The American composer, David Del Tredici, passed away on Saturday, November 18, following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 86.
Describing his early years as those of “an old child prodigy,” Del Tredici began studying the piano at the age of 12 and was concertizing by 17. He started composing during a summer session at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where he came to the attention of composer-in-residence, Darius Milhaud. As he matured, Del Tredici moved away from the prevailing modernism to embrace Neo-Romanticism, a stylistic current characterized by a return to tonality. He produced song cycles and other dramatic works based on the writings of James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and others. Carroll’s Alice stories formed the inspiration for a recurring series of large-scale works, which included Final Alice (1976) and In Memory of a Summer Day, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. Del Tredici’s final works were closely tied to the composer’s identity as an openly gay man.
In the program note for his 1986 work, Tattoo, David Del Tredici described the orchestra as “a kind of musical monster, with its more than 100 independently moving parts, each of which, like tentacles, can be given its own life; or all can be harnessed together to do a composer’s bidding.” Commissioned by the Concertgebouw Orchestra for the commemoration of its 250th anniversary, Tattoo is a dramatic, sometimes menacing, celebration of instrumental color. The piece is also filled with the “unrelenting rhythmic drive…of a juggernaut— the huge machine moving forward with irresistible, terrible force.”
It begins with the drum taps of a military tattoo, a signal designed to summon soldiers in the middle of the night. The composer wrote,
Almost randomly, tiny shards of percussion, isolated pizzicati and, finally, tubas punctuate the silence, then coalesce into the basso ostinato that will dominate the twenty-minute course of Tattoo. A somber, majestic theme is heard in horns signaling the forward march. With brass and percussion to the fore, sonic peaks steadily rise. A brief, more playful episode interrupts, but the music, ostinato-driven, presses on, now toward a blazing, grandiose climax. Thereafter, the whole conflagration dissipates, leaving mysterious, smoldering musical embers—harp and celesta arpeggios, muted brass, woodwind and percussion tremolos. At length, from these shifting ashes, the opening phrase of Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice (called Omaggio a Niccoló Paganini in my score) drifts up. This new thematic fragment is first heard superimposed above a quiet recapitulation of the opening, but then breaks free and in complete form proclaims itself, fortissimo. Only the basso ostinato still clings, giving the music a macabre aspect.
The theme, once stated, is fair game for contrapuntal and rhythmic distortion. There are surprising, jarring harmonic shifts and much canonic casing. A siren, even, enters the fray. When the omnipresent ostinato itself begins to disintegrate, the end seems near. Paganini, however, makes one last dramatic appearance, but his theme breaks apart, its swirling fragments, moving faster and faster. Enough! A low wind rises and blows all the music away.
This performance features Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic:
Final Alice: “She’s all my fancy painted her”
Echos of Richard Strauss drift into this excerpt from Del Tredici’s Final Alice, composed in 1976. The composer wrote,
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 around 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.
Final Alice 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.”
…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.
This 1981 recording features Barbara Hendricks with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:
Ballad In Yellow
Composed in 1998, Ballad in Yellow is Del Tredici’s transcription of a song setting of a Garcia Lorca poem.
Ode to Music
Composed in 2015, Ode to Music is “a fantasy-transcription of Franz Schubert’s song, A Die Musik.” Del Tredici imagined “9 minutes that Franz Schubert might have written had he been enamored of Richard Wagner and at the same time a piano student of Franz Liszt.”
- a complete listing of David Del Tredici’s discography