Portrait of the artist in a laissez-faire society

Charles T. Griffes, by Edward Maisel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 448 pp. $22.95. Last September marked the centenary of American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who, like Mozart, was rising in the musical world when he died at 35, yet who, unlike Mozart, never saw the world of moneyed arts patrons. The unsupported struggle of a gifted artist who worked himself to an early grave has formed the basis for the Griffes legend, which has gotten itself richly embroidered with Romantic pathos.

But Griffes's tale and centenary represent a rather bigger theme than that, and the centenary has been beautifully capped by Alfred A. Knopf's noble gesture of a new hardbound edition of Edward Maisel's biography of Griffes. Only slightly updated from the original 1943 work by this insightful and dedicated musicologist, ``Charles T. Griffes'' is an outstanding and vivid portrait of a creative artist living in and through his times -- perhaps the finest, best-crafted biography on a composer that I have ever read.

Beyond Maisel's painstaking research and obvious immersion in his subject, this remarkably alive biography has a somewhat catalytic effect on our thinking about art music in North American culture. Chapter 8, to be sure, blatantly blasts the American musical climate in which Griffes worked: ``Music in America,'' Maisel writes, ``followed chiefly in the orbit of an obstreperous group of concert luminaries and their sycophants. Their motives were commerce and vanity.''

The last third of the book simply clears away the myth-made cobwebs, reminding us that Griffes did not starve to death and was, in fact, reaping as much honor and notoriety as a composer in this country could aspire to in 1919. But, vehement as is the chapter, and dutiful as is the reminder, between the blasting and the clearing, Maisel deftly conjures up a mirror of present-day attitudes toward these things, our own prevalent views toward the sincere composer who, out on a creative limb with no hand to guide him, strives to put out crafted, quality music that is compelling and durable.

Maisel challenges our laissez-faire attitude: If all composers ceased writing now, and music kept on as a totally past-tense, noncreative art, what would be the difference, and how long would it be before anyone noticed?

Griffes's particular tragedy, of course, was that he was simply born much too far in advance of even the most nascent readiness for genuine, home-grown American music, let alone such a fiery amalgam of high art's forces as himself. His was a mentality open wide enough to give those forces scope and utterance and was far beyond the receptivity they could then have hoped for.

In assembling all this into a fine labor-of-love biography and re-releasing it at this time, Mr. Maisel and his publisher have pulled off something extraordinary to be grateful for, to learn from, and to think about.

David Owens is a composer and free-lance writer living in Boston.

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