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Hyperion Records

CDA67907 - Griffes: Piano Music
Pack Clouds Away and Welcome Day by Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914)
Private Collection / Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: June 2012
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: May 2013
DISCID: F9128610
Total duration: 79 minutes 4 seconds

'Very special indeed. Hyperion's immaculate piano sound helps, too. But Ohlsson's phrasing is perfect: no exaggeration, simply rapturous harmonic textures projecting elegant melodies … all Ohlsson's much-admired distinction in the Romantic piano repertoire is on display here, and Griffes can never have sounded better' (Gramophone)

'Ohlsson's performances throughout are a judicious blend of absolute technical security and fantasy, giving especially appealing treatment to the single melodies that emerge occasionally from Griffes's teeming textures. With exemplary recorded sound and useful notes, this album makes a compelling case for a masterly figure in American musical history' (BBC Music Magazine)

'As Garrick Ohlsson's superb performances show, Griffes's piano writing is wonderfully fluent, and works like De profundis of 1915 and the Piano Sonata of two years later suggest that all the stylistic elements were finally beginning to cohere into a real musical personality' (The Guardian)

'This belated recognition is worthy of attention by any lover of piano music' (Liverpool Daily Post)

'The unusual sound-world of an exceptional talent, cut short at the prime of his life … veteran American pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a master colourist and he makes one feel these works cannot be played in any other way' (Singapore Straits Times)

'Ohlsson does a brilliant job, playing each piece as if it were the most valuable masterpiece ever written. The American pianist’s engaging interpretations may be the best reason yet to give Griffes a new lease of life. This album is a valuable addition to the recorded repertoire, reminding us that the early 20th century was a remarkably creative, if not revolutionary time, in art music—even on this side of the Atlantic' (Musical Toronto, Canada)

Piano Music
Molto tranquillo  [3'30]
De profundis  [6'09]
I  [1'03]
II  [0'50]
III  [1'48]

The American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s piano works represent a remarkable musical achievement. Griffes was active as a composer for little more than twelve years, and did not write prolifically, but nevertheless produced pieces of great maturity which are both concise and extraordinarily powerful, showing the contemporary European influences to which he was exposed but also demonstrating a highly individual compositional voice. His Roman Sketches Op 7 contains his most famous work, ‘The White Peacock’—an acknowledged Impressionist masterpiece—while the final movement, ‘Clouds’, clearly heralds the language of modernism.

Almost all of Griffes’s piano music is present here, and the composer has never been better served on record than by his compatriot Garrick Ohlsson, who here applies the full force of his interpretive and technical prowess.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Charles Griffes is a name that deserves to be remembered … What he gave those of us who came after him was a sense of the adventurous in composition, of being thoroughly alive to the newest trends in world music and to the stimulus that might have derived from that contact. (Aaron Copland, 19 March 1952)

Copland’s tribute, delivered at Harvard University some thirty-two years after Griffes’s death, was followed by a brief concert of American music, but none of Griffes’s works was performed that afternoon. No objections were raised, since at the time much of his output remained unpublished, recordings of his works were few, and only a handful of his shorter piano pieces were then considered part of the standard repertoire. Nonetheless, Copland’s homage was sincere, and when he himself died at the age of ninety—universally acclaimed as the Dean of American composers—many agreed that if Charles Tomlinson Griffes had enjoyed even half of his admirer’s immense lifespan, the American musical landscape between the Wars might have assumed a very different appearance.

Griffes flourished during the sunset of European Romanticism, and the four years he spent in Germany exposed him repeatedly to the most prominent musical voices of the day. He was so taken with Strauss’s Salome—which premiered in Berlin in December 1906—that he heard the composer conduct it four times, but he was equally fascinated with the avant-garde of Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, prompting him to write home to his mother: ‘I don’t know what I shall do in America without all these things.’ But even though the newest fashions were unmistakably influential on his growth, he quickly melded them into a distinct voice, forging a melodic and harmonic vocabulary unlike that of his contemporaries. Remarkably, though he was active for little more than a dozen years, he left a catalogue of superbly crafted compositions spanning distinct style ‘periods’, and his piano works are central to understanding his development. Though he rarely performed in major settings, he was a brilliant concert pianist, and the piano was always his first resource and closest confidant. Most of his larger compositions began at the keyboard, and some were even published as piano scores before he decided to orchestrate them.

His cosmopolitan leanings had unlikely roots, for Griffes was born over 200 miles from New York City in Elmira, New York, a small community with a population that peaked during his teens at about 35,000. He was the third of five children born to Wilber and Clara (Tomlinson) Griffes, and though his maternal grandfather had been a prominent Elmira attorney, his father was far less successful, clerking in clothing shops for around $25 a week, and periodically moving his expanding family into various rented homes. Fortunately, when Charles’s gifts were recognized, he benefitted from the largesse of several individuals from outside his immediate family, most notably the New Zealand-born Mary Selena Broughton (1862–1922), who taught at Elmira College, and with whom he began piano lessons at the age of fifteen. Years earlier, Broughton had trained intensively in Germany with Karl Klindworth—a pupil of Liszt and confidant of Wagner—and as Griffes’s talents were developing, it was scarcely surprising that she sought to offer him a similar educational opportunity, especially since study in Germany was still viewed as a necessary rite of passage for gifted Americans.

She also taught him harmony and oversaw his first youthful compositions, and though the Elmira Free Academy provided all the Griffes children with excellent educations, Charles’s piano studies convinced him that music was his rightful calling. On 21 May 1903, he played a graduation recital in the College Chapel which included demanding works of Chopin and Liszt—as well as two original songs setting French texts—and the high praise he received from three of the local papers helped to quell some of his parents’ concerns about music as a viable career. No doubt their anxieties were further mitigated by Broughton’s offer to underwrite a large portion of his studies abroad, and three months later, on 13 August, he set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the Grosser Kurfürst, docking in Bremen eleven days later, and arriving by train in Berlin the following afternoon. Broughton was already there on summer holiday, and she helped him settle into the city’s cultural life by taking him to museums, concert halls, and even the Zoological Garden, where two days later he recorded a pivotal experience: ‘The animals were all out in the open cages … Among the peacocks was a pure white one—very curious.’ Griffes’s eye was as keen as his ear (though largely self taught, he was also a skilled painter), and no doubt this brief encounter served as an inspiration for what later became his most famous piano piece.

Though he always aspired to compose, he originally planned only a two-year stay in Berlin to focus on the piano, and Broughton was grateful that he was accepted by Klindworth’s former pupil and colleague Ernst Jedliczka (1855–1904), an eminent Ukrainian pianist who taught at Berlin’s Stern Conservatory. The young American practised so assiduously that by June he was chosen to perform in a special students’ concert at the Beethoven-Saal, which Broughton even attended. When Jedliczka died less than two months later, Griffes joined the class of Gottfried Galston, a Leschetizky pupil whom he liked, but whose concert schedule was so demanding that (almost by default) Griffes began concentrating more on composition. His teacher, Philippe Rüfer, seems to have been highly systematic, asking him at first to make some corrections to his early French songs, before moving on to simple minuets and elementary orchestration exercises—assignments which Griffes considered highly worthwhile.

By now his closest companion was Emil Joël, ‘a friend such as I never dreamed of finding in Berlin’. Despite the fact that Joël was seven years Griffes’s senior and a civil engineering student, they seemed inseparable, and at some point their relationship almost certainly became sexual. In his diary entries, Griffes was remarkably candid about his gay life, and though his public disclosures were far more discreet, his letters to friends and family confirm that Joël had become the centre of his world. He was also highly knowledgeable about music, and the two soon allied themselves in an effort to extend Griffes’s stay for another year. The twenty-one-year-old American was then in search of a more eminent composition teacher, and since he felt unprepared to meet the demands of the iconic Ferruccio Busoni, Joël strongly suggested he approach Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921), the highly regarded composer of Hänsel und Gretel. After negotiating an additional loan from Broughton, Griffes began working with Humperdinck in October 1905, and though he took only about nine (highly demanding) lessons from him, he later claimed that the experience was invaluable to his musical and intellectual development. As he became increasingly fluent in the language, he continued to assimilate himself into German culture. On Joël’s advice, he grew a moustache to enhance his mature image, he accepted pupils to offset his expenses, and he performed frequently both as soloist and accompanist. By the time he returned to Elmira in July 1907, he projected a new air of confidence, appearing at once self assured, and even debonair.

For over a month, Griffes was uncertain of his direction, so in late September he was happy to accept a last-minute offer from the prestigious Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York, just twenty-five miles north of Manhattan. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, his free days, he often took the short train ride into Manhattan, where he frequented New York’s many museums and concert halls—as well as popular meeting places for gay men, such as the Lafayette Baths.

Griffes was also approaching music publishers, and he was delighted in 1909 when G. Schirmer published five of the songs he had begun in Germany. But while these early Lieder—in a style somewhat reminiscent of Richard Strauss—stand as beautifully crafted testaments to his first ‘period’, Schirmer rejected the three piano pieces he offered them next (which eventually became the Three Tone-Pictures, Op 5), citing their less accessible idiom. He completed the set, with the piece now known as The Vale of Dreams, early in 1912, and an April diary entry captures his frustration: ‘In a bad humor all day because Schirmers write they don’t want my 3 piano pieces. I don’t know what to think of it. Is it Schirmer’s mercenary spirit, or was Farwell mistaken in thinking so highly of these pieces? It takes away one’s confidence. Am I on the right track or not?’

Griffes especially welcomed the advice and counsel of composer Arthur Farwell (1872–1952), but by July even Farwell was re-examining the musical language of The Vale of Dreams (still untitled at this point), advising that it might be ‘too … ethereal and unearthly’. Griffes continued in his diary: ‘At the same time he considers that I am losing the sense of tonality.’ To be sure, the twenty-eight-year-old composer was clearly venturing into new harmonic territory, since the major thirds that wind so chromatically through his sensual, Debussyan textures often seem to stretch tonal boundaries. The Night Winds, completed a year earlier, is far more agitated, but the chromatic thirds—which provide a motivic connection to The Vale of Dreams—are offset by rapid arpeggios shaped around whole-tone scales, making the atmosphere again unmistakably Impressionistic. The most tranquil of the three, The Lake at Evening, was completed a year earlier in 1910, and it was also the first to be performed publicly, when Canadian pianist Leslie Hodgson premiered it in April 1914 at what is now Weill Recital Hall. Griffes noted that the performance went well—in fact, the crowd reaction was so positive that Schirmer even phoned Hodgson a few days later to ask if the work was published. Leaving aside the irony that the firm now seemed interested in a work they had rejected two years earlier, Griffes was further infuriated when he revisited their offices late in January 1915 only to have it rejected again—on the grounds that it was unlikely to be ‘much of a popular success’. German-born conductor and composer Kurt Schindler, one of their editors, added that he thought Griffes was writing ‘too dreamily and subjectively, and needed to get out into the outer world more’.

Two months later, for the first time since his Berlin days, Griffes had a meeting with the legendary Busoni, now in New York on tour, and it proved to be a watershed in his professional advancement. After hearing The Vale of Dreams and several other works, Busoni immediately ‘sat down and wrote a letter to Schirmer recommending my pieces very highly’. As a result of this intervention, Griffes soon had a contract to issue the Tone-Pictures, which appeared as his Op 5, and eight additional manuscripts, including his Fantasy Pieces Op 6, which consisted of a lengthy Barcarolle, a Nocturne (Notturno), and a colourful Scherzo. Framed largely around the black keys, the Scherzo is a raucous frolic whose rhythmic left hand often outlines a pentatonic scale, while the right hand is punctuated by the hollow, open fifths he occasionally employed to suggest the exoticism of the Far East—to become a recurrent theme in his later works.

Griffes was as passionate about literature as he was about aural and visual images, and in May 1915 he spent an entire day at the New York Public Library searching for appropriate verses to precede each of these pieces before they saw print. Within a week he had found prefatory texts to each of the Three Tone-Pictures, as well as the Fantasy Pieces, and even though he chose his ‘programmes’ after the fact, his verses seem to capture his musical moods with remarkable fidelity. For example, the Scherzo is prefaced by two sentences from an unknown poet referencing a ‘Palace of Enchantment’, where ‘fantastic spirits’ dance ‘grotesquely to a music now weird and mysterious’. For the others, he chose excerpts from Yeats, Poe, Verlaine, and William Sharp (1855–1905), a Scottish writer who produced numerous works under the pseudonym ‘Fiona MacLeod’.

Griffes was especially drawn to Sharp’s poetry, and his 1891 free-verse collection, Sospiri di Roma, inspired no fewer than five additional works, including De profundis (‘Out of the depths’), which was completed in November 1915. But even though its majestic, enticing chains of Scriabin-like harmonies were much admired by Griffes’s friends and associates, it remained unpublished until 1976.

On 23 August 1916, Schirmer accepted four additional Sospiri inspirations, soon to be known as the Roman Sketches Op 7, and undoubtedly the most famous of these is The White Peacock, which almost immediately assumed a permanent spot in the repertoire. Myra Hess recorded it as early as 1929, Samaroff a year later, and Griffes’s own interpretation is preserved on a 1919 Duo-Art piano roll. Whether the ‘real’ inspiration stemmed from his first visit to the Berlin Zoo, from Sharp’s poem, or simply—as he once told a friend—from gazing at a sunset during the train ride from Tarrytown to Manhattan, his mastery of Impressionistic imagery seems unassailable. Equally picturesque is the haunting Nightfall, with its seductive ninth and thirteenth chords, followed by the even more virtuosic The Fountain of the Acqua Paola, Griffes’s masterful homage to Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este. Cast in 7/4 time, Clouds, which concludes the set, floats through richly diatonic harmonies before fragmenting into a bi-tonality which clearly heralds the language of the twentieth century.

Critical reactions to the Roman Sketches, which appeared late in 1917, were highly favourable. But a few months later when the composer performed his largest piano work—the Piano Sonata—Musical America’s Herbert Peyser attacked it for ‘wandering in the nowhere’, and ending ‘without any disclosure of musical beauty’. Though time has vindicated it as one of the most significant piano sonatas of the twentieth century, those in search of another excursion into Impressionism were no doubt disappointed, since it conveys no programmatic images. Instead Griffes has clearly embarked on another ‘period’, one characterized by a new concision of abstract expression, and at times, a roughness which allows for harsh dissonances that many found jarring. It towers as an epic statement not easily grasped or fully appreciated in a single hearing, and though its acceptance has been hard won, many today agree with scholar and commentator Joseph Horowitz, who ranks it alongside the sonatas of Ives and Copland. Not surprisingly, Schirmer was again slow to react, and the Sonata did not see publication until a year after the composer’s death, while some other works included here (including De profundis and the Three Preludes) lay dormant for decades.

Composed in 1919, the Three Preludes were not published until 1967. They were the composer’s last piano works, part of a proposed set to be titled ‘Five Pieces’—the ‘Prelude’ designations were conferred posthumously—which was left uncompleted at the time of Griffes’s death. Composed within months of the Sonata, they are remarkably brief vignettes, and the second is cast in a lean, sparse style that seems to anticipate the neo-classical writing of Stravinsky. Since Griffes left no tempo or dynamic markings, wide interpretive latitude is often shown by individual performers, and these pieces remain as enticing previews of what might have come.

Equally intriguing is A Winter Landscape, which Donna Anderson, the leading Griffes scholar, speculates was composed about 1912, though she could find no reference to it in any of his papers. Incredibly, it remained unpublished until 1997, and it is unclear whether it was even offered to Schirmer, or to what the title refers. Spanning only 68 bars, it could easily stand as a homage to late Romantic piano writing, with a style at times suggestive of Rachmaninov.

Regrettably, by the autumn of 1919, Griffes was unable to recover from an attack of influenza—which soon developed into pneumonia before progressing to pleural empyema—and he died at New York Hospital on 8 April 1920, at the age of thirty-five. Although there is no way to know what he might have achieved in subsequent years, the piano works in this collection affirm that America, and the world, had lost a giant.

Stephen Siek © 2013
Pianist and musicologist Stephen Siek is Professor Emeritus of Music at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and has written extensively on American music

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