Saturday, August 05, 2006

Charles Tomlinson Griffes We Are Lucky To Have What Is Here

Thinking about what could have happened if, has never been very productive but I can’t help wondering while listening to Michael Lewin’s recording of Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ shockingly great Sonata for Piano*, what Griffes would have written if he had lived longer. Lewin’s recording of it is the best I’ve heard, the energy is propulsive, even the “Tranquille” sections are intense, always going forward.

Griffes is often said to have started out a German romantic and died a French impressionist but that is misleading. Even his “early” works show that he was always his own man. Techniques and ideas heard in other composers were used but never as an imitation, always to his own, ever original, ends

The Sonata, which he composed in December 1917 and January 1918, is in three movements played continuously. It could easily have been influenced by Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony which it matches in energy and echos in form but which it doesn’t copy. Not being a Griffes scholar I don’t know if he left an opinion of Schoenberg but he must have been aware of a composer of his stature and brilliance.

What would Griffes have composed if he hadn’t died two years later when he was 35? He developed so fast in such an original way that it isn’t possible to know. You can’t really say that of another good composer who suffered an untimely death around the time of the First World War. Granados probably wouldn’t have undergone any kind of stylistic revolution if his ship hadn’t been sunk by the Germans. Griffes probably would have developed music no one could have predicted.

Griffes was just beginning to get recognition from major orchestras and soloists. If he had just held out a little while longer he might have been able to quit the job teaching at a boy’s school and moved to New York. He might have gone down in history as the first really great American composer. Charles Ives was just going into his long retirement, “undiscovered” and Carl Ruggles was just beginning to produce the small body of very fine work, too little known even today. But Griffes died just as he was about to succeed.

I refuse to believe that someone who had shown so much change over the short period of his composing life would have ossified into some kind of convention, not even a personal one. He seems to have had too much integrity for that to happen. He also had audacity, a trait that is essential for a really great composer and courage, too.

No one can say. But there is the work that we have, and there is more fine work there than most composers have written with decades more time.

* Charles Tomlinson Griffes Complete Piano Works Volume 1
played by Michael Lewin, Naxos 8.559023

This is being celebrated as a Mozart year in the "classical" music world, as the 250th anniversary of his birth was this January. I mention this because the Salzburg wunderkind also had only 35 years in his short life (actually, it was just short of 36). Admittedly, Griffes' body of work is nowhere near the quantity of Mozart's (or Schubert's, to cite my own candidate for music's most tragic loss). Nonetheless, as you say, there is much fine work. It's a pity that when celebrating American composers, music organizations overlook Griffes. Perhaps he isn't folksy enough. I cite the most popular music of Copland, Bernstein and yes, Charles Ives, whose music is more identifiably "American", not to mention Gershwin, who also died much too young, incidentally.
I agree 100% on Schubert. His last sonatas are .... wonderful beyond words.

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