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8.559164 - GRIFFES: Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan / The White Peacock
Charles Griffes (1884-1920)
Born in New York City and educated in upstate Elmira, the American composer Charles Griffes began his advanced studies in piano performance and composition in Berlin in 1903. He had the good fortune of special lessons with Engelbert Humperdinck, who at once turned Griffes’ primary interest toward composition. While in Europe Griffes developed a special fascination with the scores of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. But although he was also influenced by the works of Aleksandr Scriabin and Modest Mussorgsky in Russia and by the folk-music of the Far East, Griffes remained an Impressionist at heart. In 1907 he returned to the United States and accepted a position as a music teacher at the Hackley School for Boys at Tarrytown, New York.
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan was initially scored for piano in 1912, orchestrated in 1916, and first performed in the fall of 1919 in Boston under the baton of Pierre Monteux. Based on Kubla Khan, the verse of English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Griffes’ score offers a musical tableau of an emperor’s ‘pleasure dome,’ hidden away in the enchanted wilds. A woman cries for her demon-lover and a sacred river erupts in violence before meandering into the dark caverns of a sunless sea.
The music opens with a shimmering rustle in the low percussion and strings and unfolds through enchanted horns into evocative, far-Eastern intonations. Despite a few exclamations from the full orchestra the score maintains an essentially misty presence - Impressionism en vogue. Along the way, the ‘savage place’ motif is represented by momentary full-throttle exclamations in the brass, after which the tone poetry becomes quiescent at the close.
The White Peacock of 1915 was also written originally for piano, then orchestrated in 1919. The inspiration for the music came from a poem by the English late-romantic poet and novelist William Sharp (1855-1905), writing under the pseudonym Fiona McLeod. Following the lead of his friend and mentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sharp was enthralled with beauty for its own sake, but while Rossetti focused on adoration of the female form, Sharp held a broader view, encompassing the bucolic whole of nature. According to Sharp’s wife, who was the editor of Lyra Celtica, a journal on Celtic lore, The White Peacock and other poems by Fiona McLeod were written in the imagined voice of a daughter the couple never had. Griffes’ score is exquisite, altogether replete with the nuance and suggestive color worthy of an Impressionist canvas. Originally set in 56 lines of free verse, the poem reads in part: Through a mist of roses - Deep in the heart of a sea of white violets - Slowly, white as a snow-drift, moves the White Peacock.
Inspired by the elegant playing of the French flautist Georges Barrère (1876-1944), Griffes wrote his Poem for Flute and Orchestra in 1918. The work was first given the same year by the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch. For his part, Barrère was among the finest woodwind players in the world, (among other distinctions he had won the prestigious Premier Prix at the Paris Conservatory) and also served as the principal flautist of the New York Symphony Orchestra.
Almost all of Griffes’ orchestral scores are linked in some way to poetic or literal ideas, but in this case, despite its title, the composer said that the Poem for Flute was simply a miniature tone poem, without associated text or images. The work’s lush and alluring timbres have endeared the piece as a mainstay in the flute repertoire.
In that Griffes held a passion for verse, it seems natural that Three Tone-Pictures would appear among his earliest works. The pieces are evocative of images derived from a poem by William Butler Yeats and two by Edgar Allan Poe. Scored originally for solo piano, Griffes completed the pieces in 1915 and orchestrated them that year for the New York Chamber Orchestra under George Barrère. For reference, The Lake at Evening is a musical caption of Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree; The Vale of Dreams is resonant with Poe’s The Sleeper; The Night Winds was inspired by Poe’s The Lake.
Three Poems of Fiona McLeod was scored in 1918, originally for voice and piano. The work was orchestrated in the same year by M. Dresser for a première performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The verse of Fiona McLeod (qv. William Sharpe, above) is exemplary of a literary style known as the ‘Celtic Twilight.’
Dedicated to the music critic Paul Rosenfeld, Griffes’ Clouds of 1916, orchestrated in 1919, was inspired by a poem from William Sharp’s volume of verse titled Sospiri di Roma. The composer included the work as the fourth and last in a suite titled Roman Sketches, the other pieces from which are The White Peacock, Nightfall and The Fountain of the Acqua Paola. Griffes provided a brief program note for the 1919 première of the orchestral version by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski: “Sharp speaks of the ‘clouds’ as suggesting the golden domes and towers of a city with streets of amethyst and turquoise. The music is a tone-picture striving for this same, tenuous, far-off and yet colorful atmosphere.”
Griffes composed Bacchanale originally for piano in 1912 (orchestrated in 1919). The piece was initially titled Scherzo, the last of a small suite of piano works entitled Fantasy Pieces, Op.6. For the première of the work by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the composer wrote: “From the Palace of Enchantment there issued into the night-sounds of unearthly revelry. Troops of genii and other fantastic spirits danced grotesquely to a music now weird and mysterious, now wild and joyous. The piece is wholly fantastic as a fairy tale, with a wild climax at the end.”
Three Poems of Fiona McLeod
 The Lament of Ian the Proud
What is this crying that I see in the wind!
Is it the old sorrow and the old grief
Or is it a new thing coming,
A whirling leaf about the grey hair of me who am weary and blind?
I know not what it is, but on the moor above the shore
There is a stone which the purple nets of heather bind,
And thereon is writ: she will return no more,
O blown whirling leaf, and the old grief
And wind crying to me who am old and blind!
 Thy Dark Eyes to Mine
Thy dark eyes to mine, Eilidh,
Lamps of desire!
O how my soul leaps
Leaps to their fire!
Sure, now, if I in heaven
Dreaming in bliss,
Heard but a whisper,
But a lost echo,
Even of one such kiss,
All of the soul of me would leap afar,
If that called me to thee.
Aye, I would leap
A falling star.
 The Rose of the Night
The dark rose of thy mouth
Draw nigher, draw nigher!
Thy breath is the wind of the south,
A wind of fire!
The wind and the rose and the darkness
O Rose of my Desire!
Deep silence of the night
Hush’t like a breathless lyre,
Save the sea’s thunderous might,
Dim, menacing, dire;
Silence and wind and sea,
They are thee,
O Rose of my Desire!
As a wind eddying flame
Leaping higher and higher
Thy soul, thy secret name
Leaps thro’ Death’s blazing pyre!
Kiss me, Imperishable Fire,
O Rose of my Desire!
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