About this Recording
8.559724 - TAYLOR, D.: Through the Looking Glass / GRIFFES, C.T.: Poem / The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (Goff, Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Deems Taylor (1885–1966): Through the Looking Glass, Op. 12
Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884–1920): Poem for Flute and Orchestra • The White Peacock • The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan • Three Tone Pictures • Bacchanale


The history of American concert music in the early twentieth century is dominated by three names: Aaron Copland, a dynamic and innovative composer as well as the musical voice of a nostalgic populism; Charles Ives, who brought to music the spirit of American individualism descended from the philosophy of Emerson; and George Gershwin, who captured the pace and rhythms of American urban life during the “jazz age” of the 1920s. There were, however, other accomplished composers active in the United States during this period, composers whose work has largely been obscured by the passing of a half-century and more. This recording examines the music of two of them, Deems Taylor and Charles Tomlinson Griffes.

During the second quarter of the twentieth century, Deems Taylor was one of the best-known names on the musical scene in America—not as a composer, though he did compose prolifically, but as a writer and commentator. Born in New York City, in 1885, Taylor studied piano from age ten and began composing while a student at New York University. After graduating, he supported himself by writing music criticism for several New York newspapers and periodicals. He also provided commentaries for broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic performances. As a result of these activities, Taylor became so strongly associated with classical music in the public mind that he was enlisted as the host/narrator for Fantasia, Walt Disney’s landmark animation film set to pieces from the orchestral literature. He also published three books of his writings on music.

All the while Taylor composed operas, ballet scores and other orchestral pieces, choral works, songs, chamber music and piano solos. His most successful composition is probably Through the Looking Glass, an orchestral suite inspired by Lewis Carroll’s story of the same title, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. Taylor initially completed this work in 1919, scoring it for chamber orchestra. Two years later, he expanded the instrumentation, creating a piece for full orchestra.

Each of the suite’s five sections corresponds to a particular passage or episode from Carroll’s tale. The initial movement falls into two portions, the first being a musical evocation of the poem with which Carroll prefaces his story. This salutes the “Child of the pure unclouded brow / And dreaming eyes of wonder”—which is, of course, Alice Liddell, the young girl for whom Carroll wrote his “Alice” fantasies. Taylor follows the writer’s lead with tender music suggesting innocence and reverie. The second part of the movement takes us to the garden of talking flowers, where Alice listens to the lively discourse of colorful flora. Taylor imagines their chatter in an effervescent scherzo, but with a slow episode that recaptures the lush romantic vein of the movement’s opening section.

T’was brillig, and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” So begins Jabberwocky, the poem that forms the most famous part of Through the Looking Glass and the basis for the centerpiece of Taylor’s suite. Its portentous opening sounds conjure the fearsome creature of the poem’s title, a beast with “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch.” Quickly, however, the music assumes a more gentle and rhapsodic tone, evoking an enchanted realm of imagination. A bright march suggests the hero of the poem, a “beamish boy,” sallying forth with “his vorpal sword in hand.” But an ominous timpani roll and contrapuntal music rising from the low register of the orchestra announces the dread Jabberwock. The beast’s theme clashes with the boy’s march music, and the result of their combat, the Jabberwock’s demise, is conveyed in a mournful bassoon solo. The triumphant passage that follows fairly shouts, with Carroll, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”, and a varied reprise of the rhapsodic music of enchantment corresponds to the repeat of the initial stanza with which Carroll’s poem concludes.

The third movement is titled Looking Glass Insects, and its music imagines the Rocking-horse Fly, the Beeelephant and other fantastical creatures Alice encounters during her adventure. Taylor concludes the suite with a musical portrait of The White Knight, whose attempts to project a proud martial bearing are undercut by his overly sensitive nature. Two themes—the first “a sort of instrumental prance,” as Taylor described it, the second “bland, mellifluous, a little sentimental”—represent these contrasting qualities.

Born just a year before Taylor, Charles Tomlinson Griffes was one of the most imaginative American composers of his generation. His untimely death, at age 36, prevented him from achieving more than he did. Nevertheless, his finest works rank among the best American concert music of the early twentieth century.

A native of Elmira, a town about fifty miles north of New York City, Griffes became a proficient pianist during his adolescence. At age eighteen he went to Berlin for advanced musical study, and for a while he composed in a manner indebted to the German Romantics. Later he came under the influence of the French Impressionist school. Griffes’ best work therefore enjoys something of the virtues of German composition in its rich harmonic palette, as well as a very sophisticated handling of instrumental color and texture typical of the French school.

Griffes composed Poem for Flute and Orchestra for Georges Barrère, the celebrated flutist for whom Edgard Varèse later wrote his famous Density 21.5. It was completed and first performed in 1919, shortly before Griffes collapsed from exhaustion due to influenza. The piece opens with a melody sounding in the low strings before passing to the solo flute. A second theme, announced by the flute, adds a sense of oriental mystery, something found often in Griffes’ music. These themes are transformed in several lively dance-like episodes, but the languorous mood of the opening returns, and the work concludes in tranquil reverie.

Griffes had a strange fascination with peacocks, particularly white ones. In Berlin, he admired such a bird in the Zoological Garden, and he later clipped and saved pictures of white peacocks whenever he came across them. Small surprise, then, that he responded strongly to a poem by William Sharpe that imagined a white peacock “…as the soul of beauty / [Moving] in silence, and dreamlike, and slowly / White as a snowdrift in mountain valleys.” The result was one of Griffes’ finest works, the tone poem The White Peacock.

The composer initially wrote this work in 1917 as a solo piano piece. Two years later he orchestrated the music. Griffes captures the mood of Sharpe’s poem in sounds that sustain a delicate, dreamlike atmosphere. A haunting flute melody dominates the work, while a figure for clarinet evokes the strutting of the peacock.

Griffes was drawn to oriental themes of various sorts. He composed songs to Chinese and Japanese poems and wrote a ballet using Japanese melodies. But his best-known piece of musical exoticism is The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. Griffes composed a piano version of this work in 1912; he orchestrated the music in 1917. The piece has its poetic source in Kubla Khan, the famous poem of Coleridge, which begins: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…” In composing the music, Griffes stated, “I gave my imagination free reign in the description of this strange palace, as well as of purely imaginary revelry which might take place there.”

Griffes’ ability to evoke an imaginary landscape, so vividly demonstrated in this piece, also is displayed in Three Tone Pictures. The composer wrote this work in 1912 for piano, then rescored it for chamber ensemble in 1915 and for orchestra in 1919. The composition is a triptych of sensitively etched miniatures. Their titles carry allusions to a twilit lake, a fantasized valley and dreamladen night breezes; and these, nearly as much as the atmospheric music they describe, provide some idea of the poetic bent of Griffes’ imagination.

Bacchanale, the final work on this recording, also originated as a piano piece. In 1919, six years after composing it, Griffes orchestrated the music. Like the revel suggested late in The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, this work combines quasi-oriental sonorities, percussive accents and Impressionistic textures to highly sensual effect.

Paul Schiavo

Close the window