Seven Cromwell Place, a two-story structure with dark shingles and a broad front porch, today seems out of place where it sits between parking garages and office buildings. Yet, when the house was built in the late nineteenth century, it was surrounded by other fine homes inhabited by White Plains’ wealthiest and most influential citizens. The mayor once resided at No. 7 Cromwell Place. Between 1921 and 1961 the house was the home of Percy Grainger.
Grainger was born in Australia in 1882, and even by today’s standards he was an odd fellow. He ate weird, designed his own clothes, built his own musical instruments, and got married on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. As a composer, Grainger is certainly not of the highest rank. His chief skill lay in arranging folk songs of the British Isles. Those arrangements for band or piano sold countless copies, and in conjunction with live performances of these settings he made a great deal of money. His skill as a pianist was extraordinary, as demonstrated by his arrangement of Country Gardens:
He had traveled around with an Edison wax cylinder machine strapped to his back, recording folk songs. This may be how he encountered An Irish Tune from County Derry:
I toured No. 7 Cromwell Place on a rainy Monday morning, guided by an old man named Stuart Manville, the president of the International Percy Grainger Society. Mr. Manville grew up in White Plains, and remembers seeing Grainger around. A decade after Grainger’s death, Mr. Manville married the composer’s widow Ella, and they lived together at Cromwell Place until her death in 1979.
The fact that Percy Grainger is not among the first rank of composers is both harmful and helpful. Harmful because, as Mr. Manville explained to me, the Grainger Society has scant resources with which to preserve Cromwell Place. Verily, as I noticed, wallpaper is peeling from many surfaces, paint is chipped or missing from walls and woodwork, the kitchen has no running water, and so on. Rock Hill, Aaron Copland’s house in nearby Cortlandt Manor, is better preserved, Mr. Manville said, because, of course, Copland’s music still sells well. On the other hand, because Grainger is not as well-known, and few people visit it, it remains almost exactly as it was when the composer lived. Indeed, as I walked around, I could see that many things had clearly not been touched in decades.
As you enter the house, Grainger’s main music room is on the left. His portrait hangs above his grand piano. On a shelf nearby, a framed photograph of Edvard Grieg is signed to Grainger. The composers were friends. There is another upright piano in the room, too, with a worn out stool beneath it. Sheet music is everywhere.
To the right of the front entrance is a living room, with a home-made exercise bar strung up by Grainger between two columns. Through the living room is a dining room with a surprisingly humble table made from sawhorses. An original Edison wax cylinder machine was nearby. Books and papers were piled everywhere. Off the dining room, the kitchen was more primitive than anyone would tolerate today. The stove was a wood-burning model, and access to bottled milk deliveries was still possible through a small door at the back designed solely for that purpose.
The Graingers’ bedrooms are on the second floor, and appear exactly as they did while the composer lived. Though surely the linens have been changed and the furniture dusted, all else looks untouched. The carpets and furnishings and items are all original. Mr. Manville explained that he hadn’t even gone through the items in a small cabinet facing the bed. A small paper heart “to my love” still is pinned to the door. Ella Grainger’s bedroom appears as more of a monument to her than a time capsule. That is, one of her dresses lies across the bed, while another–which she wore to the White House to meet the Roosevelts–is hanging from a hat rack. Her combs and toiletries sit on her vanity, while her portrait and one she painted of Grainger, hang on the wall.
Upstairs in the attic and downstairs in the basement lie the real treasures of Cromwell Place: hundreds, if not thousands, of Percy Grainger’s scores, arranged in boxes on shelves. Grainger had had two fire-resistant concrete bunkers constructed in the basement, and Mr. Manville told me that when Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams visited Grainger proudly gave them tours of his music archive. Clearly visible on the shelves are boxes labeled “I’m 17 Come Sunday”, “In a Nutshell”, “Molly”, “Irish Tune Co. Derry”, “Mock Morris”, and “Shepherd’s Hey”:
These rooms were absolutely fascinating. These boxes appeared almost completely undisturbed. Indeed, a suitcase sitting on the floor had likely not been touched in decades. Why this material isn’t at a national library in Canberra is beyond me, but I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to see it with my own eyes, and even touch it with my own hands.
I have known of Percy Grainger for years, mostly as the composer of The Warriors and Lincolnshire Posy:
He remains Australia’s most important composer, and he lived at No. 7 Cromwell Place in White Plains, New York.