Rediscoveries: Charles Griffes' 'Kairn of Koridwen'

America's only impressionist composer is well worth revisiting.

RESTON, VA, January 1, 2012 – What better time than the beginning of the new year to introduce our brand new “Rediscoveries” series. In these articles, we’ll pay brief visits to composers, compositions, and recordings that should be far better known to the public than they currently are.

A good place to begin our series is right here on our own shores with a discussion of a little-known work by a little-known American composer, Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920).

Griffes (pronounced GRIFF-iss), while popularly believed to be America’s only example of an impressionist composer, is actually considerably more complex than that. Born in Elmira, New York, young Griffes manifested an early talent for music, studying both piano and organ performance in his own town before heading off to Berlin to continue his musical education. There he studied composition with Engelbert Humperdinck (the original one) and also continued his piano studies under Ernst Jedliczka.

However, upon his return to the U.S., he soon took up his lifelong career in 1907 when he obtained a teaching position at the Hackley School for boys, in Tarrytown, NY. Although he continued his intellectual and compositional pursuits for the remainder of his brief life, he never held another full time post other than this initial appointment.

Griffes greatly admired the French Impressionist composers, most specifically, Claude Debussy. Embracing the Impressionist’s passion for compositional elements that exploited the exotic sound of the whole-tone scale, Griffes quickly incorporated such elements into his own early compositions, which were written primarily for the piano. Later on, he also became fascinated with the work of Stravinsky who was quickly becoming the lion of his era.

But perhaps more significantly, Griffes also greatly admired the middle and late periods of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The notoriously eccentric Scriabin broke the music continuum with his own experiments in extended tonality, which included exotic, repetitious trills, “mystical chords,” and “synthetic” scales of his own creation. Like Griffes, Scriabin, too, died relatively young, leaving, according to the majority of musicologists, no known acolytes or followers of his compositional method.

Apparently these musicologists never stumbled upon the work of Griffes. The young American composer eagerly adapted many of Scriabin’s notions. These, along with impressionism, he blended into his own highly original compositions. Early on, these compositions were primarily miniatures for the piano.

But Griffes soon branched out into sonata form and, ultimately, skillfully woven orchestral compositions—some adapted from his piano scores. These demonstrated a uniquely sure command of sophisticated compositional skills, and remain an extraordinary example of American originality in an America that supposedly had yet to invent a nationally identifiable musical style.

Griffes’ best-known compositions are his wildly impressionistic orchestral tone poems The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1912-1916) and The White Peacock (1915-1919). Perhaps even better known is his 1918 Poem for Flute and Orchestra, which, unlike many of his other compositions, has remained a favorite of numerous virtuoso flutists even today.

Unfortunately for Griffes and for us, this young American composer died of complications that developed from a serious bout with influenza. Barely 36, he passed away in 1920 before his budding career, confined mainly to the New York City area at the time, ever had a chance to take off.

While it’s still relatively easy to find CD recordings of White Peacock and Pleasure Dome, it’s a little tougher to unearth recordings of Griffes’ large, significant, but almost entirely unknown score for the ballet-pantomime-drama, The Kairn of Koridwen: A Druid Legend. In roughly equivalent English, the work’s title could be translated as The Goddess of the Moon.

Based on a traditional legend set in ancient France, the backstory of Kairn is yet another variation on the time-honored plot of star-crossed lovers who meet a tragic end. In this case, the subject matter involves a cult of Druid priestesses whose secret rituals and worship of the Moon Goddess are interrupted by Mordred, a handsome warrior seeking prophecy and counsel. 

Carmelis, a senior priestess, is immediately smitten by Mordred, which is seen as sacrilege by Carmelis’ associates who only want to have him killed for his blasphemous request. The upshot of all this Druidic cultishness and pathological secrecy is that Carmelis is left alone to enjoy three days and three nights of love with Mordred, who then departs to his uncertain fate after learning from her several key Druidic secrets. Meanwhile, Carmelis pays the price for her indiscretion, committing voluntary suicide before her associates return. 

The occasion of Kairn’s arrival on the New York performing arts scene was a request made of Griffes for an original composition based on this same French legend. The new work was to be geared to underscore the talents of a small, New York-based dance performance and drama ensemble. Given the troupe’s limited budget for musicians, props, and scenery, Griffes’ was forced to be imaginative in his scoring.

Without the money to support a full orchestra, the company worked with Griffes to support as many musicians as they could. Thus, it was up to Griffes to compose for an “orchestra” that was larger than a quartet or quintet but not quite so large as a chamber orchestra.

Griffes’ novel solution was to score Kairn for one of the oddest groupings of instruments imaginable. Eschewing entirely the use of stringed instruments, Griffes instead wrote parts for an ensemble that included a flute, a pair of B-flat clarinets, a pair of horns in the key of F, a piano, a harp (a little bit of “strings” there!) and, for its unusual timbre and flavor, the celeste, a piano-like keyboard instrument that sounds a bit like a music box. (Think of its signature use in the Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.”)

Griffes’ eerie, evocative, score departs from the influences of Debussy and Ravel by expanding direction of Scriabin, creating a mystical musical language that is influenced by the Russian yet wholly Griffes’ own.

At least one critic imagines the presence of atonality in this score as well, but that’s simply not the case. Griffes’ score is the embodiment extended tonality, American style (as opposed to Zemlinsky or Korngold), a productive route more composers should have chosen in the 20th century rather than settling into a doctrinaire acceptance of serialism’s dead end dogma. Having refused to take this route, Kairn of Koridwen remains a strange, exotic, yet highly accessible composition while much of the atonal repertoire is not.

The premiere of Kairn of Koridwen was reportedly quite well received by audiences and critics alike with most holding the music on a higher plane than the work of the dance troupe who’d commissioned the composition to begin with.

Unfortunately, Griffes didn’t have long to live after Kairn’s premiere. In the ensuing years after his death, although Griffes’ piano draft of this composition remained available, many of the work’s newly scored orchestral parts disappeared. This, coupled with Kairn’s highly unusual scoring, ensured that no further performances of the work would ever occur again. 

That is, until much later in the 20th century. In the 1960s, the Free Library of Philadelphia, along with the New York Public Library, undertook a painstaking but definitive reconstruction of Griffes’ original instrumental score of the work. 

In the mid-1990s, conductor Emil de Cou—well known here in DC for his work with the National Symphony Orchestra, Wolf Trap, and other local music groups, and long a champion of Griffes’ neglected repertoire—gathered an ensemble of excellent musicians, conducting them in the first-ever complete CD recording of Kairn of Koridwen, as resurrected by the Free Library’s researchers.

De Cou spoke warmly of this recording to this reviewer earlier this year during an interview concerning his recent work at Wolf Trap. He expressed some disappointment that his CD is currently out of print.

Happily, copies both used and (allegedly) mint are periodically available via, where we obtained a clean undamaged copy a couple of months ago. Selected tracks of this recording are also currently available for sale in the iTunes store.

We’d include a clip or two for you to sample here as we often attempt to do when reviewing other CDs. Unfortunately, you’ll have to do this yourself this time around, since you can only listen to partial clips at the iTunes store, while Amazon currently offers no sample tracks for review.

The de Cou-Griffes CD is well worth acquiring for music aficionados whose tastes run either to the impressionistic or toward the exotic and the unusual. Fans of Ravel, Debussy, and that marvelous one-off oddball, Alexander Scriabin, will greatly enjoy the disc as well, although some may puzzle over the composer’s extraordinarily odd choice of instruments.

That said, Griffes’ instrumentation taken as a whole helps to create an unusual, unique blend of sound that makes Emil de Cou recording of Griffes’ Kairn of Koridwen an admirable addition to any music library that’s become too top-heavy with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. We suggest you give it a try. That is, if you can find a copy.

Rating: **** (Four stars.)


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of theWashington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communitiescolumn,The Prudent Man in Politics.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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