Del Tredici through the looking glass

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

On today’s date in 1976, the American composer David Del Tredici conducted the San Francisco Symphony in the first performance of a work he called “Illustrated Alice.”

The music was subtitled “Two Scenes from Wonderland.” These two scenes would eventually form bookend movements of a much longer “Alice Symphony,” a work which received its first complete performance 15 years later in August of 1991 at the Tangle wood Festival in Massachusetts.

Back in 1968, Del Tredici had become fascinated with the works of Lewis Carroll, whose “Alice in Wonderland” books have captivated both children and adults for generations. To say that Del Tredici was captivated would be something of an understatement: he devoted 30 years of his career to setting Carroll’s creation to music in a series of increasingly tonal works—something that must have come as a surprise to those familiar with his earlier atonal music.

“I couldn’t imagine setting a Carroll text to dissonant music,” explained Del Tredici. “Dissonant music can’t possibly project the mood that surrounds Carroll’s writings. In order to create that mood I had to rethink everything I had done up to that time. I had to think about tonality again, not because I was trying to bring back the music of an older period, but because my musical imagination had seized upon that language.”