skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Final Alice

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: David del Tredici
© Richard Freed
Eye and Ear Witness to History

October 7, 1976. America was nearing the conclusion of the bicentennial celebration of its Revolution. But in Chicago on that night, another revolution was born.

I had not planned on being there, but a few days earlier John Edwards, the executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, called to tell me something extraordinary was taking place and to suggest I hop on a plane for the premiere of David Del Tredici’s Final Alice. Since I was close enough—I was associate conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra then—that was not hard to arrange.

At that point I did not know any of this composer’s music. What I had heard about him was that he had been a die-hard serialist but now, like a few others, was moving away from that style and taking his music in a different direction. Also, in the years leading up to this event, he had become obsessed with Alice in Wonderland, and this was to be his biggest statement so far, in both respects.

In the mid-1970s, premieres were not looked upon with very much excitement. The general impression was that the musicians had a duty to perform something new and the audience had a corresponding duty to tolerate something unfamiliar. The first half of this program was given over to the First Cello Concerto of Saint-Saëns, with János Starker as soloist—barely 20 minutes of music, if that much. Why so brief a work before intermission?

Because what came afterward was one of the most significant events to grace a concert hall in the second half of the 20th century, and its dimensions were large in every respect. On stage, with Sir Georg Solti conducting, was a Mahler-sized orchestra, with sirens, a Theremin, and other unexpected instruments. In a semi-circle around the conductor were two saxophones, a mandolin, a banjo, and an accordion. And the soprano Barbara Hendricks would jump into the national spotlight with a performance of a solo part unlike anything I had heard before.

The revolutionary premise was simple: Could a composer write a work that sent us hurtling harmonically back in time and also seem contemporary? The answer was a resounding yes. Here were big tunes, fugues, virtuoso writing, and virtuoso playing by everyone involved. At the end the audience leapt to its feet and gave an ovation usually reserved for the greatest of soloists in the revered treasures of Western music. And people came out of Orchestra Hall whistling, humming, and actually singing the melodies of the preceding 65 minutes.

Overnight, the musical world changed. For a few years the work made the rounds of most of the nation’s top orchestras, and of course it was recorded in Chicago. It is only now receiving its belated Washington premiere.

In the meantime, since that first performance, composers have felt free to follow their own inclinations, allowing academic formalism to coexist comfortably alongside minimalism, neo-Romanticism, and all the other musical isms—and their new freedom and spontaneity went directly to the hearts of enthusiastic audiences who did not need lectures or “listeners’ guides” to tell them how they must approach the new works. But it was that one night in October that made it possible.

--By Leonard Slatkin

Final Alice, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of a consortium of American orchestras brought together by the National Endowment for the Arts in celebration of the United States Bicentennial, was composed in 1976 and was given its premiere in Orchestra Hall on October 7 of that year, with Sir Georg Solti conducting and the soprano Barbara Hendricks as soloist. The other members of that commissioning consortium were the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra; in December 1977, before the last three of those orchestras got round to performing the work, Leonard Slatkin conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in the first uncut performances of Final Alice, with the soprano Judith Kellock; it is in its uncut form that Mr. Slatkin introduces the work to Washington in the present concerts.

David Del Tredici began his creative activity, some fifty years ago, using the serial techniques in vogue at the time in developing a musical language of his own. In Final Alice, however, while he called upon the huge instrumental resources he had used in earlier works, he found himself drawn by the texts he selected to abandon the serial procedure in favor of a wholly tonal approach in which romantic expressiveness is set off in a clearly contemporary frame. This huge work's huge success in 1976--with fellow musicians, with the critics, and with enthusiastic audiences--marked a turning point, not only in his own creative approach, but in the course of concert music in the final quarter of the twentieth century.

There had been some significant returns to tonality earlier in that decade--one thinks in particular of George Rochberg's expansive String Quartet No. 3, of 1972--but while Rochberg and others spoke of having returned to tonality after long and serious considerations of the need for rethinking formerly held principles of composition, and of having reached "a time of turning," Mr. Del Tredici advised that he had no such thoughts in undertaking Final Alice. Once he started writing the work, however, he found that atonality was not asserting itself as it had been doing in his earlier works. It was present in dramatic, cacophonous moments, but no longer dominant: the subject and the text simply seemed to call for a "richly expressive and unadorned tonality." The result of that happy instinct was a big, exuberant, colorful, joyously communicative work for a full orchestra and then some, which validated the arrival and the enthusiastic acceptance of "the New Romanticism." At the same time, it certified Mr. Del Tredici himself as a major figure in the music of his time--and by the time he completed this score he had decided that his next work would be entirely tonal. Most of Mr. Del Tredici's works involve a voice or voices, either in the form of songs or larger works created in response to literary stimuli. Between 1959 and 1966 he set several texts of James Joyce, backing his singers with instrumental ensembles ranging from string quartet, to wind septet and string quartet, to horn and chamber orchestra, and then he found himself irresistibly drawn to the works of Lewis Carroll. The very title of the present work is an implied reference to the several earlier ones he had composed under this stimulus. By way of background, he advises:

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had a passion for entertaining lovely little girls, and the first of these, Alice Pleasance Liddell, was his inspiration. What began as an improvisation for the amusement of the three charming Liddell sisters on a boating expedition up the Thames one summer's afternoon was written down (at Alice's insistence) and became Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when it was finally published. The Reverend Mr. Dodgson took the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. The date was July 4, 1862, "as memorable a day in the history of literature, W.H. Auden has observed, "as it is in American history."
My first acquaintance with the world of Wonderland came at a relatively tender age (11) and in a rather distorted form: I sand the role of the White Rabbit in a grammar school musical version of Alice. My creative involvement, years later, began with the discovery of Martin Gardner's ingenious book The Annotated Alice, and particularly this information: "Most of the poems in the Alice books are parodies of poems or popular songs that were well known to Carroll's contemporary readers. With few exceptions the originals have been forgotten, their titles kept alive only by the fact that Carroll chose to poke fun at them. Because much of the wit of a burlesque is missed if one is not familiar with what is being caricatured, all the originals will be reprinted in this edition".
The idea of setting to music these Carrollian poem-parodies, in conjunction with the respective Victorian originals, struck fire in my imagination and led me to compose a whole series of pieces, each independent but each based on different episodes from the book.

Indeed, Del Tredici's productive obsession eventually went beyond Carroll's books to focus on their author and the actual Alice on whom he modeled his young heroine. The "Alice cycle" occupied him for some twenty-seven years; when completed it comprised the following individual works (all for amplified soprano and Del Tredici's combination of rock group or "folk group" and large orchestra, unless otherwise specified):

POP-POURRI (1968, revised 1973), a half-hour "cantata of the sacred and profane" for soprano, mixed chorus, rock group and orchestra, juxtaposing Wonderland texts with the Litany of the Blessed Virgin-a remnant of the composer's Catholic childhood. The revised version was introduced by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus under Michael Tilson Thomas, with the soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, on March 31, 1972.

AN ALICE SYMPHONY (1969, revised in 1976) is a broad-scaled work whose two large parts—Illustrated Alice and In Wonderland-- may be performed separately, and were in fact introduced separately. In addition, the original version of The Lobster Quadrille, which appeared several years before it became the opening section of In Wonderland, may be performed on its own, without the soprano. (Aaron Copland, to whom The Lobster Quadrille is dedicated, conducted the premiere of that piece in London in 1969, and conducted the NSO's first performance of it in 1978.) The first performance of the complete Alice Symphony was given on August 7, 1991, by the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra under Oliver Knussen, with Phyllis Bryn-Julson as soloist.

ADVENTURES UNDERGROUND (settings of "The Pool of Tears" and "The Mouse's Tale,"1971, revised 1977) was commissioned by the Buffalo Philharmonic, which introduced the work in April 1975 under Michael Tilson Thomas, with the soprano Susan Davenny Wyner as soloist

VINTAGE ALICE: Fantascene on a Mad Tea-Party (1972) calls for a small instrumental ensemble in addition to the soprano and "folk group." This work's premiere at the Paul Masson Vineyards in Saratoga, California in August 1972, was conducted by the composer himself, with Claudia Cummings as his soloist.

CHILD ALICE is a "full evening" work whose various sections were introduced separately. Part I, as long as Final Alice, is In Memory of a Summer Day, commissioned by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and introduced in February 1980, during Leonard Slatkin's first season as that orchestra's music director, with Phyllis Bryn-Julson as soloist. The work was recorded in Saint Louis, and brought the composer a Pulitzer Prize. The orchestral interlude "Triumphant Alice," an elaborate march, is sometimes performed on its own. Part II comprises Quaint Events (another Buffalo Philharmonic commission, 1981), Happy Voices, for orchestra alone (composed for the opening of Davies Hall in San Francisco, 1980), which won a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, and, as the final section, All in the Golden Afternoon, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and introduced under Eugene Ormandy, with Benita Valente as soloist, in 1981. The first integral performance of Child Alice was given at Carnegie Hall on April 27, 1986: John Mauceri conducted the American Symphony Orchestra, and the solo part was divided among the sopranos Tracy Dahl, Dawn Upshaw and Victoria Livengood.

HADDOCKS' EYES (1986), for soprano and ten instruments, with texts from the works of both Lewis Carroll and Thomas Moore, was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which gave the premiere at Alice Tully Hall on May 2, 1986, with the composer conducting and Phyllis Bryn-Julson as soloist.

DUM DEE TWEEDLE (1992-95) is a one-act opera on "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," Chapter 4 of Through the Looking Glass. The opening scene was performed by the New York City Opera on May 8, 2002, but the work has yet to be given in its entirety.

Final Alice, then, was "final" only in the sense of being based on the final chapters of Alice in Wonderland. By the time Del Tredici composed Haddocks' Eyes he had begun writing big pieces for orchestra without voices--March To Tonality, introduced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1985; Tattoo, for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in 1987, and Steps, in 1990, for the New York Philharmonic, whose composer in residence he was at that time. (The preposition in the first of these three titles was given an upper-case T, the composer explains, because that title was designed to represent the initials of Michael Tilson Thomas, to whom the piece is dedicated, and who conducted the Chicago premiere.)

His commitment to setting words to be sung continued, though, with a number of concert pieces for voice(s) and orchestra. In 1998 Kurt Masur conducted the Philharmonic in The Spider and the Fly, a fantasy on Mary Howitt's verses for soprano, baritone and orchestra. A year later Del Tredici composed a similar work on the legend of Dracula. In 2001 Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of Gay Life, an orchestral song cycle in which the baritone William Sharp sang settings of poems by Allen Ginsberg, Michael D. Calhoun, W.H. Kidde, Paul Monette and Thom Gunn. In 2005 there were two further settings of American literature: Paul Revere's Ride, a choral/orchestral treatment of Longfellow's poem, for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which recorded it, and Rip Van Winkle, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and given its premiere in a Family Concert on November 20, 2005, with Leonard Slatkin conducting and Brian Stokes Mitchell reciting the text adapted from the Washington Irving story by Del Tredici's partner, Ray Warman.

For all its intriguing background and fascinating imagery, Final Alice really does speak for itself very effectively--that, after all, is how it came to make such a powerful impression--but a composer's own words are always of indisputable authority, and in this case they are of real value in his sources, his procedures and his objectives. Here is what Mr. Del Tredici has to say about this work:


Final Alice is a series of elaborate arias, interspersed and separated by dramatic episodes from the last two chapters of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, centering on the Trial in Wonderland (which gradually turns to pandemonium) and Alice's subsequent awakening and return to "dull reality." To this I have added an Apotheosis. The work teeters between the worlds of opera and concert music. It is, on the one hand, opera-like in its dramatic continuity, its arias, its different characters. On the other hand, it is a Grand Concerto for voice and orchestra, as a single person must perform all these various functions (maintaining then the familiar concert hall confrontation between soloist and orchestra). If I were to invent a category for it, I would call Final Alice an "Opera written in Concert Form."

Of the poems used here, only the texts of Arias I, II and V are by Lewis Carroll, and only the poem of Aria I appears in the Alice story. Arias III and IV are the Victorian originals. The relationship between these parodies and originals I found particularly intriguing and ultimately inspiring. Arias I and II are not only Carroll texts, but also two versions of the same poem: Aria II is an earlier version which does not appear in Alice. Both share the same world of confused pronouns and very little sense. Further, the first line of Aria II copies the first line of "Alice Gray," a sentimental song by William Mee that was popular in Carroll's time. A footnote in Martin Gardner's book The Annotated Alice asks, "Did Carroll introduce Mee's poem into the story because the song behind it tells of the unrequited love of a man for a girl named Alice?" Aria IV, "Still More Evidence," an extended setting of the poem "Alice Gray," is my answer. What moved me here was the desire not just to set the words "at face value," but rather to capture and convey the feelings those words must have aroused in the breast of the shy Oxford don. "Disilllusioned," the second Victorian original, imitates closely the meter of "Alice Gray," but grotesquely distorts and mocks its sentiment: it is a cracked mirror-image, a devil's version of the angels' Alice. These two poems, "Alice Gray" and "Disillusioned," are set side by side to music of the most violent contrast, as Aria III, "Contradictory Evidence."

Aria V is a setting of the concluding poem from the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass. This poem is an acrostic, the initial letters of the lines spelling out the name of the real Alice: ALICE PLEASANCE LIDDELL.

Final Alice tells two stories at once: primary is the actual tale of Wonderland itself, with all its bizarre and unpredictable happenings. All of these are painted as vividly as possible, but "reading between the lines," as it were, is the implied love story of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, as suggested by the poems "Alice Gray" and the "Acrostic Song." By introducing these additional poems into the Trial as depositions of evidence, given by the White Rabbit (acting as a kind of chief prosecutor), I wished to bring that love story closer to the surface—not so much as to disturb the amusing, eccentric, sometimes terrifying story as it goes on and on in its inexorable fashion—but enough to leave a recognition, to add what one might call the human dimension of the man, seen only intermittently, to be sure, but (one hopes) always affectingly, perhaps lingering in memory after the dream of Wonderland itself has faded.


By way of recertifying the composer's immersion in the Alice material, the work ends with a counting out in Italian that ends with the number 13, Tredici.

The present performances not only represent the belated Washington premiere of this significant and always well received work, but, incredible as it may seem, appear to constitute the first presentation of it anywhere in more than twenty years. Leonard Slatkin has made his enthusiasm for Final Alice apparent in an essay of his own in these pages, as he had done earlier and more pointedly in commissioning two subsequent works from David Del Tredici. Mr. Slatkin's connection with this work is worth mentioning here, because of his history of performing it without cuts. In the Chicago premiere under Solti, the scene called "The King Muses" and the succeeding Aria III, "Contradictory Evidence," were omitted; while that substantial cut may have been made simply with a view toward getting the work onto a single LP in the subsequent recording, it was observed in the performances eventually given by the other orchestras in the commissioning consortium. In December 1977, however, by which time only two of those orchestras had performed the work (New York under Erich Leinsdorf and Los Angeles under Zubin Mehta, both again with Barbara Hendricks as soloist), Mr. Slatkin conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in two performances, with the soprano Judith Kellock, in which those eliminated sections were restored. Four months later, with the Minnesota Orchestra, Mr. Slatkin conducted two performances of the cut version with Barbara Hendricks, and one without cuts in which Judith Kellock was again his soloist. On November 12, 1982, he conducted the British premiere in London, with the vocal assignment divided between the soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and the actress Claire Bloom. In the present performances with Hila Plitmann, a soprano who has identified herself with Del Tredici's music in several recent premieres, Mr. Slatkin again presents the work in its complete form, and next season he and Miss Plitmann are to make the first recording of the entire score, in Nashville.