Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Charles Griffes - Like Mozart, A Journey Too Brief

How many today recognize, let alone know of the unique language of Charles Griffes?
A man who lived into his 35th year, and no more. and who left us with a handful of creations which beg many questions about where this singular young composer might have taken himself, along with us?
He was born not far from where I grew up, in the small town of Elmira, New York, and began writing music during childhood.
I shall not dwell too long upon relating the existence of this composer - really, all the reader needs to know that it is possible to consider his music for voice and piano essentially as important, perhaps, as the Lieder are to Germany. The marriage of the two instruments is wonderfully fulfilled, with a result like no other. His piano music is also redolent with ideas belonging only to this man. To explain:
It's really quite impossible to categorize his music; however, in his "Roman Sketches", one of the pieces in this suite called "The Fountains of the Aqua Paola" (later Acqua Paola) has such a wonderful adhesion to the play of water, like Debussy and Ravel, that even though some writers minimize or even dismiss the term attached to Debussy especially, I have to think of Griffes as America's Impressionist, at least at times.
There is one section in this piece that displays an uncanny view of the different flows of water coming out of the fountain; that is, in both volume and form. Griffes uses quarter note triplets in the upper part of the right hand, 8th note triplets in the lower part of the same hand, and 16th notes in the left, all simultaneously, in order to create an aural image of what the viewer sees.
I learned this piece as a teenager, and spent many an hour in this section of the piece, I can assure you! The result is staggeringly unique, and really quite beautiful.
Just one example of the probity this man possessed - what a sad reality it is to know that he was a visitor here for such a brief period.

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