Charles Griffes: Mysterious Romanticism (Pt. 2). By Kelariz Keshavarz

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884–1920) is one of the most important composers in late nineteenth and turn-of-the-century America.  Despite his short life of thirty-five years, he is considered a prominent contributor to the cause of American fine art music—on the path from the immigrant professors and Moravian missionaries of the late eighteenth century to Charles Ives.  Although his early works were by all means a reflection of the German Romantic Lied tradition, his late works pursue a completely abstract and modern phase—approaching atonality with a taste of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky—but yet American.

In the previous volume, Griffes’s position on the American Music-Making Path was brought into consideration. Also, the creation of the Poem for Flute and Orchestra was discussed.  In this volume, nonetheless, I wish to argue that there were specific poems underpinning the creation of the piece.  The refrain of the Poem clearly resembles the oboe line at the beginning of an art song by Griffes named "Lament of Ian the Proud" from Three Poems of Fiona MacLeod, Op. 11.  Originally for voice and piano and later in the same year arranged for voice and orchestra, it was written in 1918, the same year as the composition of the Poem. This melody is heard later in the flute line.  In addition to that, the third song of the cycle "The Rose of the Night" starts with an improvisatory-like flute line that resembles the cadenza-like passages of the Poem. All these similarities plus the fact that both of the pieces were written in the same year supports my speculation that the Poem probably was the composer’s attempt to write an instrumental Lied, where the flute replaced the singer.  Perhaps, Griffes conceived the Poem as the instrumental (flute) treatment of "Lament of Ian the Proud."

Another mystery associated with the “Lament of Ian the Proud” concerns the Scot-tish poet William Sharp (1855-1905).  On 15 December 1905 The New York Times published the news of his death:

LONDON, Dec. 14. — News was received from Sicily to-day that William Sharp, the author, had died there, and to-night Mrs. Sharp made the an-nouncement that her husband was the author of all the works in prose and verse given out as written by "Fiona Macleod."

There are assumptions for the reason why William Sharp decided to publish some of his works by the name “Fiona Macleod.”  Some believe that it is because of the poet’s struggle concerning his sexuality, some believe that it is a camouflage for publishing the works he was not satisfied with, and some argue that creating the full character of “Fiona Macleod” is Sharp’s most poetic masterpiece.  If the Poem is the instrumental model of the Lied “Lament of the Ian the Proud,” then the mystery of “which poem is actually the flute piece based on?” resonates with the mystery of the William Sharp as well as Griffes’s difficulty in society as a gay composer.

Appreciating Griffes as a fine German Lied composer, one can clearly recognize lyrical vocal-like phrases.  Interpretation of the piece requires performer to possess great command of tone-coloring skills. Griffes’s sensitivity to color can be traced to his child-hood, when, due to his excellent visual sensitivity, he was consulted for his family members’ artistic problems, ranging from matching segments for quilting to costume designing and painting.  Sudden changes of mood and dynamic in this continuous, sectional piece is the most difficult factor of its performance.  I identify different moods for each of its sections that corresponds to the poems of Fiona Macleod.

In the following lines I would identify some of them as examples from the beginning of the piece to rehearsal mark F.  

The piece begins in a soft, whispering mood, as if the wind is telling a story from a faraway land (What is this crying that I hear in the wind?/ Is it the old sorrow and the old grief?), which is found from the beginning to rehearsal letter B.  The next two lines of the poem correspond with rehearsal B of the piece. The thematic material is basically the same in both the poem and the music (Or is it a new thing coming, a whirling leaf/ About the gray hair of me who am weary and blind?).  The words, however, presents a new image coming in the wind, maybe a whirling leaf, as the music also presents a new ascending melody, intensified by the crescendo dynamic in B ( mm. 5-7). Rehearsal number C marked as Tranquillamente introduces a totally different mood, as the next lines of the poem references the persona of a narrator (About the gray hair of me who am weary and blind?/ I know not what it is, but on the moor above the shore/ There is a stone which the purple nests of heather bind).  This is followed by C (mm. 19-23), where the poem returns to the wind and the whirling leaf (O blown, whirling leaf, and the old grief, / and wind crying to me who am old and blind!). The music recalls the thematic material heard in sections A and B. Even in this short section of the piece, great similarities between the text and the music is noticeable.  The excerpt discussed above is generally cast in a soft dynamic, with the exceptions of the sudden crescendi and register shifts in the instruments. Letters D to F reveals more of a passionate characteristic, with more powerful dynamics in the higher register, as well as the faster rhythmic figures and fuller texture of the accompanimental instruments. The accelerando indication leads this forward motion to a faster part of the piece: E, marked as più mosso).  This sudden shift from the calm and soft first passage to the second and the appassionato and piu mosso demand virtuosity of the performer to adopt a new mood and atmosphere in the interpretation.  

Regarding the poem associated with sections D to F, I believe that “name of art song,” the second poem of the Sharp cycle, was considered (Thy dark eyes to mine, Eilidh,/ Lamps of desire!/ O how my soul leaps/ Leaps to their fire!) with the similarities of the words Lamps of desire or the soul leaping to their fire.  At F the thematic material from the calm section of the piece (from the beginning to the end of C) is heard again, as the refrain of the Poem.  This refrain leads us to another mood shift of the piece beginning in G.

Through close observation of the music and the three poems by William Sharp writing under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod, close integration of the content of the arts is recognizable.  Despite no previous reference to prove this claim, considering the historical facts of the creation of the Poem results in having the theory in mind that the Poem for flute and orchestra is the instrumental version of the Lied Cycle Three Poems by Fiona MacLeod.  My observation indicates that the first poem of the cycle acts as a refrain heard throughout the piece, while parts of the other two poems in the cycle resonate the main patches in the music.

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