Charles Griffes, Poem

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert New York Avant-Garde, performed on Oct 3, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Griffes born Sep 17, 1884 in Elmira, NY; died Apr 8, 1920 in NYC
Poem composed in 1918; Premiered Nov 16, 1919 by the New York Symphony Society under Walter Damrosch with Georges Barrère on flute
Approximate performance time: 10 minutes
Instruments: 2 French horns, percussion, harp, strings, and solo flute

Charles Griffes fits uneasily within the usual story of the development of American music in the early 20th century. Born in Elmira, NY, Griffes studied piano and composition in Germany—a typical path for aspiring American musicians of his generation. But his interest in Asian and Celtic cultures—seen in pieces like 5 Poems of Ancient China and Japan (1917) and 3 Poems of Fiona Macleod (1918)—foreshadowed the exoticist impulses of ultramodernists like Henry Cowell. And his delicate, brilliant orchestration connected him to French trends, which would captivate American composers in the 1920s.

Griffes’ Poem is a one-movement flute concerto that suggests Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun as a reference point. The initial ascending rumble in the strings sets the scene for the flute and generates most of the piece’s melodic material. The flute enters with a version of this opening motive and then forges a rhythmically and harmonically indistinct course. The instrument’s rhythmic energy ebbs and flows, and the strings interrupt its motion periodically. About halfway through the piece, a passage for echoing French horns signals a transition from this hazy, rhapsodic section to one with clearer rhythmic profiles. String tremolos and a brief, feverish flute solo usher in a lively folk dance, at one point radiantly accompanied by tambourines. The dance episode culminates in a brilliant descending passage as the opening material returns, this time with a solo viola playing a newly prominent role.

Griffes was 35 when the New York Symphony Society first presented his Poem with flutist Georges Barrère. The New York Tribune called it a “composition of much grace and variety of expression, rich in melodic ideas and written with an unusual feeling both for the solo instrument and for the orchestra. If Americans can but continue to produce such works, all talk of the unrequited native composer will be speedily set at rest.” Griffes died just a few months later, leaving to his successors the task of realizing the Tribune’s prediction for American music.

Matthew Mugmon is assistant professor of musicology at the University of Arizona. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2013.