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 early determined 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 absorb modern European culture. Upon his return to the United States in 1907, he secured a job as music director at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, 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 with Asian art and culture, painted, mostly watercolours, and was eager to throw himself into the creative fray of nearby New York City.
A mere thirteen years later, in 1920, Griffes was dead at the age of only 35. He had just achieved renown following Pierre Monteuxs successful performances of The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan with the Boston Symphony Orchestra 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 Four Preludes, a Mazuraka, and a set of Variations. Though sensitive and endearing, they give only a small hint of what was to come. The piano music that Griffes wrote in Europe was greatly influenced by Wagner, Richard Strauss, Humperdinck, and the German Romantics. During this period abroad he 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 Still unpublished and dating from c.1910 is a beguiling arrangement of the famous Baracarolle: Belle nuit, o nuit damour from The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach, in the tradition of the Liszt lieder transcriptions.
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 uninterested 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 Varèse. 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 pay off. He was beginning to receive significant performances by prominent pianists, singers, string quartets, and major orchestras and conductors and his new works were played by the New York Symphony Orchestra under Damrosch, the Boston Symphony Orchestra 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.
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 for nights writing 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 8 April 1920.
The piano music of Charles Tomlinson Griffees resonates with his distinctive and imaginative artistic personality. Griffes was graced with rare gifts of description, a creative and cultivated sensitivity toward harmonies and colours, 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 rôle 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.