Charles Griffes (1884-1920)
Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan The White Peacock Poem forFlute and Orchestra
Three Tone Pictures Three Poems of Fiona McLeod Clouds Bacchanale
Born in New York City and educated in upstate Elmira, theAmerican composer Charles Griffes began his advanced studies in pianoperformance and composition in Berlin in 1903. He had the good fortune ofspecial lessons with Engelbert Humperdinck, who at once turned Griffes' primaryinterest toward composition. While in Europe Griffes developed a specialfascination with the scores of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. But althoughhe was also influenced by the works of Aleksandr Scriabin and Modest Mussorgskyin Russia and by the folk-music of the Far East, Griffes remained anImpressionist at heart. In 1907 he returned to the United States and accepted aposition as a music teacher at the Hackley School for Boys at Tarrytown, NewYork.
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan was initially scored forpiano in 1912, orchestrated in 1916, and first performed in the fall of 1919 inBoston under the baton of Pierre Monteux. Based on Kubla Khan, the verse ofEnglish poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Griffes' score offers amusical tableau of an emperor's 'pleasure dome,' hidden away in the enchantedwilds. A woman cries for her demon-lover and a sacred river erupts in violencebefore meandering into the dark caverns of a sunless sea.
The music opens with a shimmering rustle in the lowpercussion and strings and unfolds through enchanted horns into evocative,far-Eastern intonations. Despite a few exclamations from the full orchestra thescore maintains an essentially misty presence - Impressionism en vogue. Along theway, the 'savage place' motif is represented by momentary full-throttleexclamations in the brass, after which the tone poetry becomes quiescent at theclose.
The White Peacock of 1915 was also written originally forpiano, then orchestrated in 1919. The inspiration for the music came from apoem by the English late-romantic poet and novelist William Sharp (1855-1905),writing under the pseudonym Fiona McLeod. Following the lead of his friend andmentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sharp was enthralled with beauty for its ownsake, but while Rossetti focused on adoration of the female form, Sharp held abroader view, encompassing the bucolic whole of nature. According to Sharp'swife, who was the editor of Lyra Celtica, a journal on Celtic lore, The White Peacockand other poems by Fiona McLeod were written in the imagined voice of adaughter the couple never had. Griffes' score is exquisite, altogether repletewith the nuance and suggestive color worthy of an Impressionist canvas.Originally set in 56 lines of free verse, the poem reads in part: Through amist of roses - Deep in the heart of a sea of white violets - Slowly, white asa snow-drift, moves the White Peacock.
Inspired by the elegant playing of the French flautistGeorges Barr?¿re (1876-1944), Griffes wrote his Poem for Flute and Orchestra in1918. The work was first given the same year by the New York Symphony Orchestraunder Walter Damrosch. For his part, Barr?¿re was among the finest woodwindplayers in the world, (among other distinctions he had won the prestigiousPremier Prix at the Paris Conservatory) and also served as the principalflautist of the New York Symphony Orchestra.
Almost all of Griffes' orchestral scores are linked in someway to poetic or literal ideas, but in this case, despite its title, thecomposer said that the Poem for Flute was simply a miniature tone poem, withoutassociated text or images. The work's lush and alluring timbres have endearedthe piece as a mainstay in the flute repertoire.
In that Griffes held a passion for verse, it seems naturalthat Three Tone-Pictures would appear among his earliest works. The pieces areevocative of images derived from a poem by William Butler Yeats and two byEdgar Allan Poe. Scored originally for solo piano, Griffes completed the piecesin 1915 and orchestrated them that year for the New York Chamber Orchestraunder George Barr?¿re. For reference, The Lake at Evening is a musical captionof Yeats' The Lake Isle of Innisfree; The Vale of Dreams is resonant with Poe'sThe Sleeper; The Night Winds was inspired by Poe's The Lake.
Three Poems of Fiona McLeod was scored in 1918, originallyfor voice and piano. The work was orchestrated in the same year by M. Dresserfor a premi?¿re performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The verse of FionaMcLeod (qv. William Sharpe, above) is exemplary of a literary style known asthe 'Celtic Twilight.'
Dedicated to the music critic Paul Rosenfeld, Griffes'Clouds of 1916, orchestrated in 1919, was inspired by a poem from WilliamSharp's volume of verse titled Sospiri di Roma. The composer included the workas the fourth and last in a suite titled Roman Sketches, the other pieces fromwhich are The White Peacock, Nightfall and The Fountain of the Acqua Paola.Griffes provided a brief program note for the 1919 premi?¿re of the orchestralversion by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski: \Sharp speaks ofthe 'clouds' as suggesting the golden domes and towers of a city with streetsof amethyst and turquoise. The music is a tone-picture striving for this same,tenuous, far-off and yet colorful atmosphere."
Griffes composed Bacchanale originally for piano in 1912(orchestrated in 1919). The piece was initially titled Scherzo, the last of asmall suite of piano works entitled Fantasy Pieces, Op.6. For the premi?¿re ofthe work by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the composer wrote: "From the Palace ofEnchantment there issued into the night-sounds of unearthly revelry. Troops ofgenii and other fantastic spirits danced grotesquely to a music now weird andmysterious, now wild and joyous. The piece is wholly fantastic as a fairy tale,with a wild climax at the end."
Three Poems of Fiona McLeod
 The Lament of Ian the Proud
What is this crying that I see in the wind!
Is it the old sorrow and the old grief
Or is it a new thing coming,
A whirling leaf about the grey hair of me who am weary andblind?
I know not what it is, but on the moor above the shore
There is a stone which the purple nets of heather bind,
And thereon is writ: she will return no more,
O blown whirling leaf, and the old grief
And wind crying to me who am old and blind!
 Thy Dark Eyes to Mine
Thy dark eyes to mine, Eilidh,
Lamps of desire!
O how my soul leaps
Leaps to their fire!
Sure, now, if I in heaven
Dreaming in bliss,
Heard but a whisper,
But a lost echo,
Even of one such kiss,
All of the soul of me would leap afar,
If that called me to thee.
Aye, I would leap
A falling star.
 The Rose of the Night
The dark rose of thy mouth
Draw nigher, draw nigher!
Thy breath is the wind of the south,
A wind of fire!
The wind and the rose and the darkness
O Rose of my Desire!
Deep silence of the night