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 on Charles Tomlinson Griffes

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 Biography 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.