David Del Tredici

credit: Susan Johann

credit: Susan Johann

With the appearance in 1976 of Final Alice – David Del Tredici’s hour–long setting of Lewis Carroll for high soprano and large orchestra – a new movement in music, Neo–Romanticism, was born. Not only did Del Tredici forge for himself a fresh compositional path, but at the same time gave hope to a generation of young composers seeking a new way of composing.

Del Tredici’s early works, in a more dissonant idiom, also focused obsessively on a single author – this time, James Joyce. The fruits of their union were many (1960–1966): Six Songs on Texts of James JoyceI Hear an ArmyNight Conjure–Verse and the tour de force for soprano and 16 instruments, Syzygy.

In Del Tredici’s Post–Alice world, he has taken a startlingly different tack –– to create a body of music that celebrates his own gay sexuality. Among these is Gay Life (poetry of Ginsberg, Monette and Gunn; commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony), Love Addiction (a baritone/piano song cycle to poetry of John Kelly commissioned in honor of the composers 70th birthday), and Wondrous the Merge (a melodrama for baritone and string quartet to the poetry of James Broughton). The recentBullycide for piano and string sextet, a composition dealing with gay teen suicide as a result of bullying, has garnered Mr. Del Tredici considerable media attention. OUT Magazine has twice named the composer one of its People of the Year.

Del Tredici has also been active in the intimate world of chamber music. His recent works include two string quartets (commissioned by the Da Ponte and Orion string quartets), Magyar Madness (a clarinet quintet for David Krakauer and the Orion string quartet), and Grand Trio (for the Kalichstein–Laredo–Robinson Trio). Quite suddenly, too, there has been a profusion of works for solo piano reflecting Del Tredici’s own musical beginnings as a piano prodigy. These include MandangoGotham GloryThree Gymnopedies, and S/M Ballade. Boosey & Hawkes has published two volumes of works for solo piano solo.

Ever extravagant, Del Tredici remains a forceful presence on the musical scene. While Composer–In–Residence with the New York Philharmonic in the 90’s, Leonard Bernstein recorded his orchestral piece Tattoo, and Zubin Mehta recorded both Haddocks’ Eyes, and Steps, a work written during his tenure at the Philharmonic. Paul Revere’s Ride for soprano, chorus, and orchestra was commissioned by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, nominated for the 49th annual Grammy Awards as the Best New Classical Composition and issued on a Teldec CD. Rip Van Winkle, commissioned by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra, is an adaptation of the iconic Longfellow story for narrator and orchestra, and was premiered by Broadway superstar Brian Stokes Mitchell.

Among the upcoming CD’s is a disc for E–1 with the world premiere recordings of A Field Manual, and i. Other recent discs include two All–Del Tredici CD’s –– one from Deutsche Grammophon featuring Oliver Knussen and the Netherlands’ ASKO Ensemble –– the other, by pianist Marc Peloquin, is the first of four discs recording Del Tredici’s complete piano works on Naxos Records.

Del Tredici has been, for more than 25 years, Distinguished Professor of Music at The City College of New York. He lives in Manhattan’s West Village.

In the Composer’s Own Words

Dracula is a 20-minute setting of Alfred Corn’s poem, “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count” It is written for a soprano-narrator and thirteen players: flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass-clarinet), trumpet, horn, percussion (two players), theremin, piano (doubling on celesta) and a quintet of strings.

The text retells the famous gothic tale from the point of view of a woman living next-door to “the distinguished count” In five scenes, the poem chronicles her initial disinterest, gradual seduction, then degradation, rejection and, finally, “vampiristic” transformation.

The piece makes enormous demands upon the soprano soloist, who must speak even more than she sings and, when singing, must negotiate over three octaves — from the D below middle-C (when conjuring up the voice of the count) to the E-flat above high-C (when depicting the woman in extremis).

The instrumental ensemble is perhaps most notable for the inclusion of the theremin — the exotic, other-worldly-sounding electronic instrument that evoked “horror” and “mystery” in early Hollywood films. Most of the poem is written in the past tense ” the woman is telling us what happened. When the narrative reaches the present and Dracula himself comes to her “for the last time,” the theremin ” with its whooshes and wails ” announces itself, personifying the (excitingly) depraved count.

Singing, in Dracula, is reserved for special occasions, such as when the count himself speaks or when the woman is most overwrought. As well, at key moments throughout the setting, I repeat, like an incantation, certain texts of the menacing count (“I come to you, dearest, because you think / Of me. An irresistible summons”) and of the ecstatic woman (How often I long to stay profoundly asleep / And never be conscious again.”).

Midway through the musical discourse, there is a fugue (the count’s “troop of haggard followers … congregate”) and a final aria of transformation wherein the soprano’s high-flying voice and the wail of the theremin merge as one….

The piece touches many emotional levels. With the use of the theremin, copious amounts of wind-machine and roiling bass drum, “scary” is a primary reaction —; as is “funny.” Nervous giggles and startled gasps would not be unwelcome here. Deeper down, the listener confronts the more ominous world of addiction, betrayal and obsession. And inevitably, there comes the ultimate degradation ” a faustian bargain with a devilish price: devolution into the living dead.

Watch this 2014 performance of David Del Tredici’s Dracula by American Modern Ensemble; David Alan Miller, conductor, and Nancy Allen Lundy, soprano and narrator: