After early studies on piano and organ in his home town, he went to Berlin for four years to study composition with Engelbert Humperdinck and piano with Ernst Jedliczka at the Stern conservatory. On returning to the U.S. in 1907 he began teaching at the Hackley School for boys in Tarrytown, New York, a post which he held until his early death 13 years later.
Griffes is the most famous American representative of musical Impressionism. He was fascinated by the exotic, mysterious sound of the French Impressionists, and was compositionally much influenced by them while he was in Europe. He also studied the work of contemporary Russian composers (for example Scriabin), whose influence is also apparent in his work, for example in his use of synthetic scales.
His most famous works are the White Peacock, for piano (1915, orchestrated in 1919); his Piano Sonata (1917–18, revised 1919); a tone poem, The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, after the fragment by Coleridge (1912, revised in 1916), and Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918). He also wrote numerous programmatic pieces for piano, chamber ensembles, and for voice. The amount and quality of his music is impressive considering his short life and his full-time teaching job, and much of his music is still performed. His unpublished Sho-jo (1917), a one-act pantomimic drama based on Japanese themes, is one of the earliest works by an American composer to show direct inspiration from the music of Japan.
He died of influenza at the age of 35 and is buried in Bloomfield Cemetery in Bloomfield, Essex County, New Jersey. His papers passed to his younger sister Marguerite who chose to destroy many that explicitly related to his gay life. Donna Anderson (see below) is his current literary executor.
Griffes kept meticulous diaries, some in German, which chronicled his musical accomplishments from 1907 to 1919, and also dealt honestly with his homosexual lifestyle including his regular patronage of the Lafayette Place Baths and the Produce Exchange Baths.
Charles Tomlinson Griffes was drawn into the gay world by the baths not just because he had sex there, but because he met men there who helped him find apartments and otherwise make his way through the city, who appreciated his music, who gave him new insights into his character, and who became his good friends. The gay world became a central part of his everyday world, even though he kept it hidden from his nongay associates. — George Chauncey, Gay New York 1995During his time as a student in Berlin he was devoted to his "special friend" Emil Joèl (aka "Konrad Wölcke"). In later life he had a long term relationship with John Meyer (biographer Edward Maisel used the pseudonym Dan C. Martin), a married New York policeman.
His surname is properly pronounced GRIFF-iss, though it is sometimes mispronounced in the French manner as "Greef."
Charles T. Griffes: The Life of an American Composer by Edward Maisel
Hardcover: 399 pages
Publisher: Knopf; Updated edition (October 12, 1984)
Amazon: Charles T. Griffes: The Life of an American Composer
Charles T. Griffes: A Life in Music (Smithsonian Studies of American Musicians) by Donna K. Anderson
Hardcover: 313 pages
Publisher: Smithsonian (March 17, 1993)
Amazon: Charles T. Griffes: A Life in Music
Anderson, a professor of music history at the State University of New York, here covers the life of American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) in exhaustive detail. She follows his musical training in Elmira, N.Y., and his study of piano and composition in Berlin. He became music director at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y., while participating in the early-20th-century musical life of New York City. Anderson also examines his personal life and his homosexuality. While some sections, e.g., historical surveys of Tarrytown and the Hackley School, seem unnecessary, chapters about Griffes's music and reputation illuminate his move from reliance on romantic and impressionistic devices to the development of an individual and complex artistic language. Included are a discography and lists of Griffes's works arranged both chronologically and by medium.
The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity by Nadine Hubbs
Paperback: 293 pages
Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (October 18, 2004)
Amazon: The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity
In this vibrant and pioneering book, Nadine Hubbs shows how a gifted group of Manhattan-based gay composers were pivotal in creating a distinctive "American sound" and in the process served as architects of modern American identity. Focusing on a talented circle that included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Paul Bowles, David Diamond, and Ned Rorem, The Queer Composition of America's Sound homes in on the role of these artists' self-identification--especially with tonal music, French culture, and homosexuality--in the creation of a musical idiom that even today signifies "America" in commercials, movies, radio and television, and the concert hall.
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