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Musical Notes


Charles T. Griffes’s Synaesthesiaic Musical Settings of Oscar Wilde’s Poetry

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In December of 1911, Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), arguably America’s first impressionist composer, purchased a ten volume set of Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900) complete works for $6.25. Wilde’s works, and particularly his poetry, would go on to inspire a flurry of Griffes’s impressionistic work, several of which are considered today to be his most successful art songs. By the end of 1912, Griffes began work setting at least five of Wilde’s poems to song, completing the composition of four. In 1912, Griffes also read at least two Oscar Wilde biographies, and from 1912-1916 Griffes produced sketches or complete settings of ten works inspired by Wilde’s poetry. This period of Griffes’ musical career is also the most clearly defined impressionistic work that he produced. And he set “more of Wilde’s texts to music” Donna K. Anderson tells us, “than any other poet except Henrich Heine.” 
I premise this project on the assumption that Wilde’s influence on Griffes stems from three primary points of interest: first, the poet’s biographical influence; second, the latent musicality (both in allusion and form) inherent to Wilde’s poetry, and; third, Griffes would have been drawn to Wilde’s specific impressionistic uses of color and intertextuality as it related to Griffes’ own sensitivity to color and his specific sense of synaesthesia.

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