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ClassicsOnline Home » GRIFFES: Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan / The White Peacock
During his brief life (cut short by pneumonia when he was just 35), Charles Griffes was able to compose music of distinctive beauty. He was fascinated by the music of the French-Impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel but was also influenced by the Russian sounds of Scriabin and Mussorgsky and a German post-romantic idiom. Ultimately, Griffes found his own unique voice that blended all of these characteristics. Griffes had a passion for verse and almost all of his orchestral scores are linked in some way to poetic or literary ideas. The works on this disc are notable examples of Griffes’ “tone pictures” with the exception of the Poem for Flute and Orchestra, a miniature tone poem without associated text or images.
Charles Griffes (1884-1920)
Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan • The White Peacock • Poem for
Flute and Orchestra
Three Tone Pictures • Three Poems of Fiona McLeod • Clouds •
Born in New York City and educated in upstate Elmira, the
American composer Charles Griffes began his advanced studies in piano
performance and composition in Berlin in 1903. He had the good fortune of
special lessons with Engelbert Humperdinck, who at once turned Griffes’ primary
interest toward composition. While in Europe Griffes developed a special
fascination with the scores of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. But although
he was also influenced by the works of Aleksandr Scriabin and Modest Mussorgsky
in Russia and by the folk-music of the Far East, Griffes remained an
Impressionist at heart. In 1907 he returned to the United States and accepted a
position as a music teacher at the Hackley School for Boys at Tarrytown, New
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan was initially scored for
piano in 1912, orchestrated in 1916, and first performed in the fall of 1919 in
Boston under the baton of Pierre Monteux. Based on Kubla Khan, the verse of
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Griffes’ score offers a
musical tableau of an emperor’s ‘pleasure dome,’ hidden away in the enchanted
wilds. A woman cries for her demon-lover and a sacred river erupts in violence
before meandering into the dark caverns of a sunless sea.
The music opens with a shimmering rustle in the low
percussion and strings and unfolds through enchanted horns into evocative,
far-Eastern intonations. Despite a few exclamations from the full orchestra the
score maintains an essentially misty presence - Impressionism en vogue. Along the
way, the ‘savage place’ motif is represented by momentary full-throttle
exclamations in the brass, after which the tone poetry becomes quiescent at the
The White Peacock of 1915 was also written originally for
piano, then orchestrated in 1919. The inspiration for the music came from a
poem by the English late-romantic poet and novelist William Sharp (1855-1905),
writing under the pseudonym Fiona McLeod. Following the lead of his friend and
mentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sharp was enthralled with beauty for its own
sake, but while Rossetti focused on adoration of the female form, Sharp held a
broader view, encompassing the bucolic whole of nature. According to Sharp’s
wife, who was the editor of Lyra Celtica, a journal on Celtic lore, The White Peacock
and other poems by Fiona McLeod were written in the imagined voice of a
daughter the couple never had. Griffes’ score is exquisite, altogether replete
with the nuance and suggestive color worthy of an Impressionist canvas.
Originally set in 56 lines of free verse, the poem reads in part: Through a
mist of roses - Deep in the heart of a sea of white violets - Slowly, white as
a snow-drift, moves the White Peacock.
Inspired by the elegant playing of the French flautist
Georges Barrère (1876-1944), Griffes wrote his Poem for Flute and Orchestra in
1918. The work was first given the same year by the New York Symphony Orchestra
under Walter Damrosch. For his part, Barrère was among the finest woodwind
players in the world, (among other distinctions he had won the prestigious
Premier Prix at the Paris Conservatory) and also served as the principal
flautist of the New York Symphony Orchestra.
Almost all of Griffes’ orchestral scores are linked in some
way to poetic or literal ideas, but in this case, despite its title, the
composer said that the Poem for Flute was simply a miniature tone poem, without
associated text or images. The work’s lush and alluring timbres have endeared
the piece as a mainstay in the flute repertoire.
In that Griffes held a passion for verse, it seems natural
that Three Tone-Pictures would appear among his earliest works. The pieces are
evocative of images derived from a poem by William Butler Yeats and two by
Edgar Allan Poe. Scored originally for solo piano, Griffes completed the pieces
in 1915 and orchestrated them that year for the New York Chamber Orchestra
under George Barrère. For reference, The Lake at Evening is a musical caption
of Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree; The Vale of Dreams is resonant with Poe’s
The Sleeper; The Night Winds was inspired by Poe’s The Lake.
Three Poems of Fiona McLeod was scored in 1918, originally
for voice and piano. The work was orchestrated in the same year by M. Dresser
for a première performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The verse of Fiona
McLeod (qv. William Sharpe, above) is exemplary of a literary style known as
the ‘Celtic Twilight.’
Dedicated to the music critic Paul Rosenfeld, Griffes’
Clouds of 1916, orchestrated in 1919, was inspired by a poem from William
Sharp’s volume of verse titled Sospiri di Roma. The composer included the work
as the fourth and last in a suite titled Roman Sketches, the other pieces from
which are The White Peacock, Nightfall and The Fountain of the Acqua Paola.
Griffes provided a brief program note for the 1919 première of the orchestral
version by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski: “Sharp speaks of
the ‘clouds’ as suggesting the golden domes and towers of a city with streets
of 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 a
small suite of piano works entitled Fantasy Pieces, Op.6. For the première of
the work by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the composer wrote: “From the Palace of
Enchantment there issued into the night-sounds of unearthly revelry. Troops of
genii and other fantastic spirits danced grotesquely to a music now weird and
mysterious, 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 and
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
Hush’t like a breathless lyre,
Save the sea’s thunderous might,
Dim, menacing, dire;
Silence and wind and sea,
They are thee,
As a wind eddying flame
Leaping higher and higher
Thy soul, thy secret name
Leaps thro’ Death’s blazing pyre!
Kiss me, Imperishable Fire,
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