Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream - the three little maidens and I - and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit - yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when as it chanced one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her. And so, to please a child I loved (I don't remember any other motive), I printed in manuscript, and illustrated with my own crude design, the book which I have just had published.
So wrote Lewis Carroll about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the "Alice" stories. Those same events, transmuted years later into poetic form, became the "Preface Poem" to the published version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.
Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stire the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?
Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict "to begin it":
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
"There will be nonsense in it."
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.
Anon, to sudden silence won,
In fancy they pursue
The dream-child moving though a land
Of wonders wild and new,
In friendly chat with bird and beast —
And half believe it true.
And ever, as the story drained
The wells of fancy dry,
And faintly strove that weary one
The put the subject by,
"The rest next time —" "It is next time!"
The happy voices cry.
Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out —
And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.
Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood's dreams are twined
In Memory's mystic band,
Like pilgrim's withered wreath of flowers
Pluck'd in a far-off land.
Since Quaint Events is more than twenty minutes long, how can such a short poem serve as its text? When I began to work on the piece, I realized that my feelings about the poem were peculiar: I was interested not just in setting the words as vividly as possible but also in recreating, by some musical means, that whole story-telling, boating experience. I wanted to put my listeners in the position of the little children, to let them experience for themselves those Carrollian improvisations.
Thus I decided upon a simple device: much as Carroll interspersedhis expedition with stories (or "quaint events" as he characterizes them in Verse V), so have I interrupted a straightforward setting of the text with orchestral interludes that suggest theiry own symphonic story. Alternating settings of the text with orchetsral interludes is the musical metaphor I found for the way times passed for the three children and their storyteller that golden afternoon.
At two points in the poem, after Verse III and V, it seemed especially approptiate to add these interludes. In both palces the voices of the children are quoted directly, begging —demanding— Carrool to tell them stories. The interludes which follow suggest, then, his acquiscence.
The music of Quaint Events is for the most part jaunty, even boisterous. After an Introduction, the setting of Verse I presents in purest form the two most important themes of the piece: the oscillating tritone melody in the triplet rhythm for the first fourlines and the more lyrical, arching phrase with the concluding couplet. New material appears with the new poetic voices of Verse III and after a climactic Verse IV, Verse V also introduces a fresh theme.
I have reversed the order of the last two verses, ending with a dreamy valedictory setting of VI rather that VII.
Quaint Events fits into a three-part, evening-long concert work called Child Alice. Though it belongs in Part II, it was the last piece of the work to be completed. Part I, In Memory of a Summer Day, was first performedby the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in February of 1980; Happy Voices (the other half of Part II) by the San Francisco Symphony in September 1980 and Part III, All in the Golden Afternoon, by the Philadelphia Orchestra in May 1981.
N.B. —Quaint Events ends with a repetition of the concluding couplet of Verse V ("The rest next time—" "It is next time!" / The happy voices cry) which, when the entire piece is played, flows without pause into the longest of the orchestral diversions, Happy Voices. For this world premiere, however, instead of Happy Voices, I have substituted a concert-ending repeating the poem's opening line.
Del Tredici's Quaint Events works wonders with modest means and made a brilliant first impression. He uses repetition and gradual variation with a dazzling ingenuity this is at all times palatable and ultimately captivating. Dotted rhythms and triplet figures lend a limping and yet peculiarly buoyant quality to both vocal and orchestral parts. His is not a naïve method by any means: the whole piece is so pervaded by a few simple intervals that an interesting tension between simplicity and complexity — almost a conflict — is established and sustained.
Del Tredici's music is characterized by ingenuously simple and beguiling melodic motifs and orchestral textures often of labyrinthine complexity.... There is a natural rhythmic sweep and flow that carries the listener along and the surface of the music always sparkles and glistens.
The seven verses and two orchestral interludes of Quaint Events seemed to traverse back and forth between boiling, cacophonous climaxes, often trumpet-topped, and moments of warm, richly orchestrated repose and reflection. The music is frequently extremely dense, but is never heavy and ponderous.
...a radiant, silvery, lovely new work by that splendid Pulitzer laureate David Del Tredici. Happy Voices, like the familiar Final Alice, is full of marvelously shimmering, glistening objects. They seem to hang in a musical light, the audible prisms, and give off their own vocabulary of elusive colors. Although the music rolls around in the harmonies of another era and its showers of notes sometimes coalesce as honest-to-God tunes, there is no relationship whatsoever to the self-conscious neo-romantic born-again attitude of some composers. The major difference between the two, in fact, is the absolute correspondence in Del Tredici between musical idea and musical language.
"The success of the Alice pieces is the proof they bear that musical conservatism and/or progress have nothing to so with the oldness or newness of a style, but only with the composer's intelligence in relating idea to style. I hope you hear it, and I also hope you reread Alice before you go. The slithery, sparkling wonder of the one artwork is gorgeously mirrored in the other.