The Lobster-Quadrille was inspired by a chapter from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. In it, the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, two of Carroll's many bizarre character, describe, and then perform in an amusing manner, a quadrille. During this dance the Mock Turtle sings his won little song. (The quadrille was a kind of square-dance in five figures and was one of the most difficult of the ballroom dances fashionable at the time Carroll wrote his tale.)
What particularly caught my fancy in this scene was the possibility of musically blending together both its humor and it grotesquerie. Consequently, I made a few special additions to the normal symphony orchestra: a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and two saxophones. In the context of American popular entertainment these are very common instruments indeed; however, in the more rarified symphonic realm their presence is somewhat bizarre, and creates a juxtaposition suggesting to me a kind of musical equivalent to the special atmosphere of the dramatic scene.
The Lobster-Quadrille is in seven parts: Dance I (for brass and strings), Song (for banjo, accordion, saxophones and mandolin), Dance II (woodwinds and percussion), Song, Dances I and II combined, Song, Coda. The recurring Song, always canonic and always for the group of folk instruments, functions as a kind of contrasting Trio. It has one piquant feature: the entries of the answering voice impinge closer and closer upon the primary voice, an allusion to the opening lines of the poem:
"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail,
"There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail."
In this work, I posed for myself a rather special contrapuntal problem: that of writing two different sections (Dance I and Dance II) which would make musical sense not only separately but also when superimposed one upon the other. So that the combining of the two dances would be possible, I have, with the exception of the Coda, partitioned the orchestra throughout the piece into two groups: brass and strings (in one), woodwinds and percussion (in the other).