Charles Tomlinson Griffes (Elmira, New York, September 17, 1884 – New York City, April 8, 1920) was an American composer for piano, chamber ensembles and for voice.
After early studies on piano and organ in his home town, he went to Berlin for four years to study composition with Engelbert Humperdinck at the Stern conservatory. On returning to the U.S. in 1907 he began teaching at the Hackley School for boys in Tarrytown, New York, a post which he held until his early death 13 years later.
Griffes is the most famous American representative of musical Impressionism. He was fascinated by the exotic, mysterious sound of the French Impressionists, and was compositionally much influenced by them while he was in Europe. He also studied the work of contemporary Russian composers (for example Scriabin), whose influence is also apparent in his work, for example in his use of synthetic scales.
His most famous works are the White Peacock, for piano (1915, orchestrated in 1919); his Piano Sonata (1917–18, revised 1919); a tone poem, The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, after the fragment by Coleridge (1912, revised in 1916), and Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918). He also wrote numerous programmatic pieces for piano, chamber ensembles, and for voice. The amount and quality of his music is impressive considering his short life and his full-time teaching job, and much of his music is still performed. His unpublished Sho-jo (1917), a one-act pantomimic drama based on Japanese themes, is one of the earliest works by an American composer to show direct inspiration from the music of Japan.
He died of influenza at the age of 35 and is buried in Bloomfield Cemetery in Bloomfield, Essex County, New Jersey. His papers passed to his younger sister Marguerite who chose to destroy many that explicitly related to his gay life. Donna Anderson (see below) is his current literary executor.
Griffes kept meticulous diaries, some in German, which chronicled his musical accomplishments from 1907 to 1919, and also dealt honestly with his homosexual lifestyle including his regular patronage of the Lafayette Place Baths and the Produce Exchange Baths. 
Charles Tomlinson Griffes was drawn into the gay world by the baths not just because he had sex there, but because he met men there who helped him find apartments and otherwise make his way through the city, who appreciated his music, who gave him new insights into his character, and who became his good friends. The gay world became a central part of his everyday world, even though he kept it hidden from his nongay associates.
– George Chauncey, Gay New York 1995
During his time as a student in Berlin he was devoted to his "special friend" Emil Joèl (aka "Konrad Wölcke"). In later life he had a long term relationship with John Meyer (biographer Edward Maisel used the pseudonym Dan C. Martin), a married New York policeman.
His surname is properly pronounced GRIFF-iss, though it is sometimes mispronounced in the French manner as "Greef."
References and further reading
- Maisel, Edward (1984). Charles Griffes. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-54081-6. The definitive biography of the composer and is widely available secondhand
- Anderson, Donna K. (1993). Charles T Griffes (Smithsonian Studies of American Musicians). Smithsonian Press. pp. 272 pages. ISBN 1560981911.
- Slonimsky, Nicolas (1993). The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Schirmer Books. pp. 2624 Pages. ISBN 002872416X.
- Chauncey, George (1995). Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. Basic Books; Reprint edition. pp. 496 pages. ISBN 0465026214.