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CHARLES GRIFFES



Charles Tomlinson Griffes was among the most distinctive and poetic of American composers. In the 15 years of his artistic maturity, his style evolved from German-derived post-Romanticism to a particularly personal adaptation of French Impressionism, and finally to a strong and individual style of his own. Most commentators regard his as the greatest talent of his generation.

His older sister, Katharine, started giving him piano lessons when he was young, passing on what she learned from her own teacher, Mary Selina Broughton. When the boy was 15, he started studying directly with Broughton, who was on the faculty of Elmira Free Academy. She also taught him "taste" and "gentility," and persuaded his parents that he had such talent that he should be encouraged to become a musician. She even subsidized his travel to Berlin, where he studied piano with Ernst Jedliczka and Gottfried Galston at the Stern'sche Conservatory; his counterpoint instructors were Max Lowengard and Wilhelm Klatte, and his composition professors were Philippe Rüfer and Engelbert Humperdinck. Griffes appeared at a Conservatory concert as a piano soloist in 1904, to high acclaim; but by then his interests had turned toward composition, somewhat to Broughton's disappointment. He left the Conservatory to study privately and intensively with Humperdinck, and continued in piano with Galston. He made some money by taking in pupils in piano and harmony, and by giving some concerts.

During his German period, he wrote German-language songs and a Symphonische Phantasie. He returned to the United States in September, 1907, accepting a job at the Hackley School of Tarrytown, New York, where he remained until his death in 1920 (of pneumonia, perhaps due to the 1919-1920 influenza epidemic).

Since he died young, and because the position was a relatively minor one within the world of music, biographical information has been romanticized over the years, suggesting that Griffes was trapped in a menial job, living in poverty. In fact, he found the job interesting and was much liked by fellow faculty members and students -- he was certainly not starving. Furthermore, the job included a lengthy summer period during which he could devote himself entirely to composition and promote his works in nearby New York.

During his own lifetime, piano works such as the Roman Sketches appeared and were appreciated for their poetic and descriptive beauty. The tone poem The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan, the Japanese ballet Sho-jo, Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan, and a major chamber ballet, The Kairn of Koridwen, all received major premieres, drawing attention to Griffes as a composer possessed of a unique voice, exceptional craftsmanship, and melodic inventiveness. His later pieces, such as the Notturno for Orchestra (1918) and the Piano Sonata are most illustrative of his mature voice; in these works, the influences of his German and French models are completely assimilated into his own harmonically adventurous palate.

[Article taken from All Music Guide]

Griffes developed his own personal adaptation of Debussy's and Ravel's "Impressionism." He died at a young age, but like so many composers that died at a young age, he never got the chance to fully mature as composer, but what he left behind was surely some great music.

Anyone familiar with Griffes' work?
 

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I love the tone poems The White Peacock and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. There are others works on the same Naxos recording with these, though I can't say I remember them. I was familiar with these two better known pieces from public radio before I owned the CD.

It's interesting that you would place him with the impressionists. I never thought much about it, but considered him more modern than the impressionists, perhaps more accessible than other moderns of the time. I think it is unusual that an American composer would write this exotic music when so many were wrapped up in American folk music and folklore. The only other composer I can think of that dealt with such exotic subjects is Hovhaness many years later.
 

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I love the tone poems The White Peacock and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. There are others works on the same Naxos recording with these, though I can't say I remember them. I was familiar with these two better known pieces from public radio before I owned the CD.

It's interesting that you would place him with the impressionists. I never thought much about it, but considered him more modern than the impressionists, perhaps more accessible than other moderns of the time. I think it is unusual that an American composer would write this exotic music when so many were wrapped up in American folk music and folklore. The only other composer I can think of that dealt with such exotic subjects is Hovhaness many years later.
Well I have not heard one note of his music (yet), but many of the articles I have read have placed him in the same category as Debussy and Ravel. I think I'm going out on a limb here since I haven't heard one note and say that I probably agree with you. Many times critics, and fans too, say somebody sounds like this composer or that composer, but honestly it could never be further from the truth.

Another American composer who composed pretty exotic music and was tragically unknown during his lifetime was Romeo Cascarino. You should check him out sometime. His music is slow, melodic, but always interesting. There is only one recording available of his music and it's on Naxos.
 

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I am only slightly familiar with the tone poem The Pleasure Dom of Kubla Khan. I've heard it two or three times on the radio. A nice work, if my memory serves me well.
Thanks to the folks at Naxos we have a collection of some of his orchestral works available.
 

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His Piano Sonata is probably is most performed work. It's among the standard repertoire for early 20th century works.

I don't understand why people don't think he belongs with Ravel and Debussy. He's clearly impressionist...the American impressionist.

The poor man died too young, and I would love to know what his music would have become before his unfortunate demise.
 

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Love this guy! You know why? I performed his Poem for Flute and Orchestra... WITH orchestra a few weeks ago! It was amazing! Best night of my musical life. We flutists of the Flute World highly admire him for this single piece, and so do I. <3

I heard someone once say Griffes is somewhere between Debussy and Stravinsky... NO! Don't compare him to Stravinsky! If anyone, let him be compared to Ravel, after all, Stravinsky was highly influenced by Ravel. And what is more, American influence too, I think he blends Celtic and Afro-American melodies in his music, at least, that's what I noticed in Poem.
 

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I like his work too; or at least, I'm likely to listen to his Poem as much as do Gubaidulina; Slowinski and Meyer - his eastern European counterparts (albeit of a more modern idiom).

It's hard not to share his fascination with the Orient as means of inspiration.
 

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I haven't heard any of Griffes other works, but judging from his Piano Sonata, he was not (only?) an "impressionist." It sounds quite different to the piano works I know of Debussy or Ravel, just how I can't explain, but it "fits in" more with the American tradition of Ives (but different as well?).

In any case, I hate the term "impressionist" because I think it sells short composers like especially Debussy (but also Ravel & even Duparc?). These guys were early modernists for sure, that would be a better term, I think. Just listen to Debussy's Jeux - would you describe that as "impressionist?" It explores previously uncharted realms of tonality, thematic development & colour, it's every bit as revolutionary as anything done by Schoenberg at the time. & what of Debussy's Violin Sonata, which anticipated the later trend towards "neo-classicism?" - what does that have to do with so-called "impressionism," I ask?...
 

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I like Griffes a lot. As to 'placing' him, I'm not quite sure. There are moments of 'impressionism' in a lot of his works, but I also get an extremely strong "Romantic" feeling. And I think his late Piano Sonata showed that he was heading in a completely different direction, pretty much unencumbered by any particular 'school' of composition. IMO it's an extremely powerful and individual work. Certainly one of the best (and too few) of American piano sonatas.

I've performed his "Fantasy Pieces", and can't praise them enough. They're difficult, but they lie extremely well for the hand, and are very satisfying, especially the first: "Barcarolle". And the "Scherzo" is almost deliciously 'barbaric'.

Very colorful and--I think--extremely individual composer. I too, wish he had lived longer, if only to hear in which direction he was actually headed.

Tom
 

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Excellent composer who unfortunately died young.

Just began working on the Barcarolle from his Fantasy Pieces. For some reason, the last few days I've wanted to do nothing but work on it, but it kind of revived my pre-recital hand problem of a few weeks ago. Fantastic piece.

Also love the piano sonata (especially the second movement) and the Pleasure Dome of Kubla Kahn.

I find him very eclectic, although some of his works are "impressionist" like the White Peacock, I think it impossible to describe his output as a whole as such. To me it often casts a glance towards the German romanticism of Griffes' teacher Humperdinck, or Russians like Rimsky-Korsakov, especially when he's at his most "exotic". His harmonies and uses of exotic scales are strongly influenced by Debussy and other impressionists, though Griffes is not afraid of mild bitonality. Later works like the piano sonata strike me as more neoclassical, with some of the rhythmic bite and thinner textures of Stravinsky.
 

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Excellent composer who unfortunately died young.

Just began working on the Barcarolle from his Fantasy Pieces. For some reason, the last few days I've wanted to do nothing but work on it, but it kind of revived my pre-recital hand problem of a few weeks ago. Fantastic piece.

Also love the piano sonata (especially the second movement) and the Pleasure Dome of Kubla Kahn.

I find him very eclectic, although some of his works are "impressionist" like the White Peacock, I think it impossible to describe his output as a whole as such. To me it often casts a glance towards the German romanticism of Griffes' teacher Humperdinck, or Russians like Rimsky-Korsakov, especially when he's at his most "exotic". His harmonies and uses of exotic scales are strongly influenced by Debussy and other impressionists, though Griffes is not afraid of mild bitonality. Later works like the piano sonata strike me as more neoclassical, with some of the rhythmic bite and thinner textures of Stravinsky.
JSK:
Keep us posted on your progress with the Barcarolle, will you? I think it's an extraordinarily well-laid out work for the piano. And don't overlook the other two, especially the Scherzo. His piano music, despite the technical difficulties, really lies beautifully for the hand, at least IMO.

And you're right--once you start work on Griffes, it's VERY hard to give up. It's almost hypnotic the way the music works itself into you.

Tom :)
 

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It's unlikely I will play the Nocturne and the Scherzo because that would make my senior recital even longer than it's already looking to be.

I agree that it does fit to the hands extremely well - even for a guy without big hands like me. I really couldn't stop playing yesterday - learned almost half the barcarolle in 2-3 days.
 

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Posted this on the "Exploring modern & contemporary music" thread & thought I'd put it here also -

Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (1919)

Just sneaking in to the "modern" bracket, I thought I'd share this as I've been getting into it this week. An interesting work, bringing together European influences of the time with something different. Griffes studied with Humperdinck in Berlin, but was also interested in the French trends represented by Debussy & Ravel. Pianist Harold Bauer wrote of this sonata that it was "a splendid piece of writing, broad and noble in outline...From a man who can write such music, we may look for even greater things." Sadly, Griffes died prematurely in his thirties, before the next year was out. Listening to this, I kind of think like he may well have been an "Ives in embryo."

This piano sonata is in three movements, performed without a break. It incorporates whole-tone chords as well as pentatonic scales (listen to the predominance of the black keys esp. in the middle movt.). There is an overall "Oriental" feel, but also some of the rhythms of Native American music/chant, which is esp. apparent in the jaunty final movt. I can hear knowledge of J.S. Bach's counterpoint in here too, combined with a "Romantic" Lisztian tinge. Here is is on youtube, played by an unnamed pianist -

Whole work lasts about 15 mins.
I. Feroce - Allegretto con moto - Tempo primo - Tranquillamente / II. Molto tranquillo - Appassionato (10:07, second movt. starts about 6:45)

III. Allegro vivace - Appassionato - Lento - Presto (4:25)

HERE is the EMI disc I have, which incl. the Griffes sonata, as well as sonatas of Roger Sessions (which I posted about earlier) & also Charles Ives.
 

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Okay - now I hear the impressionism influence, but just barely. Morso in the 2nd movement. And maybe a bit of blues or jazz?

I had not heard this piece before. Is it supposed to be that heavy handed? It seems to go from f to fff for its dynamics and almost always non-legato at least in the 1st movement. The 3rd movement is bit better and very American. I'd like to acquire this piece, but maybe a different interpretation.

[ETA: I think the YouTube link is a performance by pianist Michael Lewin on Naxos, Griffes: Complete Piano Works, Vol. 1. It sounds very close anyway. Maybe I should check out the EMI.]
 

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Thanks for listening, Weston. It seems a lot of people (those that replied to this thread, anyway) seem to be more familiar with Griffes' orch. works, but I have started the other way, with this piano sonata.

Re your "heavy handed" question, I'm not sure about the subtleties, but the notes of the EMI disc does say that the opening (marked feroce) can come as a bit of a "shock." Overall, I have a feeling that Griffes was a bit more "full on" than Debussy & Ravel usually were. A bit of that American "brashness?"

The two discs (sold seperately) on EMI which I have, with the pianist Peter Lawson playing a selection of seminal American sonatas from c.1900-c.1950 - by Griffes, Ives, Copland, Barber, Carter, Sessions - has been my "gateway" into this repertoire. I'd basically recommend it to anyone, all of the works have been interesting for me, but a number of them have taken a long while (over a year) to "click." I can hear their differences more now than I did at first. A great set of recordings these two volumes are, imo...
 
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