By Eric Dundon
On April 14, 1980, the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Music was awarded to David del Tredici, a 43-year-old Californian who composed a nearly hour-long work inspired by Lewis Carroll stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. He titled the piece In Memory of a Summer Day.
The commissioning orchestra? The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
A few years earlier, SLSO Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin—then at the onset of his distinguished tenure as SLSO Music Director—heard the world premiere of del Tredici’s Final Alice given by the Chicago Symphony. Slatkin, a champion of new music throughout his storied career, was immediately interested in commissioning del Tredici to compose a work for the SLSO for its 100th anniversary in 1980. The SLSO performed Final Alice in 1977 before giving the world premiere of del Tredici’s new work based on Carroll’s writings.
The result was In Memory of a Summer Day for solo soprano and orchestra, which used text from Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. The February 1980 world premiere featuring soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson was received warmly by St. Louis audiences, with a review noting the standing ovation given to the orchestra, Slatkin, and del Tredici. The piece, which runs more than an hour, is structured with the soprano singing extended arias at the beginning and end, with a lengthened orchestral march in the middle.
Frank Peters, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch music editor, described the piece as “a skillfully made, ingratiating work.” He compared portions of the piece to Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. After del Tredici’s won the Pulitzer, Slatkin said he thought the award was also an acknowledgment and appreciation for the earlier Final Alice work.
Slatkin told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was “very grateful that [the SLSO was] able to commission a work the Pulitzer Prize Committee has chosen to honor.”
Echoing the excitement was David Hyslop, then the SLSO’s executive director. The prize, Hyslop said, “reaffirms the [SLSO’s] commitment to outstanding talents in the United States.”
Del Tredici went on to have an extraordinary career, especially noted for his chamber music work and works that explore his own identity. His relationship with Slatkin flourished, and he composed Rip Van Winkle, also inspired by iconic literature, at the behest of Slatkin for the National Symphony Orchestra.
The SLSO’s commitment to musical voices of today continues today under Music Director Stéphane Denève’s leadership. In the 2021/2022 season, the SLSO performed four world premieres by Stefan Freund, Stacy Garrop, Nathalie Joachim, and Christopher Stark, along with a U.S. premiere by Anna Clyne. The 2022/2023 season will see world premieres of pieces of Guillaume Connesson, James Lee III, Kevin Puts, and a U.S. premiere by Helen Grime.
The St. Louis Symphony: Live at the Pulitzer series presents solo and chamber music by composers of today in collaboration with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. That series has seen pieces performed by more than 65 composers of our time.
Del Tredici’s award is the only Pulitzer Prize associated with the SLSO, although several prize-winning composers have close associations with the SLSO, including William Bolcom, Kevin Puts, and Joseph Schwantner.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.