Griffes: Poem Program Notes

Charles Griffes (1884-1920) stands among the ranks of Debussy and Ravel as one of the most famous American impressionist composers. Griffes studied piano at a young age before relocating to Berlin to continue his studies in 1903. He studied piano, composition, and counterpoint at the Stern Conservatory. Upon his return to the United States in 1907, the Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY appointed him the director of music, a post he held until his death in 1920. This position, while not extraordinarily creatively rewarding, offered him financial stability and time to compose. 

Griffes’s early works, particularly his songs for voice and piano, exhibit an overwhelming Germanic influence, but his later works move away from this style and are highly colorful and free in form. Many of his compositions from this later impressionist period also contain exotic influences, most notably his tone poem The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, one of his best-known works.

The Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918) received its first performance on November 16, 1919 by the New York Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch with Georges Barrère as the flute soloist. Damrosch agreed to program the work after only hearing the piano score, and the combination of the New York Symphony Orchestra and Barrère created perhaps one of the most masterful premieres of Griffes’s lifetime. While Poem has since become firmly established in the American 20th-century solo flute repertoire, it remains unique in that it demands primarily lyrical rather than technical virtuosity from the performer. The atmospheric opening serves as a refrain throughout this single-movement work, separated by episodes of lush chromatic language, polymetric dance, and energized technique.

Two incredibly valuable and insightful recordings of this work are available on YouTube.

William Kincaid (student of Georges Barrère) with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra

Julius Baker (student of William Kincaid) with Daniel Saidenberg and an unidentified chamber orchestra

Anderson, Donna. “Griffes, Charles T..” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 11, 2013, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/11770.

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