Charles Tomlinson Griffes was born in Elmira, New York. After early studies
in Elmira he went to Berlin where the musical life was dominated by Richard
Strauss. He studied piano and composition with various teachers including
Engelbert Humperdinck. His music is very eclectic; at various times he was
influenced by Debussy and Ravel, Scriabin, Schoenberg and Stravinsky; plus
the German Romantic tradition and Impressionism and the music of the orient
as well as the poetry of the Scottish-Celtic writer Fiona MacLeod. He is
best remembered today as the composer of two orchestral pieces: The White
Peacock and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan.
His music is dramatic, atmospheric and colourfully evocative. He had a strong
innovative streak and often thought in terms of unusual combinations of
instruments. He died at the tragically young age of 35.One cannot help
conjecturing, if he had survived, that Hollywood would have beckoned him
in the 1930s and the whole history of film music might have taken a quite
The most substantial work on this CD is The Kairn of Koridwen
(composed in 1916). An observer has likened different parts of it to Olivier
Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, a Poulenc Sextet, the ending of Berg's
Wozzeck and Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Kairn
originated as a dance-drama about a druid princess who is pledged to her
island sanctuary and, rather than escape from it with her warrior lover,
remains there to fulfill her religious vows and in so doing seals her doom.
In the Celtic language Kairn means sanctuary and Koridwen is the Goddess
of the Moon (hence the title of this album). Griffes did not regard this
as chamber music but as "continuous symphonic music in two movements or scenes"
and as "concert music". Consider the unique scoring: flute, two clarinets,
two horns, piano, harp and celeste. The music is presented on the album as
six pieces each with titles as though they are film soundtrack cues: Scene
One: Introduction; Bringing out the Cauldron; Fury of the Priestess; Scene
Two: Introduction; She Begins to Rise; and Dirge. Influences (or rather
pre-echoes ) of Bax and John Ireland are discernible and the impressionistic
influence is strong. The sound world and sonorities which Griffes creates
are truly spellbinding and highly evocative; and descriptive of the narrative.
Clarinets and horns are used both in unison to add depth to the texture and
in counterpoint to each other to add perspective (one has the impression
of druid calls between islands for instance).
Griffes' brief Three Japanese Melodies (1917) are exquisite and worth the
price of the CD alone. Scored for flute, clarinet, oboe, two violins, cello,
bass and tom-tom, in Griffes own words: "It is developed Japanese music -
I purposely do not use the term "idealized"...the orchestration is as Japanese
as possible: thin, delicate, and the muted strings points d'orgue serve as
a neutral-tinted background like the empty spaces in a Japanese print."
Three Sketches for String Quartet based on Indian Themes is a remarkable
evocation of the music of the Native American Indian melodies. Griffes's
sound world, reinforced by occasional strokes on the bodies of the instruments,
seems to suggest larger forces at work. The second movement is a beautiful
lament as though expressing a sadness at the passing of an era, while the
lively Allegretto moderato final movement is a lively Indian dance.
The other work in the programme is the Sonata for Piano composed in 1917-18.
It is considered by many to be his masterwork. Critics were uncertain about
it considering it to have been experimental and to have broken convention.
One critic writing in Christian Science Monitor observed: "The work though
strange, perhaps, to some hearers, proved to be clear in structure, intense
in feeling and refined in expression." To which I would add that it is both
imposing and arresting. It is rhapsodic and it is often has an other-world,
The instrumentalists of the Perspectives Ensemble, attached to Columbia
University, are to be congratulated on their fine committed playing of these
remarkable works and on their initiative in recording them. A real treat
for the adventurous listener.