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A new photographic exhibition of renowned Australian composer Percy Grainger highlights the unique bond between his musical and sexual experimentation.

Percy and Ella Grainger at Pevensey. Image: courtesy Percy Grainger Museum. Library catalogue permalink:

Percy and Ella Grainger at Pevensey. Image courtesy Grainger Museum.

He was my naughty little secret.

I’d read his letters:

Sometimes, when I call to my mind how long I still must wait till your flesh and my flesh meet, and that it is quite impossible for us to be united in half-an-hour’s time, a madness flows over me and boundless anger.

I was a girl of about 15 years old, discreetly borrowing books by Anaïs Nin and Marquis de Sade from the library to stash under my pillow.

These letters were equally engrossing – but as I read on, I knew in my gut I should keep them locked away.

What can man do to lovely woman but wish to tie her down, and having tied her down, wouldn’t he be stupid if he – calling-to-mind her giggles and laughters – did not punish her somewhat?

But these letters were not meant for me. Rather, I stumbled upon books in which these letters were featured. The author (whose music I’d grown intimate with as a young saxophonist) was Percy Grainger: one of the most renowned Australian composers of all time. In fact, much of his controversial sex life has been documented and displayed at the Grainger Museum, which is hosting a visual exhibition called Grainger Photographed: Public Façades and Private Spaces.

‘I cannot give a true picture of my tone-art and of my art-life if I do not tell of the cruel-joy ((sadism)) that is one of the main stirs of my being,’ Grainger wrote in 1948. He owned more than 70 devices with which he whipped himself and his lovers – some fashioned from conductor’s batons. He punished himself for wants he considered ‘evil’. He stood naked in the snow, carried demanding weights on his back, and burnt himself on the stove. But he also fantasised about physical and psychological sadism: breaking a woman’s flesh, and frightening female witnesses who often caught him scaling the outside of buildings. He attributed his lusts to ‘the same wildness that fills my Hillsongs and English Dance’.

[Grainger] attributed his lusts to ‘the same wildness that fills my Hillsongs and English Dance’.

Grainger is one of the most significant composers that we know to have practised sadomasochism – though it’s a stretch to say he was part of any kind of BDSM community, back in his day. Not only was his sexuality a part of his identity that caused him to agonise in self-judgment, but it was inevitably affected by the attitudes of his generation. Perhaps if sexual practices such as BDSM had been more healthily discussed in the public sphere, Grainger’s intimate life and the music that emerged from the same spirit would have been markedly different.

Grainger thrived in the first half of the 20th Century – an era in which Sigmund Freud had revolutionised the study of the mind and established the practice of psychoanalysis. Now considered by many to be outdated, Freud theorised about women suffering hysteria and incestuous desires harboured in sons and daughters.

Even if indirectly, Freud’s early views surely influenced the ways Grainger attempted to understand his own sexuality (The term sadomasochism, after all, was a term coined by Freud). Grainger thought ‘women are mad anyway’; perhaps this was indeed true of his syphilitic mother, with whom his relationship could be described as emotionally incestuous, if not physically. He had, after all, claimed theirs to be an ‘intense mutual love and devotion’; and labelled it ‘the only truly passionate love affair’ of his life.

Reflecting, the composer wrote: ‘Did my cruel-joy (which shows itself both in wishing to give pain and to take it) arise from the whippings my mother gave me, from the earliest childhood up to 14 or 15. Maybe it did. And if that is the case, I must feel doubly thankful to her for having given me my life’s greatest boon’.

The composer considered himself ‘sex-crazy’ by the time he was 16. He indulged in violent literature which caused him to ‘shake with delight’ and began experimenting with flogging. And his practice was unmistakably intertwined with his musical output.

‘Fierceness is in the keynote of my music…the object of my music is not to entertain, but to agonise’.

‘Fierceness is in the keynote of my music,’ he wrote; ‘the object of my music is not to entertain, but to agonise’. One only needs to listen to the unstoppable force of Molly on the Shore to grasp his intention. Telling are the rapid, repetitive flurries of notes in the fore – though they’re ever-present even when more placid themes take over. They eventually spiral down, inevitably leading to an explosive climax with a crash of the cymbals.

Grainger was a wild innovator during his day – one ambitious performance used 19 pianos and 30 ‘exceptionally strong’ pianists – and his intricately textured sound remains iconic. But as writer Roger Covell observes, the composer didn’t leave a great influence on the style of Australian music after his death; perhaps owing to the unique bond between his personal and musical experimentation.

Grainger struggled with reconciling his sexual fantasies and his heart. With public discourse around sadomasochism framing it as a disorder, and no other way to justify his desires, he judged them as childlike: ‘The core of me, my inner self, my senses have stayed like those of a child – a child that knows he is naughty and looks to be punished for it’.

‘I cringe and quail because of my awareness of my evils – the evil deeds I have done and the far more evil thoughts I feel within my bosom.’

Grainger was a wild innovator during his day…and his intricately textured sound remains iconic.

When he was 18, Grainger visited Amsterdam and discovered an underworld of BDSM in which books and photographs revealed women being lashed, much to his exhilaration. Perhaps these travels helped Grainger feel connected to a community; realising he wasn’t the only sadomasochist in his world.

Having said this, evidence of composers publicly identifying (or revealed) as members of the BDSM community is scarce. In recent years there has been a little documented on sadist composer Philip Heseltine (more commonly known as Peter Warlock), thanks his son Brian Sewell – though certainly not portrayed in a positive light. Better accepted is Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, who spoke about spending years repressing his urges before publicly coming out as a practising dominant to his submissive wife. He felt the influence on his music to have been a positive one: ‘Maybe it’s easier now to do what I want because I am not disturbed by unfulfilled desires’.

Composers such as Haas and Grainger, who have been remarkably open in documenting their private lives, serve as role models who can help us understand the dynamics, challenges, and experiences of the personalities society pressures into hiding.

Today, Grainger is still often written about as a ‘pervert’, ‘violent’, and a ‘monster’ – even as BDSM practices become better understood and accepted in the contemporary discourse. As cringeworthy as it is to say, the influence of Fifty Shades of Grey in bringing a previously taboo sexual practice into the public sphere is undeniable. Today, you’ll find mainstream publications from Cosmopolitan to Buzzfeed exploring a diversity long considered deviant. Psychology publications inform us that BDSM is now accepted as ‘a loving, nurturing, intimate form of human contact and play’ between people who are ‘mentally healthy’.

It may have taken until a few decades after his death, but Grainger was optimistic that we would one day speak so openly about desires like his. He kept his sex life thoroughly documented, anticipating a world that would one day be ready.

Grainger was optimistic that we would one day speak so openly about desires like his.

‘One of the greatest and most continual worries is that I may die without the full evilness of my sex feelings being known to the world or recorded,’ he wrote in a 1956 letter to fellow composer Cyril Scott; a call for understanding and acceptance. ‘If I knew of a country where I could publish an unabridged account of my sex-life and sex-feelings I would be a happy man indeed.’

To fulfil this legacy, Grainger put together a parcel containing blood-stained shirts, self-portraits, and other sexual photos including of his wife in bondage. He instructed it be opened one decade after his death; wanting his artefacts to be studied and to contribute to a generation’s understanding of BDSM. The package was opened at the Grainger Museum in 1971.


Percy Grainger. Image courtesy Grainger Museum

Grainger stated in 1955 that his primary goal was for the museum to expose composition in Australia during the years he worked. But beyond this, the museum serves his legacy through the education of a progressive generation. This year, Grainger’s resources facilitated a case study for University of Melbourne academics enrolled in A History of Sexualities. Visiting students analysed Freudian theories against Grainger’s sexual practice, with one third-year student observing the way the museum highlights the complexities of human nature.

In another educational experience, Fine Arts students from the Victorian College of the Arts travelled to the venue to create original sketches – some of an explicit nature; while post-graduate students studying Bioethics and Public Health were stimulated into analysis of stigma and autonomy. The function of this museum – a physical homage – today surpasses the composer’s stated intention.

There are 15,000 images at the Grainger museum, from the documentation of his own sadomasochism to the pornographic photographs from the 1920s and 30s he collected. The Grainger Photographed exhibition now on show at the museum juxtaposes formal portraiture with intimate snapshots. Curator Brian Allison says the pictures reveal ‘the public and private world of a very complex man, a creative and some might say flawed genius…Grainger was meticulous in documenting his physical presence and changes throughout his life’.

And for the rest of us, Grainger leaves some words of advice (written in a 1930 letter to composer Roger Quilter): ‘When we successfully follow and realise our lusts, we are lords indeed’.

Grainger Photographed: Public Façades and Private Spaces is on show at the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne until 31 December.