Weekend Repertoire: Clouds

Weekend Repertoire: Discovering Clouds from Four Roman Sketches, by Charles Griffes, 1915

I don’t know about you, but I am all about pieces that paint a picture or tell a story. If I can convey a beautiful scene or tell a great story, or just really relate to a piece of music, that is when I feel I can really play it well. (A good thought to remember when helping students relate to and interpret their pieces!) I once played a cool piece by Abel Decaux from a set entitled Clair de Lune (and don’t let the name fool you – it is as different than Debussy’s famous piece as they come!). The piece was called La Mer, or The Sea – and because of its crazy chromatic harmonies and dark feel, a friend told me that it reminded him of the ocean in Italy at night – and BAM, there was my picture to paint!

I first became familiar with the piece Clouds  by Charles Griffes while working on a crazy enormous listening assignment for my piano literature class in college. I popped in the CD, and as the first beautiful chords rang out, I looked out my window just as the sun was rising and saw this:

(By the way, this photo definitely does not do the true view justice, as I just had a little point and shoot camera at the time – but still, you get the idea… right?)
This piece with its gorgeous yet interesting chromatic harmonies completely described the view I was seeing, as the clouds covering the sky turned pink and purple with the sunrise. Pretty cool. Although I have not learned this piece in-depth, whenever I play through it this scene immediately comes to mind and is the inspiration behind the music for me.
I have loved this piece ever since hearing it that day.  It definitely is quite impressionistic (which I love), but he also put a very original twist on it with his crazy, somewhat oriental, harmonies. In Hinson’s Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire, Hinson says this about Griffes:  “Love of oriental subjects and a preoccupation with impressionistic techniques were the major influences on Griffes’ music.” You can definitely hear those influences in this piece.
A little about Charles Griffes – he was an American composer, born in New York in 1884, and died in 1920. His major piano works include a sonata (1912) and Four Roman Sketches (1915), from which the piece Clouds comes. Although he is a somewhat obscure composer, his works are definitely worth a listen!

This is pretty much the only recording of this piece I could find on YouTube or anywhere else, except for one other that I thought was just way too fast. Enjoy!

Do you have any similar experiences with pieces? Do you like to picture a scene in your mind when playing? How do you teach your students to “paint a picture” through their playing?

Jennifer Boster

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