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.

Main Reading Room Open House 10/9

On Monday, October 9, visitors to the Library will have the opportunity to see and explore our historic Main Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building, as part of the Library’s Semi-Annual Main Reading Room Open House. This family-friendly opportunity offers the public an opportunity to get a taste of the Library’s collections, exhibitions, and […]

Learning the Backstory to “Rent”

This post is by Emily Hauck, a summer intern in the Library’s Communications Office. A version of this post was first published in the Library of Congress Gazette and it also appeared on the Library of Congress Blog. No matter how much you think you know about a topic, there is always more to discover. I […]

Jazz Scholar John Szwed on Visiting the Library

The following is a guest blog by 2016-2017 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar John Szwed. Notes on My Visit to the Music Division By John Szwed I’ve visited the Library of Congress a number of times over the years for many different reasons, sometimes for research on a writing project, at others just out of curiosity. […]

Pride in the Library: LGBTQ+ Voices in the Library’s Collections

This is a guest post by Meg Metcalf, women’s, gender and LGBTQ+ studies librarian in the Main Reading Room. It was originally posted on the Library of Congress Blog. The collections of the Library of Congress tell the rich and diverse story of LGBTQ+ life in America and around the world. To share this story, […]

“I Will Survive”

The following post originally appeared on the Copyright: Creativity at Work Blog and was written by George Thuronyi of the U.S. Copyright Office. As a teenager during the 1970s, I put on my bell-bottom pants and shiny shirt to groove to the latest disco hits. I was not alone. Disco culture was highly popular and […]

The Final Years of Pilgrimage: Sketches and Sources for Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, Troisième année

In January of 2016 the Library of Congress acquired a holograph manuscript and a copyist’s manuscript (with composer edits and annotations) of Franz Liszt’s Den Cypressen der Villa d’Este. These two manuscripts are earlier incarnations of the first threnody from the final volume of the Années de pèlerinage. The troisième année was published in 1883, with […]

Today: Poet Laureate Closing Events & Livestream

The following is a post from the Library of Congress Blog by Wendi Maloney. The Library of Congress will honor Juan Felipe Herrera, who is concluding his second term as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, with celebratory events on Wednesday, April 26. The events will be streamed live on the Library’s Facebook page and its YouTube […]

This Week at the Library: “Pump Up the Volume,” Steven Isserlis & Connie Shih, “In Bach’s Hand,” “Painting Jazz,” and Steve Coleman and Five Elements

This Week at the Library: Wednesday, 4/19, 7:00 pm – Bibliodiscotheque Film Screening: Pump Up the Volume (Film) Friday, 4/21, 6:30 pm – Conversation with Steven Isserlis (Interview) Friday, 4/21, 8:00 pm – Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih (Concert) Saturday, 4/22, 11:00 am – #Declassified: “In Bach’s Hand” (Lecture) Saturday, 4/22, 6:30 pm – John Szwed: “Painting […]