The Magazine

Griffes on Record

The greatest American composer you've never heard.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By JOHN SIMON
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IT IS TRAGIC HOW MANY dead American composers are buried again through neglect by American orchestras (which is not to say that most living ones fare that much better).

There are some obvious exceptions: Copland, Barber, Bernstein, Gershwin, and Ives--not all equally deserving--who get enough exposure. But what about so many worthy others, among whom, to name only my favorites, count Amy Beach, Paul Bowles, George Chadwick, Rebecca Clarke (granted, English-born), Arthur Foote, and Henry Hadley? And perhaps the most important of all, Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920).

Though he is performed on rare occasions, I have never been able to catch a live performance of his music. Penguin's New Dictionary of Music puts it succinctly about Griffes: "Overworked, through poverty, and died of pneumonia." But Penguin is wrong. Though far from affluent--a music teacher at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York--he was not exactly a pauper; and death--horrible at age 35--was caused by empyema, stemming from a combination of emphysema, influenza, and pneumonia.

Yet poverty had something to do with it. Lacking the money to pay copyists for orchestral parts, he sat up nights writing them out himself--this on top of arduous school teaching and private piano lessons to make ends meet. Add to this the excitement of much-delayed recognition in his last year or so, causing nervous as well as physical exhaustion. After a painful illness and unsuccessful operation on his lungs, he died in a New York City hospital on April 8, 1920.

Griffes was born in Elmira, N.Y., on September 17, 1884. He took fitful piano lessons from an elder sister, but not until he was 11 did the family find him a real teacher in the person of the eccentric and redoubtable New Zealand spinster Mary Selena Broughton, professor of piano playing at Elmira College. Since Charles's father, a shirt-cutter and clothing-store clerk, could hardly afford the youth's advanced training, which at that time only Germany could offer, it was the devoted Miss Broughton who provided most of the money (which Charles eventually scrupulously repaid) for the 19-year-old's four years of study in Berlin from 1904 to 1907.

Griffes initially viewed himself as a concert pianist, although he once boasted that he would become the greatest composer in the world. He enrolled at the Stern Conservatory, which he attended fairly regularly for two years, working with some good teachers. For the next two years, he took mostly private lessons, including a dozen or so with Engelbert Humperdinck, the composer of Hansel und Gretel. He also gave piano lessons, although he became aware that he was not going to become a true virtuoso: His hands, he felt, were too small, and he had started too late. Thus, composing became his goal. He made some valuable friendships, notably with a 28-year-old student at the Technische Hochschule, Emil Joel, who became his first lover, and whose knowledge of music and German life proved especially useful. The four Berlin years, Charles sadly noted, passed "frightfully quickly."

Upon his return to America, Griffes landed the job of director of music at Hackley, which was to remain his underpaid and detested lifelong position. Though his chores were onerous and severely encroached on his composing, Tarrytown was only an hour's train ride from New York, where he spent most of his free time, absorbing culture, making friends, composing (mostly during vacations), pursuing his homosexual love life, and assiduously promoting his music. Even so, rejections by publishers, musicians, and critics made life difficult--until, ironically, near the end--and made shedding hated Hackley impossible.

What sort of music did Griffes write? While studying in Germany and setting, among others, a great many German poems, his music was largely German-influenced, which at the time meant chiefly Wagner and Richard Strauss. But ever a learner and self-renewer, he fell under the salutary spell of Debussy and Ravel. This was his "American Impressionist" phase, climaxing in such marvels as "The White Peacock" and other "tone pictures." Next came the Russians, Mussorgsky and, especially, Scriabin. After a brief Amerindian phase, there followed the important Oriental one, chiefly Arabian and Japanese. Finally, what might be called the Modern, represented by Busoni, Schoenberg, Varese, and, perhaps, also Bloch, Milhaud, and Prokofiev.

Here it behooves me to quote Donna K. Anderson, the preeminent living Griffes scholar: