The Tarrytown Impressionist

Charles T. Griffes: The Life of an American Composer

by Edward Maisel
Knopf, 411 pp., $22.95

The Works of Charles T. Griffes: A Descriptive Catalogue

by Donna K. Anderson
UMI Research Press, 566 pp., $64.95

Charles Griffes
Charles Griffes; drawing by David Levine

When one reads that Charles Tomlinson Griffes died at thirty-five (on April 8, 1920), one naturally thinks of Mozart and Schubert. But the association serves only to underline how differently a shortened life affected the career of the turn-of-the-century American composer. Mozart and Schubert both seem to have crowded in a full lifetime’s work, if not more, in their few years; they seem to have done what they set out to do, even if each left one major work unfinished. Griffes is the fitting subject for the classic obituary, “struck down in the midst of his career at the height of his powers.” He died from a protracted lung illness just as he was becoming known in East Coast music circles and was drawing courage from his success to venture in new directions. The texture of his music was changing, becoming more advanced and complex, and he appeared to be starting a new career. He became the composer of a major piano sonata after having been a miniaturist, a composer for orchestra and theater after having concentrated on piano pieces and songs. To perfect oneself in these new genres in so few years is more than can be expected of anyone, so it is not unusual to find Griffes’s critics maintaining that he had left “his achievement incomplete,” in the words of a fellow composer, Frederick Jacobi.

As Griffes’s own times recede the innovations he might have bestowed upon his contemporaries become less consequential, and we can dwell upon what he actually accomplished rather than upon what he might have done. Had his composing career somehow come to an end four years earlier, in 1916, it would have seemed an orderly progression. Born in Elmira, New York, in 1884, he had prepared himself for a career as a pianist, and, not unexpectedly, he wrote a number of fine keyboard works. But some sixty songs, almost all written during the period in question, might well qualify him as primarily a song composer. This may come as a surprise to those who know him only as the composer of The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan (a symphonic poem), “The White Peacock” for piano, and perhaps also Poem for Flute and Orchestra.

The songs clearly derive from the tradition of the German lied. During his four student years, in Berlin, where at age nineteen he went to study with Humperdinck and others, he used German texts, and continued to do so for some time after his return in 1907, when he began a life of teaching music at a boys’ school in Tarrytown, New York. Even so, the influence of the French Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel began to insinuate itself into his style, and when he turned to English texts it was the French influence that prevailed—as it did in all his music. Indeed there is remarkable consensus in the writing about him that…

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