Born on March 16, 1937, in Cloverdale, CA. Education: Graduated from University of California at Berkeley, 1959; master's degree in fine arts, Princeton University, 1964. Addresses: Record company--Composers Recordings, 73 Spring St., Suite 506, New York, NY 10012-5800, website: Management--Fine Arts Management, 75 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, website:

Spanning almost a half-century, David Del Tredici's career as a composer has ranged from early explorations of avant-garde, atonal music to lush, neo-Romantic compositions. Often inspired by literature, he has incorporated the works of James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul Monette into his pieces. Although Del Tredici spent almost two decades writing works based on Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, he turned to more personal subject matter for the 2001 premiere of his Gay Life song cycle. Overcoming a series of crises that included the death of a lover from AIDS, Del Tredici now looked forward to bringing a new range of subject matter into the classical music cannon. "I've written a lot of songs celebrating sexuality, things that go places that classical music is not supposed to go," he told the San Jose Mercury News. "I'm very interested in legitimizing a whole range of emotions in music in a way that hasn't been done before. I do it for myself. I spent a lot of years with a lot of things hidden, and at this point in my life, I want to do it another way."

Del Tredici was born on March 16, 1937, in the northern California town of Cloverdale. His talent as a pianist was recognized early on: as an 18 year old, Del Tredici performed as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony, leading him to joke years later to the Mercury News, "I was an old child prodigy." Entering the University of California at Berkeley, the young pianist studied composition with Seymour Shifrin. After composing a number of works based on the poems of James Joyce, Del Tredici completed his degree in 1959. The young composer also studied under Roger Sessions at Princeton University, where he received a master's degree in fine arts in 1964.

During this period, Del Tredici composed a number of works that followed along in the modernist trends of the day. Predominant styles such as serial writing--in which a short series of notes was repeated throughout a piece with changes in note order and pitch--were often more rewarding as an intellectual pursuit than as works that proved popular with audiences. As a 1996 American Record Guide review described Del Tredici's pieces from the period, "He started out in the fifties and early sixties as a modernist wunderkind, a master of the most extreme and organized serial writing.... It's hard listening, but the talent and technical virtuosity of this fearsomely difficult music still shine through." Indeed, Del Tredici built his early career as an academic, with stints at Harvard University from 1966 to 1972, at Boston University from 1973 to 1984, and at the City University of New York (CUNY) after 1984. Eventually, Del Tredici was named a Distinguished Professor of Music at CUNY, and he enjoyed terms in residence at the New York Philharmonic and Yale University in addition to winning numerous fellowships and grants.

After composing music for everything from string quartets ("I Hear an Army," 1964) to chamber ensembles ("Night Conjure-Verse," 1965) to orchestras (Syzygy, 1966), Del Tredici found inspiration in Lewis Carroll's classic piece of literature, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Significantly, the turn to such fantasy literature from the Victorian Age marked a dramatic shift in the composer's musical style. Gone were the complex and sometimes frustrating explorations of serial music; in their place, a much more accessible and romantic style was now emphasized. Beginning in 1968, he worked on An Alice Symphony, a lengthy work that was finally completed in 1975. He also composed a four-part orchestra piece, "Child Alice," from 1977 to 1981. The works were immensely popular with audiences, with initial releases of the Alice recordings becoming best-selling works on the classical music charts. The pieces were also performed by symphony orchestras across the country. Critics acclaimed Del Tredici's turn to more romantic themes as well; the first part of "Child Alice," "In Memory of a Summer Day," which debuted in 1980, won Del Tredici the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Del Tredici explained his long-running fascination with Carroll in a National Public Radio (NPR) interview in 2001: "I identified with Lewis Carroll as a man with a sexual secret, and I love the way that he managed to transmute all of that sadness and desire, frustration into charming whimsy, and much as I feel I try to do with music, to translate these feelings into something that could be looked at and could be shown and could be lovable." In the 1980s, however, just as his work was heralded by critics and audiences alike, the composer found himself struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality. Later recalling his fight against alcoholism and sex addiction during this period, Del Tredici said that his partner's death from AIDS in 1993 marked a turning point, both personally and professionally. After attending a retreat for gay men, Del Tredici decided to integrate his sexuality into his work. "I'd been in a holding pattern compositionally," he told the Mercury News. "I realized that I had the urge to be one person, not to have a surface and have to hide being gay. I wanted to celebrate being a gay man. And that led to 'Gay Life.'"

Although there were many notable gay composers in twentieth-century classical music--Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein among them--perhaps only John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 (commonly known as the "AIDS Symphony") and "Rage and Remembrance" took up the theme of homosexuality as Del Tredici intended to do. Obviously, he would have to break with his long pattern of drawing on Lewis Carroll; as a sign of encouragement, however, he received a commission from Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, to complete the work. Excited by the challenge, the composer began to select pieces of literature that explored various facets of gay life. When he encountered Beat-era icon Allen Ginsberg at a conference, as he later related to The Advocate, Del Tredici told the poet, "I'm looking for something really dirty to set to music." Ginsberg responded by giving Del Tredici his Collected Poems, one of which, "Personal Ads," became part of a six-song cycle, Gay Life. The work also included poems from Paul Monette, Michael D. Calhoun, W.H. Kidde, and Thom Gunn. The work marked both an artistic and a personal triumph for the composer. "I no longer want to pretend and I'm not sure what the repercussions might be," he told The Advocate. "I can survive and be a serious composer and be gay. It has fallen [to] me to do it. One generation's silence can become the next generation's nectar."

The debut of Gay Life at the San Francisco Symphony in May of 2001 was only the most visible of a slew of new projects for Del Tredici. In May of 1998, the New York Philharmonic premiered his "The Spider and the Fly" under conductor Kurt Masur; that October, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players debuted "Chana's Story." Del Tredici also composed an orchestral work, Dracula, for the Eos Orchestra, which premiered in March of 1999. He also collaborated with performance artist John Kelly on the multimedia piece "Brother: Songs My Mother Never Taught Me," which had its New York debut in May of 2001. With a resurgence of interest in Del Tredici's compositions, a compilation album, Secret Music: A Songbook, was released in 2001.

A respected composer and something of an icon in the gay community, Del Tredici emerged from a dark phase to enjoy the most prolific and celebrated period in his long career. "Find your secret music, whatever it is," he encouraged other young artists in an NPR profile. "Try and put it out there, and endure the embarrassment or shame you might feel ... because there's untold riches about opening your heart."

by Timothy Borden

David Del Tredici's Career

Performed as solo pianist, San Francisco Symphony, 1955; composed series of works based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; taught at Harvard University, 1966-72, Boston University, 1973-84, and the City University of New York (CUNY), 1984-; premiered Gay Life song cycle with San Francisco Symphony, 2001.

David Del Tredici's Awards

Pulitzer Prize in Music for "In Memory of a Summer Day," 1980.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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