About this Recording
8.559046 - GRIFFES: Piano Works, Vol. 2

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884 – 1920)

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884 – 1920)

Complete Piano Works, Volume 2


Charles Tomlinson Griffes was born in Elmira, New York, in 1884, Gifted and determined to become a composer, at 19 he went to Germany to continue his piano studies and study musical composition with Engelbert Humperdinck. Upon his return to the States in 1907 he became music director at the Hackley School in Tarry town, New York, a private boys' school. He was now 23 years old, an accomplished musician, cultured, fluent in four languages and 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 Orchestra. During this short life, Griffes created a significant and beautiful body of music while undergoing remarkable stylistic evolutions. His early death represents a particularly tragic loss since we can only speculate as to the musical paths that he would have explored.


The music that Griffes wrote in Europe as a student and young man was greatly influenced by the German Romantics. There are a pair of noteworthy two-piano works from this period, both of which are receiving their first recorded performances on this disc. The first is an arrangement of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel Overture, for which he rightly earned his teacher's approval. Literal and effective, it is skillfully done and displays keen pianistic and coloristic awareness. The other piece is quite wonderful and deserving of regular inclusion in the concert repertoire for two pianos. Entitled Symphonische Phantasie, it was written around 1910 as an arrangement of his own original orchestral work. The Symphonische Phantasie is an ultra-romantic vehicle reminiscent of Wagner, with gorgeous tunes, big rich chords and a direct and fulfilling emotionalism.


Griffes met much of the cultural avant-garde in New York and heard new scores by composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Busoni, Schoenberg, Milhaud, Prokofiev and Varese. He was also aware of fellow American composers including Omstein, Loeffler, and Farwell. He had significant performances by prominent pianists, singers, string quartets, and received orchestral premieres 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, critics, and audiences, and he was becoming established as one of the most important American composers of his generation.


Though often referred to as 'the American Impressionist', this description of Griffes is only partially accurate. Vividly aware of modem cultural trends, 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.


Griffes wrote seven piano compositions between 1912 and 1916, including the four unpublished pieces heard here. Although not as 'finished' as some other works from the same period, they are peppered with piquant harmonic surprises. unexpected twists and turns and a proliferation of ideas. The graceful and elegant Piece in E major is almost Mendelssohnian in its charm, unforced lyricism and good cheer. The Dance in A minor is an extroverted virtuoso piece, akin to the Scherzo, Op. 6. A lively tarantella, it is dominated by rhythmic drive, energy and rapid octaves. In the second half, a quirky sort of ‘soft-shoe’ jazz episode occurs, an urbane promenade with a Manhattan twist. The lilting Piece in D minor, in 6/8 meter, is the most advanced harmonically of the four, with augmented seconds and dissonant intervals. While the opening has a plaintive quality, the middle section breaks out into a Broadway-like tune that brings to mind George Gershwin. This is the least completed of the four pieces, with some measures left blank or just sketched-out. The Piece in B flat major is the only one of the four whose manuscript contains dynamic, tempo or performance markings. The wistful and syncopated opening is succeeded by a warm-hearted main theme. The music becomes increasingly more rapid and excited, leading to an ebullient conclusion.


The three Fantasy Pieces, Op. 6 were published in 1915. The vigorous Barcarolle has an introductory verse by William Sharp that speaks of a 'passionate, impetuous old sea' and was much admired by Percy Grainger. It features highly varied treatment of its rocking theme (including a canon), elements of bitonality, clearly delineated structural divisions, and a sonorous keyboard treatment leading to a brilliant conclusion. The more introverted Notturno is languid and improvisatory, with an undulating quality and an inventive use of color. This is the most tonally and rhythmically ambiguous of the three, with the freest form. Composed in just three days, the text came from a poem by Paul Verlaine. The once-popular Scherzo is a wild and brilliant dance with tremendous rhythmic verve, and a memorable pagan-sounding theme. It is a virtuoso piece with a wonderful effect. Griffes also arranged this piece for orchestra, calling it Bacchanale. He himself wrote of it. '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 Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan deserves a regular place in the concert repertoire. Based on the poem by Samuel Coleridge and originally written as a piano piece, the composer orchestrated it on the wise suggestion of Busoni. The symphonic version, which is not a literal arrangement of the piano score, utilizes the colors of the orchestra to stupendous effect. Although it receives orchestral performances, the piano version was not published until 1993 and is virtually unknown. Griffes began the Pleasure-Dome in 1912, and worked on it until 1915 when he began the orchestration The Pleasure-Dome is overflowing with riches, offering exotic melodies, sensual colors and harmonies, all unfolding within a convincing architectural structure. It utilizes a spectacular range of dynamics, registers and sonorities, and I feel that Griffes's fears that it might not be sufficiently 'pianistic' are unwarranted. From the very opening, with its deep, dark bass octaves depicting the mysterious flow of 'Alph, the sacred river,' a listener is drawn into the intensely imaginative music. Several themes have Oriental and Arabian flavors, combining to build to a frenzied climax before the piece comes to its quiet end, evoking an enchanted return to the 'miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.’


If most of the works written after his 'Germanic' period display impressionistic influence, the great Piano Sonata boldly struck out into uncharted territory. Already a master miniaturist of finesse and delicacy, in the Sonata he commanded a large form with almost primal power. It represents a milestone in the evolution of the American piano sonata and the realization by Griffes of a new and completely personal style.


Sadly, Griffes would write only once more for the piano after completing the Sonata: the Three Preludes. With them, he continued the exploration of new scales and atonality. Their conciseness and economy of expression seem haiku-like. They are experimental, elusive, and abstract. None of them contains any tempo indications, dynamics, pedal markings, or key signature. The first Prelude is sparse, chromatic and harmonically and emotionally unresolved. The linear and speech-like second Prelude never has more than three notes sounding simultaneously. The haunting third Prelude presents another of Griffes's exotic scales: A, B flat, C sharp, D sharp, E, F, G flat, and A. This row is clearly shown at the end of the piece. Ironically, Griffes's successes in 1919 were probably the major cause of his untimely death. Lacking the money to pay for the copying of orchestral parts, he sat up nights writing them out himself. All of the excitement and overwork took a toll on his health. He was diagnosed with a combination of Emphysema, influenza, and pneumonia; the deeper cause was probably physical and nervous exhaustion. An operation on his lungs failed, and he died in New York on 8 April 1920.


The 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. Had he lived longer he might very well have become one of the great composers. I hope that having his complete piano works available for the first time on compact disc will lead to a heightened appreciation of his unique contribution to the keyboard literature.


Michael Lewin






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