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Book Review

Charles T. Griffes

Charles T. Griffes

The Life of an American Composer

Updated, with a New Introduction and Notes
Edward Maisel.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1984. 399 pages.
ISBN-10: 0394540816
ISBN-13: 978-0394540818
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The same old song kills the new one.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes is, after Charles Ives, our second great or near-great composer. Griffes died at 36, just as he had begun to adapt a hard-core musical Modernism (1920). One of the few previous American forerunners Aaron Copland respected, his slender catalogue still gets played, although it's nowhere near all the major works that he wrote but, instead, the same hits over and over: The White Peacock, The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, and the Poem for flute and orchestra. He excelled in practically every genre he tried and is probably one of the finest song composers the United States ever produced.

Born into a shabby-genteel family in Elmira, New York, he saw on the streets as a matter of course Mark Twain, who had made the town his last residence. Griffes's intellectual and artistic qualities were recognized early, and his piano teacher, Ms. Mary Selena Broughton, scraped up her own money to send him to Germany for "finishing." Griffes managed to stay in Germany for four years. Gradually, he came to realize that because of the small size of his hands, he would never become a super-virtuoso (although he played at a professional level), and he switched to composition, studying with Engelbert Humperdinck, among others. He came back to the United States with no prospects. The best job he could get was at a prep school for rich men's sons – Hackley Academy in Washington Irving's Tarrytown, New York. Most of the students bored him. The headmaster was a shit and a petty tyrant (such an ass, that eventually the entire faculty walked out on him). The work was tedious. Griffes was determined to make his way as a composer, break from the school, and pay off his debt with Ms. Broughton. This involved huge amounts of work. Just copying parts for a new score constituted a full-time job and Griffes's school duties, though faithfully discharged, made for more than full-time work, as any teacher knows.

The two themes that sound most strongly throughout Maisel's heartbreaking narrative are Griffes's overwork and the raw deal he got from his publisher (G. Schirmer, who still makes money from his bones) and various "prestige" artistic institutions. Schirmer's were far happier with his "hackwork" (written under the alias "Arthur Tomlinson") – easy arrangements of patriotic songs and such, which admittedly outsold (at least in the short run) the music that Griffes had committed to. One might ask why he didn't just do more of the trifles, since that's what Schirmer's really wanted. For that matter, why didn't Griffes throw over the hell at Hackley for a job as a clerk? Griffes would have felt both alternatives as equivalents. Under such circumstances, why be a composer at all?

Like most composers, Griffes did not lead an especially exciting life. His days consisted of teaching, attending Hackley functions (required of him), playing for school evening service, obliging his superiors with free concerts, writing music, copying music, making the rounds of New York and, less frequently, Boston publishers and artistic circles, sending manuscripts to performers and conductors. Occasionally, he gave himself a day or two off, rarely a whole week. Not especially exciting, but certainly exhausting. He made so little, he budgeted and recorded every expense, including money for cigarettes. Most urgently for his music, however, he needed to get free of the school. Yet the school provided the large lion's share of his income. At certain points in Griffes's career, he was making less than $50 annually in royalties and from the musical activities that mattered the most to him. In fact, what with performers' fees, trips to New York, and so on, he undoubtedly lost money on his music most of his life.

Most serious composers have a difficult time of it, especially in the United States, although things have become marginally better with NEA grants (which probably won't last long and the majority of which goes to big bow-wow organizations like the Met, anyway). Commissions run scarce on the ground. There are a few organizations, like the Naumburg Foundation, which do what they can. It's certainly not enough. There's more patronage for the native composer in other countries. Now, as in Griffes's day, American composers must hustle like hell even to be heard, let alone make a living wage. Furthermore, almost nobody – not even Aaron Copland – earns their living from composition alone.

Legends have surrounded Griffes since his death, which Maisel authoritatively corrects. The one that galls me particularly is of Griffes as neglected and unknown. He had success and hearings, due to his incredible effort to gain performances and to the strength of his music. His notices continually refer to him as a "well-known composer." He achieved respect among musicians while he was alive, in spite of most newspaper and journal criticism. In general, the critical fraternity lagged years behind the public. For example, The White Peacock (1915), after years of very healthy sales and many public performances became recognized by native critics as a masterpiece only in roughly the last year of Griffes's life. Griffes was recognized and known, and he still taught piano and ran menial musical errands for a living at a minor prep school. Luckily, Charles Ives was making money in insurance.

Griffes's final illness and death make painful reading. Overwork left him susceptible to influenza, which led to lesions on his lungs. He collapsed. He underwent two surgeries for relief, and the second operation revealed a cannula the doctor had left at the first. He took a while to die, and yet he kept working as long as he could, even on his sickbed. During this part of Maisel's narrative, time slows, emphasizing the succession of moments until the inevitable. Even after his death, Schirmer's pulled a fast one on him, publishing Frederick Stock's arrangement of Kubla Khan, rather than Griffes's orchestration. This is the version usually heard to this day. Disgusting. Stock made up a story of how he had pointed out instrumentation inadequacies and presented to Griffes his suggestions, every single one of which Griffes had enthusiastically accepted. This, despite the facts that Griffes never heard Stock's performance, no independent documentary evidence exists of Stock's contention, and an independent letter by Griffes declares his complete satisfaction with his score after hearing Monteux's reading in Boston. Griffes, extremely self-critical, wouldn't have expressed this opinion had he not felt it.

Maisel also goes into Griffes's homosexuality, as much as he can, considering that the composer's sister Marguerite had destroyed as many of the relevant papers as she could. He traces down three of Griffes's major loves (although he gives them pseudonyms in deference to their families). You might think teaching at a boys' school would have constituted an agonizing temptation to Griffes, but with one exception (and he held himself very firmly in check), the Hackley boys and boys in general didn't seem to interest him. In Edwardian and Georgian America, Griffes stayed pretty deeply in the closet, although he had recognized his sexual orientation since his adolescence. He gave his energy to his work, and he worked himself literally to death. That's mainly what I take away from this book.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Schwartz.