Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)
Program note written by Jacob Farmer
Approximate Performance Time:
Advanced – appropriate for advanced high school students and college undergraduates
Charles Tomlinson Griffes, an American impressionist composer, was born in 1884 in the town of Elmira, New York. Griffes began studying piano at a young age and moved to Berlin in 1903 to continue his studies in piano, composition, and counterpoint at the Stern Conservatory. He returned to New York in 1907 and was appointed the director of music at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY. Although this job was not musically satisfying for him, it provided him the opportunity to focus on his passion of composing. Griffes’ compositions are primarily written for piano but include some orchestral works. His most well-known work is his tone poem The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan (1912) and is a great example of his impressionist style and use of exotic influences. Griffes passed away in 1920 at the age of thirty-five. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, influenza, and emphysema and died during an operation after his lungs failed to keep working. It is believed that his health became so unfortunate because of his physical and mental exhaustion of working on his compositions nonstop in the last year of his life.
Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918) received its first performance on November 16, 1919 by the New York Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch with Georges Barrère as the flute soloist. Damrosch agreed to program the work after only hearing the piano score, and the combination of the New York Symphony Orchestra and Barrère created perhaps one of the most masterful premieres of Griffes’ lifetime. While Poem has since become firmly established in the American 20th-century solo flute repertoire, it remains unique in that it demands primarily lyrical rather than technical virtuosity from the performer. The atmospheric opening serves as a refrain throughout this single-movement work, separated by episodes of lush chromatic language, polymetric dance, and energized technique.