March To Tonality has nothing whatever to do with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is, in fact, the first purely orchestral piece I have written since 1969 — the fateful year I met, compositionally speaking, Lewis Carroll, whose poetry and stories inspired all of my subsequent musical compositions.
In 1981, when I had completed Child Alice, the largest of these Wonderland pieces, I turned with fascination to Mary Howitt's poem The Spider and the Fly, ("Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly) which Lewis Carroll parodies in The Lobster Quadrille chapter of Alice ("Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail). While I was setting these verses to music, the opening oboe melody of March To Tonality suddenly occurred to mc. I wrote it in a sketch book margin with the annotation: 'seems not to fit here, but has possibilities...' I waited nearly two years before I returned to inspect, in August of 1983, this tiny musical nugget — to sample, as it were, its ore. By the month's end I realized that I had, indeed, struck a rich vein as I had finished a complete sketch of a new twenty minute orchestral work. Fleshing out the various lines, adding an obbligato part and working out the orchestration occupied me for almost eight more months, from August 1984 until the date of completion March 16, 1985 (also, coincidentally, my birthday).
The title March To Tonality is an acrostic. The initial letters of each word (MTT) duplicate those of Michael Tilson Thomas. The coincidence is meant as a tribute.
Further, I chose the title because it seemed an appropriate description of the essential harmonic drama underlying the piece. Beginning with chromatically ambiguous, almost cadenceless harmonic progressions (Marcia Triste), the music makes a gradual, implacable shift (March) towards harmonic stability, climaxed by the arrival of a grandly unambiguous D Flat Major (Trio Estatico). Thereafter, D Flat Major remains the sovereign tonality: the key to which all subsequent music — however divergent, frenetic or capricious must return.
Three times during the piece — at the start, at the conclusion of the Marcia Triste and at the very end — I ask the orchestra to whisper the initials of my own name (DDT). Besides the obvious programmatic aspect to this, whispering has also the function of being a unique sound effect clearly marking important structural moments as the work unfolds.
Marcia Triste. Not a march in the traditional, boisterous, Sousa-sense, Marcia Triste is rather a limping, sad-sounding, almost formal procession of dotted rhythms in 12-8. As this steadily pulsing music of four beats per measure shifts through the various instrumental choirs, percussion instruments tap out a contrasting rhythm of three beats per measure. A more passionate section follows, introducing a counter-line straining against the set, steady pulse. Momentarily, the music settles into an expressive Improvvisando passage, but the steady pulse of the opening returns to conclude the Marcia proper.
What follows is an Alleqro transition to the Trio. New urgency grips the music as it modulates abruptly, even violently. Dotted rhythms, at more than twice their former speed, rise insistently from the orchestra. 'Enough of harmonic wanderings,' the music seems to say, 'an overruling tonality must be found!' The dominant chord of D Flat Major is struck, sustained and embellished with such vehemence as to leave little doubt that the moment has arrived.
Trio Estatico. A new melody played by horns proclaims the D Flat tonality. High above, forming a kind of iridescent dome, woodwinds in alternation with strings play new flashing scale figures. As in the opening Marcia, the clear four-beat rhythm of the theme is set against a pronounced three-beat rhythm in the scale figures. This combination produces an out-of-sync effect, as if melody and accompaniment were each going their own ecstatic way while trying still to catch up with one another. The entire Trio is meant to sustain a single arc of unbroken exultation. The theme gradually rises from the brass to the violins, then returns to brass again. At length, like a glacier slowly moving southward, the Trio edifice begins to melt away. The music modulates, the scales falter, a wind rises. Only a residue of high-flying scale figures is left when the Marcia returns.
La Marcia con an Obbligato. Superimposed above the customary repetition of the March, these remaining scale figures form an insistent, strident obbligato, as though voltage still left in the Trio's overcharged battery necessitates a continuing discharge, beyond proper limits, onto the more decorous Marcia texture. Only the first half of the March is literally repeated. A new connecting passage, rising to a climax then calming again, modulates the music back 'home' to D Flat Major.
Passaggio Capriccioso. This section of substantial size and weight functions as a kind of second Trio. Although it begins with a dreamy, soft recollection of the Trio's grandiose opening, its activity continues very differently. The theme, once so majestic, is treated here with the capricious changeability more characteristic of a development section. The high obbligato lines persist as the music modulates through myriad key changes and picks up speed. With great fanfare (and a wailing siren) the music returns once again to D Flat Major, then quickly dies away. After a long dominant pedal, the section ends with a cadenza for piccolo and clarinet above a cushion of softly sustaining strings.
Epilogo. The Marcia theme, long absent, returns. Now though it is transformed by new, lush harmonies and entwined around the Trio theme. The texture grows ever more luxuriant, with harp, celesta and hells adding a special glow. A wind rises. Even the reiterated D Flat Major chord, encrusted now with many bittersweet, dissonant notes, seems to he losing its stability, to be languishing, dissolving. A hidden chorus whispers. in farewell, the initials of the composer's name: DDT.
March To Tonality was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and is dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas.'