Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Much like Franz Schubert and Lili Boulanger, another composer gone too soon, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, died at the age of 35–incidentally, of a condition brought on by influenza during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Despite only having produced a thin portfolio of compositional work, what Griffes did produce is of high quality and uniquely American in its own way.
Griffes morphed styles over his career, beginning with a German Romanticism (very in vogue at the time for American composers), then developing a fascination for and shifting to French Impressionism. This move made Griffes the first American Impressionist composer, and this is readily obvious in his music. In one of his most popular pieces, The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1917), after a dark opening the tension opens up and Griffes creates a gorgeous Impressionistic sound, complete with descending chromatic lines, thick, moving, muted chords in the strings, all supporting a meandering oboe melody. The effect is enchanting and perpetual throughout the piece, seemingly phasing in and out of clarity and a dreamy fog, all typical characteristics of the French Impressionists. The same characteristics can be found in The White Peacock (1919) and Clouds (1919), both adapted for orchestra from his Roman Sketches (1915) for piano.
In fact, many of Griffes’ works begin as piano pieces and are later orchestrated. Griffes spent four years in Berlin, initially to study piano, but then apparently realizing his hands were too small... he switched to composition. While in Germany, Griffes took advantage of the more liberal atmosphere, openly exploring his homosexuality, though he ultimately kept this secret from the rest of his colleagues.
Though his life ended too early, we are gifted with his quality contribution to the American music canon. Further, it is remarkable that despite his lack of significant training in orchestration, like Amy Beach, Griffes is highly adept at adapting his works to the intricacies of an orchestral ensemble and unlocking the inherent richness in his own writing. The further composing he may have done will be missed, while what he did produce should be treasured.