|About this Recording
8.559023 - GRIFFES: Piano Works, Vol. 1
Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)
Charles Tomlinson Griffes was born in Elmira, New York, in 1884. His talents recognized and shaped by a devoted piano teacher, the gifted boy determined on early to become a musician. Like virtually all other American musicians of that era, upon reaching young manhood he went to Europe to become properly "finished."
In his case, he went to Berlin for four years to continue his piano studies, work on musical composition with Englebert Humperdinck, and generally soak up modern European culture. Upon his return to the States in 1907, Griffes secured a job as music director at the Hackley School in Tarry town, New York, a private boys preparatory school. He was 23 years old - an accomplished pianist, well trained composer, cultured, worldly, fluent in four languages, sensitive, curious, and ambitious. He was a voracious reader (particularly of poetry), had a fascination for Asian art and culture, painted (mostly watercolors), and was eager to throw himself into the creative fray of nearby New York City.
A mere thirteen years later, in 1920, the composer was dead at the age of only 35. He had just achieved renown following Pierre Monteux's successful performances of The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan with the Boston Symphony in Boston and Carnegie Hall a few months before. Despite his tragically short life, Griffes created a significant and beautiful body of music while undergoing remarkable stylistic evolutions. His early death represents a particularly unfortunate loss since we can only speculate as to the musical paths he would have travelled had he lived longer.
Griffes began writing for the piano as a child. His juvenilia include short, Chopinesque pieces such as 4 Preludes, a Mazurka, and a set of Variations. Though sensitive and endearing, they give only a small hint of what was to come. I have included the plaintive B-Minor Prelude as a little homage to his childhood. This is the first time it has been recorded.
The piano music that Griffes wrote in Europe was greatly influenced by Wagner, Richard Strauss, Humperdinck, and the German Romantics. During this period abroad Griffes learned his craft and began his evolution from student to master. He completed two large works for two pianos, and worked on four unfinished piano sonatas. A Winter Landscape was composed around 1912, and published in 1997 for the first time. It is noble and dramatic in scope, and evocative of late Liszt and Wagner. Still unpublished and dating from c.1910 is a beguiling arrangement of the famous Barcarolle, "Belle Nuit, O Nuit d' Amour" from the Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach, in the tradition of the Liszt lieder transcriptions. Both of these pieces as well are receiving their first recorded performances with this disc.
During the twelve years in which Griffes lived and taught at the Hackley School and created most of his piano music, his academic existence was largely drudgery on behalf of disinterested students. "Oh! how they bore and weary me!" he wrote. His constant trips into Manhattan, however, were stimulating. He met many of the European avant-gardists and heard new scores by composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Busoni, Milhaud, Prokofiev, and Varese. He was also well aware of fellow American composers including Ornstein, Loeffler, and Farwell. Griffes tirelessly and assiduously promoted his music and these efforts, combined with the quality of the music, began to payoff. He was beginning to receive significant performances by prominent pianists, singers, string quartets, and major orchestras and conductors. He was given orchestral premieres by the New York Symphony under Damrosch, the Boston Symphony under Monteux, and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski. His music was greeted with encouragement from musicians and critics and met with audience success. In 1919, just before he died, he was becoming established as one of the most gifted and creative American composers of his generation.
Though many have attached the sobriquet" American Impressionist" to Griffes' name, the description is in reality only partially accurate. Throughout his life, Griffes was vividly aware of current trends and phases in music, dance, and theatre, and his own works absorbed and reflected that awareness. Impressionism was just one such influence. In his best compositions his own unique talents and sensibilities shine forth; the music is original.
The Three Tone-Pictures, Op.5, the composer's first published piano works, make a beautiful and effective set. Begun in 1910 and later revised, they were published by G. Schirmer in 1915 on the recommendation of Busoni. With them, Griffes left the German romanticism of his early music and created a unique impressionistic style. Fragmentary in nature, they are filled with chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, creative pedal effects, and a subtle sense of color and imagination. They show Griffes as a master miniaturist and tone-poet. The Lake at Evening is haunting and hypnotic, perfectly capturing the spirit of the Yeats poem which inspired it "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore." In ABA form, it is dominated by a simple ostinato figure which creates a sense of unity and tranquility. The other two Tone-Pictures are prefaced by poems of Edgar Allan Poe. The Vale of Dreams has a disturbing quality, conjuring up a troubled subconscious. It utilizes extreme chromaticism, melodic parallel thirds, and an unsettled tonality. Sensual and voluptuous, it is possessed of a dark and almost decadent sadness. The Night Winds flies up and down the keyboard in a shimmering spray of notes, the sighing left hand melody surrounded by a torrent of wholetone based arpeggios. A sort of "baby" Feux d'Artifice (Debussy), the ending is reminiscent of that of Ravel's Scarbo.
De Profundis, like the Roman Sketches, was composed in 1915 and prefaced by a poem by William Sharp. This piece was a favorite of Griffes' friends and admirers. The composer referred to it as his "tribute to Wagner," as it contains an almost Tristan-like romanticism. The ardent melodies are touching and poignant, the harmonies curious and haunting. The rising figure with which it opens lingers in the memory, and its return is emotionally reassuring after the climactic middle section.
The Rhapsody in B Minor was completed in 1914, and first published in 1984. It is very much in the style of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, many of which Griffes performed and admired. (Griffes, incidentally, was prophetic in appreciating the late works of Liszt, and in feeling that much of his output was misunderstood and underrated.) Dazzling and difficult, it is an extroverted virtuoso piece with many lyrical qualities as well. Rhapsodic in form, it conveys a feeling of fantasy and improvisation. Conservative in idiom, it is made up of a variety of contrasting sections featuring very attractive themes which constantly change key signature, meter, and character.
The Legend is a touching little piece, dating from 1915. Written in only two days, it was published posthumously, but the score has long been unavailable. In ABA form, lasting only 141 measures, it is a sort of sad and nostalgic waltz. There are some unusual harmonic turns in the middle section, which utilizes the whole-tone scale. It has a bittersweet quality which lingers in the memory. It seems somewhat reminiscent of Debussy's La Plus que Lente or Liszt's Valse Ouhlieé No.1.
If most of the works written after his "Germanic" period reveal impressionistic influence, the great Piano Sonata of 1919 boldly strikes out into uncharted territory. Griffes had by now established himself as a master miniaturist, a composer of rare finesse and delicacy. The Sonata could not be more different or ambitious - here he shows command of a large form, in a work of superb craftsmanship and almost primal power. Unlike most of his previous piano works, the Sonata has no specific imagery or programmatic intent - it is pure and absolute, ruled only by sound and rhythm. It was very modern for its time, and confused some early listeners. But pianists and sophisticated musicians realized that they were hearing something both new and significant. Virgil Thomson called it "shockingly original." Rudolf Ganz said, "Charles
Tomlinson Griffes' new Piano Sonata is the finest abstract work in American piano literature. It is free of all foreign influences. He is going his own way." Harold Bauer wrote that "the Sonata is a splendid piece of writing, broad and noble in outline, subtle in atmosphere. It will not attract the crowd - it is technically very difficult - but it will deeply appeal to the serious musician. From a man who can write such music, we may look for even greater things."
The Sonata is in three movements. The first and second movements are played without pause, and the short break between movements two and three is precisely notated, creating the effect of a one-movement sonata. The entire Sonata is permeated with inventive use of dissonances (especially tritones and augmented intervals), as well as with such exoticisms as pentatonic scales, whole tone chords, and Japanese, Balinese, and American Indian music. There is also a more extensive use of counterpoint than Griffes' piano music had used before. Although the Sonata has a strong gravitational pull to D Minor, it is largely based on a scale of his own invention. This scale, functioning at times almost like a tone row, is D, E-Flat, F, G-Sharp, A, B-Flat, C-Sharp, (D). The constant use of this scale's augmented seconds enables Griffes to avoid a sense of major-minor tonality. The first movement is in clear sonata form. The opening, marked "Feroce", is startling and barbaric, furiously launching the music upwards into existence. The main body of the movement is marked Allegretto con moto. There are a great variety of textures, and visceral contrasts between lyricism and drama. There is a feeling of late Romantic sensibilities in a modern setting. The first movement ends with a tremendous climax, out of whose deterioration the second movement begins. This middle movement, Molto tranquillo, is very modal, chant-like, and free in form. It contains great simplicity as well as moments of extreme agitation. It ends with a dramatic crescendo and accelerando, leading directly into the finale. This final movement, an "Allegro vivace" in 6/8 time, is dominated by an exciting repeated note theme and driven by tremendous rhythmic propulsion. There are drum and tympani effects, extreme dynamic contrasts, and a quotation from the slow movement. The impassioned and difficult coda employs cross-rhythms, left-hand leaps, octaves, and powerful chords to bring the Sonata to a thrilling conclusion.
As with all original works, it must be approached, understood, and performed on its own terms. The Sonata exists in a novel tonality, and the character of the themes is largely determined by intervallic relationships. Its rhythms are angular, and the often irregular and unusual phrases rarely fall into standard groupings. There can be no doubt that it represents a milestone in the evolution of the American piano sonata and the realization by Griffes of a new and completely personal style that was in many ways prophetic of the direction that American concert piano music was to take in the twentieth century. It is sad that he had time only for one more piano work after this Sonata, the sparse and haiku-like Preludes.
Ironically, Griffes' successes in 1919 were probably the major cause of his untimely death. Lacking the money to pay people to copy all of the orchestral parts required for performances, he sat up nights writing out them out himself. The flurry of excitement and overwork took a toll on his health. The doctors diagnosed his illness as a combination of emphysema, influenza, and pneumonia; probably caused by physical and nervous exhaustion. An operation on his lungs failed to help him, and he died in New York Hospital on April 8, 1920.
The piano music of Charles Tomlinson Griffes resonates with his distinctive and imaginative artistic personality. Griffes was graced with rare gifts of description, a creative and cultivated sensitivity toward harmonies and colors, and an estimable melodic mastery. His brief life was a constant evolution toward an ever more forward thinking musical language. He left an important and multifaceted stamp on music and played a notable role in the evolution of American and twentieth century musical history. Had he lived longer he might very well have become one of the great composers. As it is, the singular legacy of works that he left us is very fine indeed and deserving of continued and heightened appreciation.
Program Notes by Michael Lewin, 1998.
He lives in Boston, where he teaches at the Boston Conservatory and is the Artistic Director of the Boston Conservatory Chamber Players. His earlier recordings include music by Liszt, Scriabin, Balakirev and Glazunov. Forthcoming is a volume of Scarlatti Sonatas for Naxos.
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