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Exhumation of a Buried Treasure

New York
BargeMusic, Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn
06/19/2009 -  
Charles T. Griffes (1882–1920): Three Tone-Pictures, Op. 5, A. 108-113 – Scherzo from Fantasy Pieces, Op. 6, No. 3, A. 73 – Three Preludes A. 86-88 – The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, Tone Poem, Op. 8, A. 91– Two Poems by John Masefield, A. 51 and 56 – Song of the Dagger, A. 48 – Poem for Flute, A. 93 (transcr. for Flute and Piano) – Piano Piece in E Major, A. 74 – The White Peacock from Roman Sketches, Op. 7, No. 1, A. 77 – Sonata for Piano, A. 85

Michael Lewin (Piano), Robert Honeysucker (Baritone), Gary Schocker (Flute)

Charles Tomlinson Griffes
(© Thomas Cobbe Collection of Composer Portraits, University of Cincinnati)

Elliott Carter was greatly impressed by him. Aaron Copland extolled his “adventuressness”, and even the acerbic Virgil Thomson was impressed.
But today, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who died before he was 40, is never on concert programs. Or if he is, the “wrong” pieces are performed.

All that should change, since Griffes was anything but a mere historical phenomena. And with a complete concert devoted to his chamber music at BargeMusic last night, even the most skeptical listener could tell that this was a composer far far ahead of his time, and in many ways was more original than any American composer of his generation.

This was a concert which surveyed a whole gamut of his work, and while much of it was derivative—from Scriabin, Debussy, even Busoni—at this best, in his final large work, the Sonata—Griffes is worthy of being exhumed from his musical grave.

Certainly he escaped the pitfalls of other American composers. He knew jazz and ragtime, but was never lured into composing “commercial” music, instead spending his life in torture at a private school teaching English. Like other composers of his time, he studied with t he German Masters, including Engelbert Humperdinck, but he escaped their absolute influence, instead learning their techniques, and perfecting his piano skills.

And unlike Edward MacDowell, a composer for whom he felt some contempt, he was not seduced into writing ersatz Grieg, or American Indian melodies with Methodist hymn harmonies.

Instead, Griffes went his own way, experimenting with Asian music (foretelling the late Lou Harrison), by composing in atonal music (though never dodecaphonic), and in trying oh so hard to find his own voice.

He did at the end—thus his death of emphysema at the age of 38 was even more tragic—but not until he had composed an enormous amount, much of it played at BargeMusic.

Of his many songs, only three, including a Rumanian poem, were sung here, by that very powerful evocative baritone, Robert Honeysucker. When the rafters ring as the barge is already shaking, we have an extremely moving experience.

The best of Griffes was undeniably brilliant. A Poem for Flute and Orchestra transcribed here, was played with shattering beauty by the great Gary Schocker. Unlike its anemic title, Poem has memorable phrases and some extraordinarily difficult passages for the instrument. A most memorable work.

But the ultimate Griffes was the Sonata, a work which could never be called derivative. “Expressionistic” might describe the 16-minute work, but not a single measure is wasted. The themes are developed, transformed, worked out with mind as well as emotions. One could think of late Scriabin or perhaps even Busoni. But this was Griffes at his most original in a piece which, if played today—and every pianist should have it in the repertory—could be heard with growing appreciation.

(Like Scriabin, Griffes was highly synaesthetic, with colors and tones totally integrated in his mind.)

The Three Preludes were almost aphoristic in time, but get this! They had neither key signature, time signature or even directions on how to play them. Lewin did a wonderful job, but they were over before we could really survey them.

Griffes’ most popular work, The White Peacock, is an atmospheric triumph, but hearing it played by Michael Lewin, a Griffes specialist, it sounded much like late Ravel. It was elegant, simple, very beautiful but hardly worthy of what to come with Griffes.

His Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan, based on the Coleridge poem, was notable for employing real Arabic music in a rather exotic setting. (Ditto for a Scherzo, which seemed to come directly from Borodin.)

Other pieces, like the Three Tone Pictures were excellent, but derived directly from Debussy or Ravel again.

Yet this was one of those rare evenings at BargeMusic where we realized that this treasure was literally a treasure buried before its worth was known. Yet Griffes, as inspired but more highly trained than Charles Ives, still has music to be played. His early pieces were as good as any of his contemporaries. His Sonata showed that he was better than them all. I would like to say that he would have become another Elliott Carter, but Griffes would have found his own path.

And while the composer himself fiercely called himself an atheist, his death evoked whatever gods there may be at their most irrational and most wasteful.

Harry Rolnick



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