne Conservatorium, conducted by the late Keith Humble. For that performance the entire choir had a wine glass each, and they were tuned to different note for each section.

    I recall that the only way of wetting ones finger was to dip in in the glass, so as the performance went on, the water level dropped, and the pitch changed slightly.
    Certainly the sound of a 100 or so wine glasses was quite stunning.

    There were several Grainger performances around that time, and I recall his widow, Rose, attended at least one of them.

  2. Barry Peter Ould

    We have a similar box in the Grainger House in White Plains, NY. By the way Jim Breen, Rose ws Percy’s mother. It would have been Ella you saw in 1967. Ella died in 1979 at the age of 90. I met her twice during my early days of visiting the house in NY State.

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