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Griffes Disharmony

In response to:

The Tarrytown Impressionist from the June 13, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

Arthur Berger’s review [NYR, June 13] of my biography, Charles T. Griffes: The Life of an American Composer, shows that one venerable tradition of American music history survives—the substitution of fantasy for elementary scholarship. It becomes a matter of musicological hygiene to correct at least some part of his error and confusion.

By stating that The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan is “the only bona fide work for large orchestra that Griffes left us,” Berger ignores later symphonic works: Bacchanale, Nocturne, Clouds, and The White Peacock (all composed in 1919) evolved from piano pieces as did Kubla (1916–1917) and reveal more of Griffes’s powers as a composer for large orchestra. To 1919 also belongs another orchestral composition, Sho-Jo, developed from a piece for chamber ensemble.

As part of the same sweeping error, Berger then considers one of Griffes’s most stunning and fully realized compositions—the Three Poems of Fiona Macleod (1918) for a voice and orchestra—which together with the piano Sonata represents the peak of his oeuvre. Berger classifies the Macleod songs among pieces done for “reduced orchestra or chamber ensemble”; yet since he cites a recorded performance (NW 273) by Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, what did he think he was hearing?

Berger includes this composition among others that “seem to have been made to profit from a sudden demand for his work after the composer had had some success with Pleasure Dome.” But the Macleod opus was not composed after the success of Pleasure-Dome. Nothing was. Ruinously ill, Griffes went steadily downhill until his death—see the last fourty-two pages of my biography. In any case, the Macleod cycle had its premiere with the Philadelphia Symphony some eight months prior to the premiere of Kubla (my biography, pp. 249 and 256–258). Berger’s assertion of a “sudden demand” for Griffes’s music after the success of Kubla is pure fable: in the few months left to him, Griffes received not a single commission or request to compose anything new.

Central to Berger’s article is his reverential preoccupation with the music critic Paul Rosenfeld, whom he makes unduly important in Griffes’s life. He lists the persons who broadened Griffes’s musical interests, and emphasizes “above all the remarkable Paul Rosenfeld.” We are told that “a warm friendship developed between the two men.” Yet neither the warm friendship nor the influence ever developed. Griffes once, in 1917, went to a party at Rosenfeld’s; at best their relationship consisted of a few brief encounters.

Incredibly, Berger makes me appeal to Rosenfeld. “Maisel promises us that we will alter our view of Griffes when we know the three last dance scores,” and I am thereupon quoted as quoting a lyric passage by Rosenfeld about The Kairn of Koridwen in order to buttress my supposed claim. But Berger’s quotation from Rosenfeld never appears anywhere in my book! Nor does such a promise ever appear anywhere in my book!

Undaunted, Berger takes off from “the promise that Maisel evokes,” and delivers no little misinformation about the “dance scores” involved. To correct him as briefly as possible: (1) Salut au Monde was not a dance drama but a mixed-media experience combining music, light display by a color organ, choral speech, and mime and dance (my biography, p. 268). Contrary to Berger’s speculation (via Rosenfeld, who saw the 1922 posthumous mishmash completed by Edmond Rickett), the core of the work contains thirty minutes of authentic Griffes music. Despite Berger’s worry that the music might unduly rely upon stage action, the composer worked from a text by Walt Whitman without conferring with any choreographer, dancer or technician. Berger is flatly wrong in attributing Orientalism to this music: there is none: “Wait till you hear Salut, you’ll be surprised how diatonic it is,” Griffes told a friend (my biography, p.289). Listeners may hear for themselves on October 17, 1985, when Wesleyan University’s CFA Theatre will present a production of Salut with the New World Consort directed by Roy Wiseman and employing Amy Trompetter’s life-size puppets. While the work may not “alter our view of Griffes” (Berger’s words, not mine) it will be discovered for what it is—a fascinating, sometimes remarkable piece of theater music. (2) Sho-Jo could not, as Berger intermittently acknowledges, turn up as one of the “dance scores” in my imaginary promise. What we have today is not the early piece that Griffes composed for the dancer Michio Ito, but his later symphonic version written for Nikolai Sokoloff and the Cleveland Orchestra. (3) As for The Kairn of Koridwen, which completes the triumvirate of works touted in the promise made by Berger on my behalf, at least it is a true “dance score.”

Berger misrepresents a parenthetical remark in my discussion of the Griffes Sonata, and devotes lengthy disputation to a single musical note. I observed in passing that the tonality of the Sonata, because it contains an F rather than an F#, does not consist of two congruent tetrachords. If that were the case, the F would figure as “rebellious” (my biography, pp. 273–275). Berger, however, contends that in serial terms the F in question could be interpolated into a scale that would consist of two congruent tetrachords. Not that it is illegitimate to make use of later musical concepts unknown and alien to Griffes in 1917. But for Berger’s argument to make sense, its applicability to the work as a whole would have to be demonstrated with sustained appositeness. And how resolutely the sequential patterns and virtuosic keyboard writing in the Griffes Sonata would resist that!

Berger suggests that my disdain for “progress in musical theory” led me to eschew a presumably more advanced serial approach. But what fresh insight and meaning are provided by imposing a serial vocabulary on the Sonata? It is a composition as indigenous to Griffes’s musical thought and feeling in 1917 as was, say, Webern’s late work to Webern’s thought and feeling. The configuration of pitches that gives the Griffes Sonata its distinctive modality obviously derives from Scriabin and Middle Eastern exoticism—Jewish, Arabic, Persian. Specific attention to the modality in its own terms allows for a more relevant and useful analysis.

As might be expected, Berger finally relies on Paul Rosenfeld to support his main thesis: a musically strong and fulfilled early Griffes up to 1916, as opposed to the dubious and blurry composer of the later works. In scanning the terrain along the way, Berger backs an unexceptionable favorite, Charles Ives; plugs a dark horse of his own, Theodore Chanler; misquotes Gilbert Chase; and entirely skips mention of the jazz tradition. Berger has unnecessarily weakened his case by assigning wrong dates to the Roman Sketches, his favorites in the Griffes piano repertory—the dates should be 1915–1916 and not 1916–1918 (which would remove these compositions from the early period Berger likes and place them in the later period of the Sonata and other works about which he has misgivings).

Rosenfeld, in my view, would not have looked kindly on the high-flown pianism of the Sonata,” Berger concludes. To speak for the dead is always presumptuous; it can sometimes be dangerous as well. In a letter sent to me while I was researching the Griffes biography, Rosenfeld wrote: “The string music, the Sonata, and the last songs are certainly stronger than what preceded them.”

Edward Maisel

New York City

Arthur Berger replies:

Mr. Maisel’s allegations of my factual errors are mostly the consequence of misunderstandings and differences of opinion which I will attempt to clarify.

  1. He begins his inventory of my transgressions by quoting my observation on The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, conveniently deleting the qualifying words, “as far as I can determine,” and ignoring the further qualifications imposed by “bona fide” and the modifier, “large.” The deleted phrase implied my difficulty as nonspecialist on Griffes in dealing with an oeuvre that has so many unpublished works. “Bona fide”—only within the context—meant a work that is not an arrangement of solo or chamber music. The orchestral works Mr. Maisel mentions in his letter to correct me are all of this class. Among them, The White Peacock is the only one published, and it fulfills what I take to be the condition of a work for large orchestra that the brass include at least trumpets and trombones along with horns. But this work is an arrangement of an established piano piece in a way that The Pleasure-Dome is not, for though the latter started out as a piano piece Griffes was not satisfied until he put it into orchestral form. My statement as it originally appeared expressed a judgment, it did not convey a fact. In the next sentence, I agree, I should have said the arrangements are “mostly for reduced orchestra” etc., whereas I seemed to be saying all are. But Mr. Maisel also had understandable difficulty in classifying Griffes’s instrumental music (e.g., chamber ensemble music is listed under chamber orchestra). Nothing I wrote about the orchestral music undermines the main thrust of my review that one need not insist on Griffes’s grander achievements to justify the eminence he earned by his songs and piano pieces.

  2. I regret that in proofreading I overlooked an editorial change that made it seem as if Mr. Maisel was quoting what I had taken directly from Paul Rosenfeld’s article, “Griffes on Grand Street.” Writing in 1940, Rosenfeld looked back nostalgically at The Kairn of Koridwen, one of the late stage works, and made me eager to hear the music of all three of them, despite the doubts that Rosenfeld cast on the authenticity of Salut au Monde. (I yield to Mr. Maisel’s authority when he says Rosenfeld was mistaken about Salut.) Though the editing unfortunately made Mr. Maisel seem to appeal to Rosenfeld for confirmation of an independent judgment, it does not affect the sense I have that the two shared a feeling that these works are special. (A “choice example” of Griffes’s works “unknown even to connoisseurs” is the way Mr. Maisel described Salut in his introduction, and the stage works in general elicited epithets like “unique,” “unusual,” in the course of the book.) If this is so it is not unwarranted to conclude that we may see Griffes in a new light that”will alter our view,” especially since these are his only stage works—though in conveying this thought my wording could have been more felicitous. (There is no reason to exclude Sho-Jo just because the original has not so far been found.)

My reservations toward the aesthetic behind the stage works were not intended to imply they would not be enormously interesting to hear, but I fear I seemed to be prejudging them. This is precisely what I wanted to avoid. Thus, a tape of a reading of Salut was generously lent to me by Donna K. Anderson, author of the Griffes catalog, but I thought I should withhold judgment until the forthcoming finished performance which Mr. Maisel announced in his introduction with glowing praise from a precocious Elliott Carter (it “left a great impression on me”) who at age fourteen was present at the 1922 performance. After a striking opening, the tape settled (not without lovely touches along the way) into a dronelike Eastern manner (a diatonic idiom does not preclude it) that has many devotees but is not, as I indicated, to my taste. I do not see why Mr. Maisel is so exercised over “dance scores” for works I know from hearsay and that are not easily classifiable. I used the term perhaps too loosely to cover all three which, taken together, stress dance if it is extended to include mime (Sho-Jo was done by Ballet Intime). A purist might equally object to “mixed-media experience” for a work of 1919, but I find the locution an apposite one. Had Mr. Maisel employed it in his book it would have caught my attention and given him one less reason for annoyance.

  1. It was Rosenfeld’s article of 1940 that gave me the idea of a friendship because of the personal way he wrote about the composer: I simply slipped into the cliché according to which friendships are always “warm.” Moreover, the composer dedicated one of his finest works (Clouds) to the critic. It is hard to believe theirs was no more than a professional relationship—friendships can be brief. But if Rosenfeld caused me to exaggerate and otherwise led me astray, I do not regret having drawn upon him for his insights. Mr. Maisel is mistaken, however, when he contends that I found support for my thesis in Rosenfeld. The earlier music struck him as “a little undecided, a little derivative,” and this attitude is confirmed by his estimate of this music in the quotation at the end of Mr. Maisel’s letter. (That Rosenfeld found merit in the Sonata, as I do, is no guarantee that he would have “looked kindly” on the virtuoso aspect I cited.) Rosenfeld sensed the emergence of an individual talent in the late works, but these mainly betokened a promise that he must have considered unfulfilled since Griffes is not one of the figures singled out in the critic’s seminal little book of 1929, An Hour with American Music.

  2. I may not possess a musicologist’s accuracy with dates, but I did not attribute compositions to Griffes on his deathbed. The Pleasure-Dome enjoyed a certain success before its première. “Off and on through 1916,” Mr. Maisel wrote, “there were glimmerings of hope for a performance of Kubla” (p.199). I would not have said so reservedly that The Pleasure-Dome enjoyed merely “some” success if I had been referring to the Boston première, which Mr. Maisel described as a “smash hit” (p. 299). Again, I was not stating a fact when I suggested the arrangements “seem to have been”—not “were”—a response to a demand. This was speculation of a kind in which musicologists rarely indulge. I was groping for an explanation, not provided by Mr. Maisel, for the sudden proliferation of arrangements. The lively interest of conductors may quite understandably (i.e., without the taint of opportunism) stimulate a composer to write other orchestral music and provide an impetus for organizations to want to play it.

  3. This is not the place to defend the proposition that local relations in music have significance apart from their function in the totality, or to spell out the benefits of what Mr. Maisel calls “serial analysis” to a work like the Griffes Sonata. Mr. Maisel wandered momentarily into contemporary theory by bringing up “congruence” (interval symmetry) in his analysis and I could not resist demonstrating its presence notwithstanding his denial. His analytic method with its emphasis on motive and theme has tradition on its side. New approaches illuminate aspects that are equally important—not only in Griffes, but in any music.

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