Lewis Carroll and Thomas Moore (E)
Is the White Knight, who sings Alice his famous nonsense song in Through the Looking-Glass, really a caricature of Lewis Carroll himself? Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, thinks so.
Like the knight, Carroll had shaggy hair, mild blue eyes, a kind and gentle face. Like the knight, his mind seemed to function best when it saw things in topsy-turvy fashion. . . Of all the characters Alice meets on her two dream adventures, only the White Knight seems to be genuinely fond of her and to offer her special assistance... His melancholy farewell may be Carroll's farewell to Alice when she grew up (became a queen) and abandoned him. At any rate, we hear loudest in this episode that "shadow of a sigh" that Carroll tells us in his prefatory poem will "tremble through the story."
This interpretation of the eccentric Knight won me over the moment I read it. Music, I realized, could not only serve his madcap verse but could, as well, bring to life a touchingly personal dimension.
I learned further from Mr. Gardner that when Alice says, "But the tune isn't his own invention, it's 'I give thee all I can no more,'" she is actually quoting the opening line of a Thomas Moore poem, My Heart and Lute. Reading Moore's complete text reveals a lyric full of yearning and unrequited love. Is Carroll hinting here at the true depth of his infatuation for the real life Alice? The thought quickened my musical pulse—unrequited love, after all, has enjoyed a long and singularly requited association with music.
Finally, Gardner declares, "It is quite possible that Carroll regarded Moore's love lyric as the song that he, the White Knight, would have liked to sing to Alice but dared not." Well, I thought, if he dares not sing his song than I will! The desire to set these diverse yet provocatively conjoined texts became irresistible, so much so, in fact, that one night I dreamed the first two measures of the WHITE KNIGHT'S SONG. That led to the hard part—believing in, accepting such a mysterious serendipity. However, once those "dream" notes were written down the whole piece seemed quite suddenly to just be. Each day, while I sat at the piano, the music would come unbidden, unexpected, and unpremeditated, leaving me in a state of exhaustion and excitement. Twenty such days provided the twenty minutes of Haddocks' Eyes.
At the center of the piece I have placed Moore's "forbidden" love lyric. This ARIA is preceded by a CADENZA and followed by an INTERLUDE. Moving further from the center, dual settings of the WHITE KNIGHT'S SONG form the next "surround." Completing the symmetrical frame, standing as the outermost parentheses, as it were, are an INTRODUCTION and a FAREWELL.
In the spoken INTRODUCTION, Gardner suggests, "Carroll is distinguishing among things, the name of things, and the name of the name of things. To a student of logic and semantics all this is perfectly sensible." The WHITE KNIGHT'S SONG (I) is a "patter" song, the words spilling out with increasing frenzy as the blissfully confused Knight careens from one hilariously cracked image o another. The musical setting is meant to be at once funny, brusque and breathless—a kind of infernal perpetuel mobile machine ever in danger of flying apart. Only at the penultimate line, "That summer evening long ago," Joes the music mellow. Indeed, as the piece progresses this line becomes a crucial motif, bearing the listener again and again to the rapturous, bittersweet depths of Carrollian sentiment for child friends now grown, gone.
A CADENZA of glittering piano virtuosity leads to the central ARIA: My Heart and Lute.
In stark contrast to knightly nonsense this revelatory poem is set as a love song of unabashed romantic expression. Beginning tenderly, horn trailing canonically behind the voice, the music rises two times to climactic outpourings with the words "I give thee all, I can no more." A final repetition of "no more!" has its inevitable effect: the amorous mood is shattered and the music abruptly breaks off. An agitated, churning INTERLUDE follows.
The WHITE KNIGHT'S SONG (II) recapitulates the opening music in a new. gracefully capricious guise. Knightly madness, however, reappears, whipping the music to a manic froth. A triumphant affirmation of "That summer evening long ago" caps the section.
FAREWELL (QUODLIBET): The White Knight's tune is now combined with the melody of the ARIA. Against a shimmering background the soprano recites a quintessentially Carrollian text of fond farewell and nostalgic regret. The piece concludes, however, with a bit of knightly confusion:
"That summer evening long ago,
A-sitting on a gate."
Which line should end the poem? The knight tries one, then the other. He combines bits of each. Finally, as the music vanishes, nonsense reigns.
"long ago, on a gate
long ago, a gate
ago, a gate
Haddocks' Eyes was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and is dedicated to Sylvie Keiser. The piece was written during a residence at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
– DAVID DEL TREDICI