Les parfums de la nuit: Debussy through the eyes of Charles Griffes

Free Download: Sheet music of Debussy’s Les parfums de la nuit
as transcribed for the piano by Charles Griffes

On Saturday, November 4, 2017, Solungga Liu performed a recital in the Coolidge Auditorium that featured the music of Charles Griffes, Amy Beach and César Franck. Included on the program was a transcription by Griffes of a work by Debussy—this unknown transcription has finally come to light and is the subject of this post.

Charles Griffes had been persistent with the G. Schirmer firm in attempts to get his works published there over the years. He met with some marginal success when a number of his songs (first those in German, and later in English) were accepted for publication between 1909 and 1914.[1] However, it took a recommendation from Ferrucio Busoni in 1915 to prod the publisher to take on some of his piano works, including the Three Tone-Pictures and the Fantasy Pieces.[2] It was at this time, when Griffes was in the midst of correcting proofs of these works for publication, that he mentioned in his diary (May 15, 1915) that he played his transcription of Debussy’s Les parfums de la nuit at the Schirmer offices. Despite the comparison of Griffes’ music to that of the French impressionists, Griffes was not entirely taken with their music. Even in the case of Images, from which Les parfums was drawn,  Griffes wrote that he “…heard the Symphony Society play Debussy’s IbériaIbéria rather disappointed me. The middle movement is in Debussy’s most fascinating style, I think, the first and last movements seem a bit tawdry and superficial in spite of some clever effects and dance rhythms… I want to arrange the Perfumes of the Night for piano if possible.”[3]

As biographer Donna Anderson describes, “…[because] of copyright restrictions, Schirmer could not publish the arrangement, but White[4] suggested sending it to the French publisher Durand and offered to write Debussy to facilitate the matter. Nothing ever came of this, and Griffes’ arrangement is no longer extant.”[5] Thankfully this last assertion is not true; I came across the transcription while searching through the Library’s Griffes manuscripts, and it was indeed catalogued. I engraved a copy of the manuscript and gave it to Solungga Liu, who was willing to program this unknown transcription. We were not able to find any evidence of a public performance of the piece, so we believe that this performance constituted the world premiere of Les parfums de la nuit in Griffes’ transcription, over a century after it was written.

Since a performance version of Griffes’ Debussy transcription was prepared, we are pleased to offer this music as a free download here for anyone who would like to study or play the transcription. It is difficult but excellent, as you will be able to hear when the webcast of Solungga Liu’s performance is released.

Charles Griffes is further connected to the Library, though he could not have been aware of it, as these connections emerged posthumously. It is known that Griffes attended several concert evenings[6] in the home of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (the great patron of music who famously built the Coolidge Auditorium), and he also attended the 1919 Coolidge Chamber Music Festival in Pittsfield, MA at the invitation of Mrs. Coolidge.[7] Mrs. Coolidge was an admirer who may have become a future supporter of Griffes had he not passed away in 1920. In addition to holding so many of Griffes’ manuscripts, the Library also had the honor of hosting the public premiere of the piano version of one of Griffes’ best-known works, The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan. This performance came astonishingly late, given by pianist James Tocco on September 21, 1984 in the Coolidge Auditorium.

[1]              Anderson, Donna K., Charles T. Griffes: A Life in Music (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 121.
[2]              Ibid., 125.
[3]              Maisel, Edward, Charles T. Griffes: The Life of an American Composer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1984), 140.
[4]              Gustave White was a principal contact for Griffes on Schirmer’s staff.
[5]              Anderson, 125.
[6]              Maisel, 252, 256, 262.
[7]              Anderson, 153.

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