I know that Deems Taylor is not British, but I feel that the new release of his Suite, ‘Through the Looking Glass’ on the Naxos CD label is so important that it deserves a little bit of creative license. Besides there could be no-one more British than Lewis Carroll! I have been helped in this short essay by the programme notes devised by Felix Borowski and the Deems Taylor himself. I hope to write some more about Taylor and this piece in later posts.
In spite of a course of musical lessons from a certain Oscar Coon, Deems Taylor was a self-taught composer. His earliest achievements were in journalism where was a reviewer for the New York World. He resigned from that post in 1921 to concentrate on compositions. The Suite ‘Through the Looking Glass’ was originally written during the Great War – 1917-19 and was then scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano and strings. This arrangement was first heard at a concert of the New York Chamber Music Society on 18 February 1919. After this the composer rescored the work for full orchestra and it was heard in this form at a New York Symphony Orchestra concert under Walter Damroach on 10 March 1923.
The composer wrote in the programme notes that ‘the suite needs no extended analysis. It is based on Lewis Carroll’s immortal nonsense fairy-tale, ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There,’ and the five pictures it presents will, if all goes well, be readily recognizable to lovers of the book. There are four movements, the first being subdivided into two parts.’
The opening movement begins with a ‘Dedication’. Deems Taylor has musically described the author’s preface to the work – ‘Child of the pure, unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder!’ This leads straight into ‘The Garden of Live Flowers ‘which is descriptive of the Looking Glass Garden flora which spoke to each other. The next movement is a little bit more sinister. The ‘frightful’ beast the Jabberwock is described. Here a little march heralds the approach of the hero. The ensuing fight is musically represented with a short fugue. Taylor has noted that ‘his vorpal blade (really the xylophone) goes ‘snicker-snack’ and the monster impersonated by the double bassoon, dies a lingering and convulsive death.’
The third movement is The Looking Glass Insects. The composer has cleverly portrayed all these ‘favourites’ - the Rocking-Horse Fly, the Gnat, the Bee-Elephant, the Snap-Dragon Fly and the Bread-and-Butterfly. Deems Taylor has suggested that there are several themes running through his movements but advises against trying to allocate theme to fly! Finally, the last movement is a brilliant portrayal of The White Knight. Taylor has made use of two themes here; he suggests that ‘the first [is] a sort of instrumental prance, being the knight’s own conception of himself as a slashing dare-devil fellow. The second is bland, mellifluous, a little sentimental –much more like the knight he really was.’