Lewis Carroll, it is clear, especially cherished the words 'golden afternoon.' That phrase seems charged with the emotional resonance of the entire scene (described in the note for Child Alice as a whole). Correspondingly, I use the first line of the poem (which contains these words) as a unifying, recurrent refrain, quite separate from the poetic context. Indeed, as the piece progresses, and especially at the end, the appearance of the words 'All in the golden afternoon' seems always to bring forth from the orchestra its warmest response.
The poem, (the preface poem to the published version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) set in a jauntier fashion in Quaint Events, becomes in the opening Aria an elaborate, rapturous scene in A-flat major. Verses I and II form a unit and are set to music suggestive of the languor ('cloudless blue above...the boat drifting idly...') of that afternoon.
Verse III brings a 'bright gleam of life' to the 'slumberous scene' with new melodic material and a quickening of the tempo. A brief interlude with bird-calls paints a picture of the 'nonsense' that Secunda 'in gentler tones' requests. ('Prima,' 'Secunda,' and 'Tertia' are the three Liddell sisters; Alice was 'Secunda.') This verse ends grandly, but the energy is quickly dissipated ('Anon, to sudden silence won'). Verse IV restores the Aria's opening calm while moving gradually to the recitative-like character of Verse V. Verse VI is an exact recapitulation of the music of Verse I, though several obbligato lines are added, Verse VII forms a musical coda, extending further the dreamy mood.
A connecting interlude recalls the very first measures of Part I and leads to the second section — Fantasia for orchestra alone. It begins quietly with the melody of the Marcia played by a muted trumpet. At first this melody is heard beneath a curiously varied reminiscence of the Aria melody, and then, as the music begins to crescendo and modulate, the two motives are heard in alternation. A sudden stop interrupts this flow and precedes what I had, in an early sketch, called Bagatelle-Burlesque — a tiny, almost self-contained Allegro section, which is really two pieces going on at once. In a sudden smorzando, this section vanishes, and the harmony once more begins to modulate while the tempo continues to quicken. This leads to the Grandioso — a Quodlibet of the two themes which, in terms of decibels employed and sustained, is perhaps the sonic climax of the piece.
As Carroll returned again and again to the memory of that 'golden afternoon,' so too do I cling to the stanzas of his haunting poem, and I have set again, as a Lullaby, the last two of these. The verses now receive a simple, almost strophic setting, though they are separated by an orchestral interlude of some intensity. At the conclusion of the final verse, the Lullaby mood is destroyed and what is left is, I like to fancy, the ultimate distillation of Carroll's (and my own?) feelings: a melismatic, almost mad Cadenza upon the single word 'Alice!'
Since this word also begins the final verse of the poem I have, against all reason, set those lines yet a third time. In a final, dramatic setting, I try to paint that inextricable mingling of the Carrollian sentiments, rapture and regret — rapture, in the glowing, even gaudy orchestral color and glimmering figurations, and regret in the stabblingly dissonant progression of chords that underlies it all.
In Conclusion (Sunset): As the very beginning of Child Alice suggests morning — sunrise — now evening and sunset are evoked. A-flat major has returned, with its associations of calm, contentment, peace — only occasionally does color burst from the setting sun. Steadily pulsating strings support a glowing texture, over which the soprano, as if from a great distance, floats, again and again, the poem's opening line — 'All in a golden afternoon.' "
– DAVID DEL TREDICI