On today’s date in 1919, the eminent French conductor Pierre Monteux, led the Boston Symphony in the premiere performance of “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan,” a new orchestral score written by the American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes.
This music was inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous Romantic poem of that name, but owes its exotic orchestral coloring to Griffes’ interest in the music of Asia and the Pacific Rim. Although Griffes himself never traveled there, he knew someone who had: the influential Canadian soprano Eva Gauthier, famous for her avant-garde song recitals that included music by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and her later association with Gershwin and Ravel. It was the well-traveled Gauthier who introduced Griffes to the musical traditions of Japan and Java.
In describing an earlier ballet score inspired by Asian themes, Griffes wrote: “It is developed Japanese music – I purposely do not use the term idealized. Modern music tends more and more toward the archaic, especially the archaisms of the East.”
The 1919 Boston premiere of “Kubla Khan” was the highpoint of Griffes’ career, and all the critics agreed a major new talent had arrived on the American music scene.
Unfortunately, one month later, Griffes took ill and in a few months died from a severe lung infection. He was just 35 years old. How his music would have developed had Griffes lived remains one of the most intriguing “what might have beens” of American music.
Music Played in Today's Program
Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884 - 1920)The Pleasure Dome of Kubla KhanBoston Symphony; Seiji Ozawa, cond.New World 273