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Biography Charles Griffes,1884-1920

Image: Charles T. Griffes
Charles T. Griffes, from Musical Quarterly, vol. IX, July 1923, no. 3.

Although not a household name, Charles Tomlinson Griffes played an important role in the development of the American art song. Griffes possessed one of the most distinctive voices in American music, and his song catalog, while moderate in size, demonstrated his unique ability to fuse music and text, especially in his mature songs. It is regrettable that he suffered an untimely death, at the age of thirty-five, just as he reached the pinnacle of his career. Even so, professional musicians as well as the concert-going public have greatly benefited from the contributions Griffes bestowed on America.

Born on 17 September 1884 in Elmira, New York, Griffes was the third of five children of Wilber Griffes and Clara Tomlinson. When Griffes was ten years old, he received his first piano lessons from his oldest sister, Katharine, who was herself a student of Mary Selena (Selina) Broughton. Miss Broughton was the piano teacher at Elmira College, and at age fifteen, Griffes began his formal musical training with her. Broughton also served as a mentor to the young Griffes; it was at her suggestion and with her financial support that Griffes traveled to Berlin in 1903 to study music at the Stern Conservatory. After two years at the Conservatory, Griffes studied briefly with Engelbert Humperdinck. Griffes also continued his piano lessons in Europe with Gottfried Galston.

In 1907, Griffes returned to America and became the director of music at the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York. Although he did not intend the position to be permanent, Griffes served as director at the Hackley School for the remainder of his short life. At Hackley, Griffes was responsible for a variety of duties, including teaching piano and organ, directing the choir, performing in concerts, and accompanying guest artists at school functions. Although he was often frustrated during his years at Hackley, the position afforded Griffes a stable environment with a steady income, allowing him to dedicate his spare time to composition.

Around this time Griffes began to establish himself in American music circles. He made contacts with many of the prominent musicians in New York, including fellow American composers Walter Damrosch and Arthur Farwell. In 1909, Griffes' work received its first publication when music publisher G. Schirmer printed five of his German Songs. By 1915, Griffes had a contract with Schirmer for the publication of six piano compositions (op. 5 and op. 6) and five English Songs for Voice and Piano (op. 3 and op. 4).

That Griffes had begun, by this time, to drift away from German romanticism is evident in his impressionistic works for piano, including Three Tone-Pictures, op. 5 (1915), and Roman Sketches, op. 7 (1917). In 1916 and 1917, Griffes set five poems for voice and piano, using the five- and six-tone scales common in Eastern music rather than those associated with Western tonalities. Published as Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan, op. 10, they were premiered on 1 November 1917 by Eva Gauthier, soprano, and Griffes, accompanying at the piano. Other Asian-influenced works by Griffes include Sho-jo, commissioned by Russian choreographer and dancer Adolf Bolm for the Ballet-Intime, and The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, initially scored for piano solo and later orchestrated. The latter composition did not receive its first performance in its original piano version until 21 September 1984 when pianist James Tocco played it in the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium.

The year 1919 was, artistically speaking, the busiest year of Griffes's life. Soprano Vera Janacopulos debuted Griffes's Three Poems by Fiona Macleod, op. 11, on 22 March with the composer at the piano. The Modern Music Society featured a concert dedicated solely to Griffes's music on 2 April 1919. The first performance of Griffes's Poem for Flute and Orchestra occurred on 16 November 1919 by flutist Georges Barrère and the New York Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch. Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first orchestral performances of The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan on 28 and 29 November 1919; the orchestra repeated the performance in New York's Carnegie Hall on 4 and 6 December. And on 19 December 1919, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra performed the orchestral debuts of Griffes's Notturno für Orchester, The White Peacock, Clouds, and Bacchanale.

Griffes's attendance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's performance of The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan on 4 December 1919 was his last public appearance. Having suffered from empyema for several months, Griffes succumbed to the disease on 8 April 1920. He was buried on 10 April, and among the pallbearers at his funeral service was Oscar G. Sonneck, director of the publication department of G. Schirmer and former chief of the Music Division, Library of Congress. While it is tempting to speculate on what Griffes could have produced had his life not been cut short, it is perhaps more fitting to focus on what he did accomplish, especially his twenty-six songs for piano and voice. Although famous for his orchestral compositions, vocal works, such as Four Impressions and Three Poems by Fiona Macleod, established Griffes as one of America's most important songwriters.

Further Reading

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: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Upton, William Treat. "The Songs of Charles T. Griffes." Musical Quarterly 9, no. 3 (July 1923): 314-28.