The LSO revels in fresh musical takes on Lewis Carroll's perennially popular Alice.
Wonderland Suite (2015)
The idea for Wonderland Suite came after a discussion with Professor Kiera Vaclavik from Queen Mary University of London. She had undertaken a fascinating research project exploring Alice’s physical appearance in order to gain a better understanding of Victorian perceptions of her character. Kiera had been collaborating with an impressive number of partners including the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood (Young V&A) and the design department at Liberty Art Fabrics. Having extensively examined the ‘Alice look’, she now wondered about the ‘Alice sound’.
Through generous support from QMUL’s HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) Collaboration Fund, Kiera and I began to research some of the earliest surviving music inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. Deep in the archives of the British Library we uncovered piles of dusty old sheet music, though we quickly found there was good reason for most of this material being unknown. It appears that Wonderland, to a Victorian music publisher, was nothing more than a cheap marketing tool aimed at drawing people to their latest collection of piano pieces. Despite some attractive packaging, almost all the music we looked at had little to do with Alice or her adventures underground.
Having set out to discover how Victorian composers represented Carroll’s iconic characters, we found just a single page of music specifically labelled Alice. This short piano piece by Arthur Cleveland presented Alice in the same saccharine style as the Disney cartoon character of the 1950s, rather than the feisty heroine in Carroll’s book. Though, I wondered, would it be possible to use something from this manuscript as the basis of a more contemporary orchestral work?
Armed with eight bars of Cleveland’s manuscript, Carroll’s ground-breaking text and most importantly Kiera’s brilliant mind, I set out to write a 20-minute concert suite inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was never my intention to retell the entire narrative—clearly that is an impossible task in the time available—though my music does follow the basic shape of the book: beginning with Alice by the riverbank, the appearance of the White Rabbit and then her descent into Wonderland. Across nine movements, you will meet some (though not all) of the madcap creatures Alice encounters. It’s worth noting that although the Alice books are full of song lyrics, I decided to create my libretto using character dialogue instead.
With this commission, there was one other, extremely important thing for me to consider—participation. From the outset, this new work was designed—I guess from the ground down!—as a vehicle for young people to perform alongside the world-class musicians of the LSO. And so, 150 years after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, thousands of school children came to the Barbican Concert Hall to sing Lewis Carroll’s words accompanied by the full force of the LSO.
Through the Looking-Glass (2022)
Exactly 150 years after the publication of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Professor Kiera and I started exploring Carroll’s sequel. We set out to condense the essence of Looking-Glass into a second, interactive orchestral work, though it proved impossible to be as concise as we were with Wonderland. However, we did find a way to squeeze the main elements of Looking-Glass into a 30-minute work!
Unlike the Wonderland Suite, which is essentially a collection of character pieces, this new work has Lewis Carroll’s narrative woven through the music—a bit like Peter and the Wolf. And so here, we accompany Alice on a new adventure through the looking-glass to discover what lies beyond.
Once again, research began in the archives of the British Library. This time, we found a collection of songs composed by William Boyd, the first of which was entitled To the Looking-Glass World. Boyd had set song lyrics taken straight from Carroll’s book and so this music seemed like the perfect launching point for our new project. Boyd’s jolly melody ended up influencing every single movement of my score (even when my score is not so jolly) and you hear it in its original form in the eighth movement.
Just like the Wonderland Suite, this piece was designed to invite young people to perform with the LSO. Although the vocal parts on this album are recorded by a quartet of magnificent professional singers, everything in the score can be simplified to become perfectly singable by young, untrained voices. You can find out more about opportunities for participation on our dedicated website:
Paul Rissmann © 2023