David Del Tredici (b. 1937) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer whose works range from intimate piano sonatas and string quartets to giant orchestral and choral epics. Born in California, he now resides in New York City, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Music at The City College of New York. His composition career has gone through phases: he showed an early interest in setting the poetry of James Joyce, moved on to a decade-long obsession with Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland, and has spent recent years creating settings of gay American poets. He has won praise and accolades throughout his career, including from Aaron Copland, who said (according to Del Tredici’s website) that he “is that rare find among composers — a creator with a truly original gift. I venture to say that his music is certain to make a lasting impression on the American musical scene. I know of no other composer of his generation who composes music of greater freshness and daring, or with more personality.” He has also been recognized twice by OUT magazine as a person of the year.
Acrostic Song originates from Del Tredici’s Alice period. It is the last aria in Final Alice, an epic series of arias and dramatic episodes that tells the story of the final chapters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Acrostic Song uses a seven-verse acrostic poem that Carroll wrote based on the real Alice‘s name: Alice Pleasance Liddell. Del Tredici sets it with all the simplicity and regularity of the poem, preserving the simple, three-line stanzas in the musical phrasing. The result is a profound musical experience wrapped in deceptively simple and familiar musical trappings.
A band in Texas performs the Acrostic Song as arranged (at the composer’s request) by Mark Spede:
On February 18, 2013 David Del Tredici came to a Columbia Wind Ensemble rehearsal to hear us play through the Acrostic Song. It was his first time hearing the arrangement live. We ended up working through the entire arrangement bit by bit, making several changes along the way, thus creating sort an ur-text edition of the arrangement. Those changes are listed below.
Changes to Spede arrangement of Acrostic Song:
m. 1: cresc.
m. 2: dim.
m. 3: cresc.
m. 4: dim.
m. 7: cresc.
m. 8: dim.
m. 9: cresc.
m. 10: dim.
mm.13-16 oboes rest
End of m. 18: no breath mark, connect right into m. 19
mm. 19-20: oboes rest
m. 24-25: no breath
m. 40: oboes rest, all flutes on G
mm. 47-53: all flutes play 1st part, 1 clarinet 1 8va (all others as written)
m. 53: PIU Mosso
mm. 57-60: molto molto accel to quarter=160 in m. 61, then rit.
m. 72: trombone 2 on C (2nd space), trombone 1 on G (top space), horn 2 on written G (2nd line), horn 1 on written D (4th line), ALL OTHERS REST
m. 75: subito piu mosso, anyone with 8ths dynamic should be ff
m. 82: add suspended cymbal roll starting pp, cresc. for beats 1 & 2, dim. for beats 3&4, release on downbeat of m. 83
m. 83: all winds and brass who played in 82 sustain whole note through 83
The performance, with some introduction:
This documentary preview briefly features the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performing the Acrostic Song in its original from with soprano Hila Plitmann (yes, that’s Eric Whitacre‘s wife). Note: the form is largely the same as the band version, but it’s in a different key. And the ending veers off in an entirely different direction:
There is also a choral version:
There is so much extra material out there on Final Alice, including hugely extensive program notes from the Kennedy Center, a review of the definitive recording, Del Tredici’s own notes at Boosey & Hawkes, and a tribute by Stephen Brookes of the Washington Post. For the curious (and curiouser), here is Carroll’s original poem, “A boat beneath a sunny sky”:
A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?