An American Impressionist

What Charles Griffes wrote during his brief life leaves us wanting more

Friedrich Wieser/Flickr
Friedrich Wieser/Flickr

When composers die prematurely, it’s tempting to imagine what they might have produced had they lived to a riper age. For some musicians, like Mozart or Schubert, the question is moot—each was a mature artist in the full bloom of youth, producing a lifetime’s worth of masterpieces in an astonishingly brief period. But when composers happen to die just when they’re getting started, the question becomes more tantalizing. Consider, for example, the life of Charles Tomlinson Griffes, a man largely—and unjustly—forgotten by the general public today.

Born in 1884 in Elmira, New York, Griffes was a musical late bloomer, fluent instead in the visual arts from an early age. He specialized in watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings and was so talented in the field of copperplate etching that he contemplated making it his livelihood. At the age of 10 or 11, while bedridden with typhoid fever, Griffes listened as his sister Katharine played the piano and decided that he, too, wanted to learn the instrument. At first, his sister gave him lessons. Then, when he turned 15, he graduated to Katharine’s teacher, one Mary Selena Broughton of Elmira College. Recognizing Griffes’s talent, Broughton became convinced that he needed to go abroad to continue his education. She even paid for his passage to Berlin in 1903. For two years, Griffes studied at the Stern Conservatory, working with the Russian-German pianist Ernst Jedliczka (a pupil of Anton Rubinstein). Soon, however, a bitter realization set in: he knew he did not have the requisite ability to make it as a touring virtuoso. And so, he turned to composition, for which he had a keen knack. It was a heady time to do so, what with Europe poised between the decadence of Late Romanticism and the revolutionary period of Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and the Viennese modernists.

In 1905, Griffes’s father died, and with the family facing intense financial hardship, he had no choice but to return home two years later. Accepting a job at the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York, Griffes took on all manner of musical duties, giving piano and organ lessons and preparing the school choir. He was spectacularly overqualified for the job, which provided only a meager salary. Lonely and adrift, and missing the friendships he had cultivated in Berlin, Griffes spent his free hours writing music, composing in a Germanic Romantic idiom that could be traced back to Brahms. The musical establishment took note, and Griffes’s reputation grew. The venerable publishing house G. Schirmer printed five of his songs in 1909 and brought out several other works in the coming years.

His style soon underwent a significant change, and having imbibed the scores of Debussy and Ravel (as well as those of Russian composers like Alexander Scriabin), he began to essay a distinct brand of American Impressionism. Like the French Impressionists, Griffes was inspired by the East, and among the works he wrote during the fruitful five-year period between 1914 and 1919 were his Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan and The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan. A reserved introvert deeply attuned to the natural world, Griffes was an especially skilled composer of art songs; he may have only written 26, but they are inventive and felicitous and deserve to be repertoire staples. The same is true of his piano pieces, some of which (like Kubla Khan) he orchestrated with great success. And although Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, and Walter Damrosch conducted and championed his work, Griffes struggled financially, especially after his idiom moved further away from its Romantic roots into more adventurously modern terrain. That’s when his former publishers began to shun him. The strain of overwork, moreover, left him vulnerable to sickness. He suffered from heart and lung ailments and in December 1919 became severely ill. By the following April, he was dead at the age of 35.

In his book The Musical Heritage of the United States, Karl Krueger, once the music director of the Detroit Symphony and principal conductor in Seattle, paid homage to Griffes’s piano works and songs. But it “is as a composer for orchestra, particularly,” Krueger wrote, “that one might have wished that he could have been granted a few more years of development.” It’s easy to understand why after listening to a work such as The White Peacock. This piece was based on a poem by Fiona Macleod (the nom de plume of William Sharp, for whom Griffes felt an affinity). In Macleod’s highly perfumed verse, the eponymous bird drifts slowly amid a hot, sunlit garden filled with blossoms and pomegranates, unfurling its feathers in a kind of trance:

Pale, pale as the breath of blue smoke in far woodlands,
Here, as the breath, as the soul of this beauty,
Moves the White Peacock.

Griffes composed The White Peacock for the piano, as part of a suite of four pieces, then orchestrated it in 1919. The original version of this brief tone poem is exquisite (listen to Myra Hess’s magical recording from 1928), but the orchestration is, to me, even more impressive, a work of dreamy opulence taking full advantage of its composer’s knowledge of instrumental color and sonority.

If you didn’t know otherwise, you might mistake it for some long-lost score of Debussy’s—there’s that familiar feeling of languor in the opening, in the chromatic oboe phrases, in the strumming of the harp, in the quiet falling flute line that has about it an air of improvisation. Is this Griffes’s peacock or Debussy’s faun? Everything feels ethereal, diaphanous, particularly the torpid clarinet lines and the expressive flute melody full of youthful yearning. But The White Peacock is not stylistically monochromatic. Indeed, the mood becomes more solidly Germanic, with harmonies and melodies reminiscent of Richard Strauss or the Arnold Schoenberg of Gurrelieder. The trajectory of Griffes’s development may have led him into the realm of the modernists, but here he luxuriated in the grand, Romantic gesture—listen to the enchanting moment when the violins play a sweeping melody, sounding all the brighter because their mutes have been removed. Later, the Impressionist temper returns, with the oboe and flute repeating the same phrases that began the piece. The orchestra grows hushed, the tempo slows, and the tone poem ends in unsettling fashion, without any true resolution.

Mysterious, haunting, and beautiful, The White Peacock (like Kubla Khan and other works) compels us to imagine precisely how Griffes might have developed had he not succumbed to an early death. Would he have worked on a larger canvas, perhaps attempting a symphony? Would his aptitude for vocal music have led him to write an opera? Harmonically speaking, would he have continued to explore the dissonant sound worlds of his 1918 Piano Sonata? Might he have taken a turn in the direction of Stravinsky? So many unanswerable questions. At any rate, it might be facile to speak of Griffes as an American Debussy, but had his life not been so frustratingly short, had he indeed reached full artistic maturity, we might today be speaking of some other 20th-century composer as the French Charles Griffes.

Listen to Gerard Schwarz lead the Seattle Symphony in Griffes’s White Peacock: 

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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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