This work began as a piano piece written in 1912, but its definitive form is its orchestral version, completed in 1917 and introduced by the Boston Symphony under Pierre Monteux in 1919. The work was rapturously received by the audience and received glowing notices from the critics. It is one of a very few short orchestral pieces by the composer, who died the following year at the age of 36, and is unmistakably the work of an artist who could have achieved exceptionally important status in American musical history. In style the work is similar to those of contemporary French composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Roussel, and Ibert: it is rich, sweeping, brilliantly orchestrated.
The literary source, of course, is Coleridge's famous unfinished poem, and it faithfully mirrors the poem's startling juxtapositions of imagery of sunniness and "caves of ice." In the music, we perceive both glitter and darkness, stateliness and reverie, languorousness and frenzy. That's a lot for ten minutes of music!
In short, it is a seductively lovely piece. It sets interpretational problems for the conductor because of the sheer variety and number of its musical episodes. Occupying the position of something of a dead end in history (rather than being the introduction of a major new talent who would go on and develop even greater music), it has not become a major item in the repertoire. But it gains friends whenever it is played.
Griffes completed the first incarnation of the piano Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan by July 1912, when he played it along with The Vale of Dreams for composer Arthur Farwell. At the beginning of 1913, Griffes submitted it, along with other new works such as The Lake at Evening, to the publisher G. Schirmer in New York, who rejected the entire group. Griffes was advised that he was "writing too dreamily and subjectively, and needed to get out into the outer world more." However, Griffes was also recommended to composer Ferruccio Busoni, who happened to be coming to New York to concertize in the weeks ahead. Busoni wrote a strong letter of recommendation for Griffes after reviewing several of his pieces, which helped to pave the way for Griffes at Schirmer. Busoni was most impressed with Kubla Khan in particular, but he suggested that Griffes either trim the piece or orchestrate it.
In 1915, Griffes dutifully prepared a streamlined Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan for piano. But he soon got caught up in creating the orchestral piece, which was completed in 1917. After that, both piano versions went back into the drawer, not to be heard again for nearly 70 years. The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan in its original piano incarnation, startlingly different from the orchestral version, is profitably approached on its own terms. It contains some of Griffes' most florid and colorful writing for the instrument. The work is written at a level of difficulty so high that there is ample music for four hands, but some exceptional pianists are able to manage it with two.