Charles Tomlinson Griffes

views updated May 21 2018

Charles Tomlinson Griffes

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) was one of the most important American composers at the beginning of the 20th century.

Charles Griffes was born in Elmira, New York, on September 17, 1884. He began his musical studies with his sister Katharine, who gave him his first piano lessons. In about 1899 he completed his piano education under Mary Selena Broughton, a professor at Elmira College. In 1903 she financed Griffes' musical stay in Berlin, where he studied piano with Ernst Jedliczka and Gottfried Gaston, composition with Engelbert Humperdinck and Philipp Rufer, and counterpoint with Wilhelm Klatte and Max Lowengard, all at the Stern Conservatory. A brilliant piano student, Charles Griffes nevertheless felt more attracted to composition. Thus he decided to leave the Stern Conservatory in September 1905 to study privately with Humperdinck.

When he returned to the United States in September 1907 he had already composed several songs and a Symphonische Phantasie for orchestra. At that time, Griffes became director of the music department of Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. He kept this post until he died in 1920. An excellent teacher, Griffes was held in high esteem by his colleagues. He spent most of his free time composing and promoting his work each summer in New York City. He died at the age of 35 while he was working on a drama, Salut au Monde, based on texts of Walt Whitman. In November 1964 Elmira College held a Griffes festival to commemorate his 80th birthday.

Griffes' music reflected his eclecticism, as it revealed first German, then French and Oriental, influences before becoming more abstract. His works parallel the musical eclecticism of the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. It is probably fair to describe Griffes' work as pre-eminent American compositions of the 20th century. Throughout his life he kept in touch with famous composers such as Feruccio Busoni and Sergei Prokofiev. He also maintained relations with American composers as revealed in his diary. Writing in this journal, he says: "At 4 [o'clock], Varèse and I came up to Laura's [Mrs. Elliot] where I played the Pantomine [The Kairn of Koridwen], [Charles] Cooper, [Henry] Cowell were there. Varèse turned [pages] for me and was much interested."

Griffes first began to write music in Berlin, where he was in contact with several German composers. He wrote at that time the songs for voice and piano based on German texts and utilizing a musical language profoundly influenced by Brahms and Richard Strauss. After 1911 Griffes' music included more elements borrowed from the French impressionists; their timbre, their free structures, and their composers' preference for descriptive pieces (see Three Tone Pictures and Roman Sketches). The Three Poems (1916) reveal a more experimental language, incorporating a lot of dissonances within the framework of a free tonality.

In 1916 Griffes became involved with Orientalism, preceding a similar interest on the part of such American composers as Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and John Cage. After Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan (1916-1917), Charles Griffes wrote Sho-Jo (1917-1919) for Le Ballet Intime and the Japanese dancer Michio Ito. (Le Ballet Intime was directed by Adolf Bolm, ex-dancer at Les Ballets Russes. ) This piece achieved several Oriental effects through delicate orchestration. In 1917 Griffes wrote a colorful orchestral version of his most successful Oriental work, The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. It was probably through French music (for example, Debussy, St-Saëns) that Charles Griffes became attracted to Orientalism.

In his last works, Charles Griffes tended to use a more abstract and structured musical style whose language became deeply complex. His Sonata for piano in three movements (1917-1918) and his Three Preludes for piano, Griffes' last completed work, clearly revealed this new turn in his music. The Three Preludes showed several similarities to Schoenberg's Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke.

Further Reading

E. M. Maisel, Charles T. Griffes: The Life of an American Composer (1943, 1984); D. K. Anderson, The Works of Charles T. Griffes: A Descriptive Catalogue (1966); and D. Boda, The Music of Charles Griffes (Dissertation, Florida State University, 1962) are major sources of information on Charles Griffes and his work.

Additional Sources

Anderson, Donna K., Charles T. Griffes: a life in music, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Maisel, Edward, Charles T. Griffes, the life of an American composer, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1984. □

Griffes, Charles Tomlinson

views updated May 29 2018

Griffes, Charles Tomlinson

Griffes, Charles Tomlinson, outstanding American composer; b. Elmira, N.Y., Sept. 17, 1884; d. N.Y., April 8, 1920. He began piano lessons at an early age with his sister; about 1899 he became a piano student of Mary Selena Broughton, an instructor at Elmira Coll. Thanks to Broughton’s financial assistance, Griffes was able to go to Berlin in 1903 to pursue his training at the Stern Cons, with Ernst Jedliczka and Gottfried Galston (piano), Philippe Rufer and Humperdinck (composition), and Max Lowengard and Klatte (counterpoint). After private composition lessons with Humperdinck (1905-06), he again studied piano with Galston (1906-07). Upon his return to the U.S. in 1907, he was made director of music at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y.Until about 1911 Griffes7 works followed along the path of German Romanticism. He then pursued his fascination with impressionism in a number of piano pieces and songs. His subsequent interest in the potentialities of the oriental scale resulted in such scores as his Japanese pantomime Sho-jo (1917) and the orch. version of his remarkable piano piece The PleasureDome ofKubla Khan (1917). In his last works, such as his Piano Sonata (1917-18), he revealed a strong individual style tending toward extreme dissonance.


Dramatic: The Kairn of Koridwen, dance drama (1916; N.Y., Feb. 10, 1917); Sho-jo, Japanese pantomime (Atlantic City, N.J., Aug. 5, 1917); The White Peacock, ballet (N.Y, June 22, 1919; arrangement of the piano piece, 1915); Salut au monde, festival drama (1919; NY., April 22, 1922). ORCH .: Overture (c. 1905); Symphonische Phantasie (1907); The Pleasure-Dome ofKubla Khan (1917; Boston, Nov. 28, 1919; arrangement of the piano piece, 1912); Notturnofur Orchester (c. 1918; Philadelphia, Dec. 19, 1919); Poem for Flute and Orch. (1918; N.Y, Nov. 16, 1919); Bacchanale (Philadelphia, Dec. 19, 1919; arrangement of the Scherzo for Piano, 1913); Clouds (Philadelphia, Dec. 19, 1919; arrangement of the piano piece, 1916); The White Peacock (Philadelphia, Dec. 19, 1919; arrangement of the piano piece, 1915); Nocturne (1919; arrangement of the 2nd movement of the Piano Sonata, 1917-18). CHAMBER : Movement for String Quartet (1903); 3 Tone-Pictures: The Lake at Evening, The Vale of Dreams, and The Night Winds for Woodwind and Harp (1915; also for Wind Quintet, String Quintet, and Piano, 1919; arrangements of the piano pieces, 1910-12); Vivace (Allegro assai quasi presto) for String Quartet (1917); 2 Sketches Based on Indian Themes: Lento e mesto and Allegro giocoso for String Quartet (1918-19); Allegro energico ma maestoso for String Quartet (1919). P i a n o : 6 Variations (1898); Mazurka (1898-1900);4 Preludes (1899-1900); 5 sonatas (c. 1904; c. 1910; c. 1911; c. 1912; 1917-18, N.Y, Feb. 26, 1918, 2nd movement orchestrated as Nocturne, 1919); 3 Tone-Pictures (1910-12); (8) Fantasy Pieces (1912-15), including Scherzo (1913; orchestrated as Bacchanale, 1919); (4) Roman Sketches: The White Peacock (1915; orchestrated 1919), Nightfall (1916), The Fountain of the Acqua Paola (1916), and Clouds (1916; orchestrated 1919); 3 Preludes (1919). VOCAL :(3) Tone-Images (1912-14); 2 Rondels (c. 1914); 4 Impressions (1914-16); 3 Poems (1916); 5 Poems of Ancient China and Japan (1916-17; N.Y., Nov. 1, 1917); 2 Poems (1917-18); 3 Poems of Fiona MacLeod (1918; N.Y., March 22, 1919; orchestrated 1918; Wilmington, Del, March 24, 1919).


J. Howard, C.T. G. (N.Y., 1923); E. Maisel, C.T. G.: The Life of an American Composer (N.Y., 1943); G. Conrey, The Published Songs of C.T. G.: A Stylistic Examination (diss., Chicago Musical Coll., 1955); D. Boda, The Music of C. G. (diss., Fla. State Univ., 1962); H. Pratt, The Complete Piano Works of C.T. G. (diss., Boston Univ., 1975); D. Anderson, C.T. G.: An Annotated Bibliography-Discography (Detroit, 1977); idem, The Works of C.T. G.: A Descriptive Catalogue (Ann Arbor, 1984); idem, C.T. G.: A Life in Music (Washington, D.C., 1993).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Griffes, Charles (Tomlinson)

views updated Jun 27 2018

Griffes, Charles (Tomlinson) (b Elmira, NY, 1884; d NY, 1920). Amer. composer. Taught at boys’ school in Tarrytown, NY, from 1908 until his death. His mus. was beginning to be recognized as important just before he died. Much influenced by Fr. mus. impressionists, he also used Japanese and Amer.-Indian themes and oriental scales. In his later works, polymetric and polytonal features occur. Prin. works:DRAMATIC: The Kairn of Koridwen, dance-drama, 5 ww., cel., hp., pf. (1916); Shojo, Japanese dance-pantomime, 4 ww., strs., hp., perc. (1917).ORCH.: Nocturne (1919); The White Peacock (orch. in 1919 of No.1 of 4 Roman Sketches for pf. of 1915–16); Poem, fl., orch. (1918); The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (sym.-poem after Coleridge arr. from pf. piece of 1912) (1917).VOICE & PIANO: Tone Images, mez. ( Wilde and Henley) (1912); 3 Songs (1916); 3 Poems of Fiona MacLeod, sop. (also with orch.) (1918).CHAMBER MUSIC: 2 Sketches Based on Indian Themes, str. qt. (c.1918).PIANO: 3 Tone Pictures (1911–12); The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1912, orch. 1917); Fantasy Pieces (1912–14); 4 Roman Sketches (1915–16); Sonata (1917–18).

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Charles Tomlinson Griffes