Charles Griffes: The White Peacock
Like many of his American contemporaries, Charles Griffes travelled to Germany to receive his advanced musical training. He focused on composition whilst studying, with piano being his first study for performance. Whilst in Germany, Griffes absorbed the Romantic traditions of Richard Strauss, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, whilst learning under Engelbert Humperdinck. After returning back to the USA due to family worries, Griffes began teaching and exploring his new skills in composition. After some time, Griffes’ tastes changed, and he became interested in French impressionism. Some of his most-known works came from this changeover period, such as The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, Sho-Jo and The White Peacock.
The White Peacock was originally composed in 1915 for solo piano as part of the piano suite Four Roman Sketches, however in 1919 Griffes orchestrated the music for a ballet (to which this blog is based). The title of the piece derives from an experience that Griffes had whilst visiting a zoo in Berlin:
“Among the peacocks, was a pure white one – very curious.”
In the score of the new orchestration for ballet, Griffes writes:
“It pictures a wonderful garden filled with gorgeous colour, where a white peacock moves about slowly, as the soul, as the breath of all this beauty.”
This short, but descriptive piece evokes a number of different images, colours and atmospheres all relating to this graceful peacock. Sustained strings accompany the agile woodwind at the start of the piece. A solo flute and oboe take turns presenting the melody, with the strings and harp flourishing and rocking in the background. Throughout this piece the atmosphere is serene, and carefully follows the subtle movements of the animal. Griffes handling of harmony very much sits in the French Impressionism style, with the works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel serving as inspiration to Griffes. The nuanced atonality sweeps through the music, creating ripples of uncertainty within the music.
As the serene landscape becomes slightly more agitated in the upwards spiral towards the climax, Griffes’ orchestration comes into fruition. Shadowing phrases fall between the woodwind as the strings begin to climb into their upper range. The rich textures swell over the orchestra as the texture becomes thinner. The clarinet takes a solo, accompanied by a selection of upper strings. The solo is passed to the flute and then the two create a call and response passage. The White Peacock concludes how it began – quietly and with poise and dignity.
Ⓒ Alex Burns