Charles T. Griffes: A Life in Music.

Charles T. Griffes: A Life in Music. – book reviews

E. Douglas Bomberger

Donna K. Anderson’s biography of Griffes (1884-1920), the first in fifty years, is written by a scholar whose knowledge of the subject is unmatched. Her previous publications include Charles T. Griffes: An Annotated Bibliography-Discography (Detroit: Published for the College Music Society by Information Coordinators, 1977), The Works of Charles T Griffes: A Descriptive Catalogue (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1983), which was a revision of her 1966 thesis at Indiana University, and articles on the composer in both the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) and the New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986). In pursuing her research she benefited from personal interviews with all but one of the composer’s siblings, including nearly twenty years of contact with his younger sister, Marguerite Griffes (1886-1983). Especially beneficial was the fact that Marguerite transferred to Anderson “all her legal rights and interests in Griffes’s unpublished manuscripts, letters, photographs, and so on and placed into … [her] possession all the remaining Griffes material, including the composer’s five extant diaries, several autograph manuscripts, family photograph albums, original programs, publishing contracts, royalty records, books, a scrapbook, and other assorted memorabilia” (pp. ix-x).

In several important ways, Anderson’s biography goes beyond Edward Maisel’s eminently readable Charles T. Griffes: The Life of an American Composer (1943; rev. ed., New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984). She sets her story in context with extensive background information on Griffes’s birthplace in Elmira, New York, the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York, where he served as musical director (1907-20), as well as the cities of New York and Berlin. She also adds an exhaustive discussion of family history that is perhaps a bit excessive and results in some dense paragraphs.

The author explores intimate details of Griffes’s life and sets the record straight by furnishing names of the composer’s two most important homosexual companions. She provides new and important background information on both men, whose identities had been shielded by Maisel. (Griffes always wrote about homosexual encounters in his diary in German, and Anderson demonstrates how these entries permeate the day-to-day record of his life.)

The final chapter of the book, “Stylistic Overview,” contains a succinct and insightful discussion of the development of Griffes’s musical style. The musical examples in this chapter are well chosen to illustrate the composer’s four stylistic periods (German romantic, impressionist, oriental, and abstract) and to illustrate the compositions that diverge from this scheme. The analysis supports her point that “to classify Griffes exclusively as an impressionist is to fail to understand fully the variety of styles represented in his music and to disregard his individuality” (p. 185).

The book contains three useful appendixes: a list of works, chronology of works, and discography. Twenty-one photographs and illustrations show the composer at all stages of his life; some have not heretofore been published. The index is very extensive and helpful. A puzzling omission from the book is a bibliography. Though the endnotes are thorough, it would have been helpful to have had a bibliography. While Anderson’s Annotated Bibliography-Discography (1977) lists most of these sources, readers without ready access to this reference will find the lack of a bibliography frustrating.

One troubling aspect of the book is the author’s reliance upon the recollections of Marguerite Griffes. Well over one-third of the notes of the first three chapters refer to interviews with her. Though factual data such as names, dates, and places have been carefully verified, a significant portion of the information on Griffes’s character and early life is derived solely from his younger sister’s recollections of events that took place over half a century earlier. These recollections reflect Marguerite’s own strong biases, which for the most part are presented without commentary by Anderson. In the 1984 reprint of his study, Maisel noted:

Contrary to what might be expected, the materials for a life of Griffes have notably diminished since this biography was first undertaken. The original problem of willful damage to, and wholesale destruction of, the composer’s papers wrought by his sister Marguerite, in a spirit of sweeping though inconsistent censorship, was formidable enough. Now matters have grown still worse. More and more, it appears, letters, personal papers, even a whole diary, have either vanished or been destroyed. In opposition to Griffes’s known wish to leave behind a full and frank record of his life, the data have been steadily made to disappear. By no means was all this material of an intimate nature. Responsibility for most of the continuing loss must again go to Marguerite, since she had sole and exclusive possession of the archives. (Pp. xvi-xvii)

Anderson’s biography is an important contribution to the literature on Griffes. It does not replace the Maisel biography, but rather complements it. While Maisel is more thorough in his discussion of Griffes’s mature career, Anderson covers the early years in Elmira and Berlin in greater depth and summarizes more effectively the composer’s musical style. Reading the two biographies in conjunction will give readers a well-rounded view of the life and works of this significant early modernist.

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