Alice Through the Looking-Glass


A “Family Opera” for small orchestra and singers.

Text and music by William Osborne, based on the book of Lewis Carroll




Deutsche Fassung 


Table of Contents


1. General Description

2. A video score and orchestral simulation without the vocal parts.

3. The Alice Song Cycle In Enlighs and German

4. Program Notes

5. Orchestral scores and parts



1. General Description


A children’s opera for chamber orchestra and singers based on Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass. (55 minutes.) 


Instrumentation:  strings,  2 fl., 2 ob., 1 cl., 2 bsn., 1 trpt., 2 horns, strings, 1 perc., 1 harp.

(Woodwind doublings: Piccolo, English horn, E-b clarinet, B-b Bass Clarinet, Contrabassoon)



(If needed, some of the parts can be sung by the same singers playing different roles.)


Alice, soprano

Lewis Carroll, baritone 

White King, tenor

White Queen, soprano

Humpty-Dumpty, baritone

Tiger-Lily, alto

Rose, soprano,

Two Daisys, sopranos

Tweedledee, baritone

Tweedledum, baritone

Sheep, tenor

Unicorn, tenor

White Knight, baritone

Royal attendant, tenor



Most of the material for this opera was composed around 1976.  Some additional material was added in 1984.  It was orchestrated in late 1984 and early 1985, and was premiered in by the Israel Chamber Orchestra in March 1985 in a Hebrew translation.  In 2019, William made significant revisions to the work.


In the mid 1970s, William was studying with George Crumb so the opera bears his influence—the use of 8ths as beat units so that the extra ligatures better illustrate the music, the long afterglow ending, the emulation of sounds of nature, the postmodern neo-romanticism, the musical quotations, and the pervasive sense that there’s something magical about music, that it’s an incantation to lead us to other worlds.  The original concept of the work was more avant-garde, centered around sound art and a small ensemble using many special effects.  Examples are here and here.

Lewis Carroll first told the story when he took Alice and her sisters for a boat ride down the Thames, hence the reoccurring quote from Chopin’s Barcarole (the left-hand figure beginning with arpeggiated open fifths,) the hint of Tristan in the final song (that virtually no one will catch,) the allusions to the dreamworld of Das Lied von der Erde

We were living in a ghetto in Philadelphia at the time. A woman (also a student) was stabbed to death right in front of our row house apartment, but we still lived in a world of hopes and dreams that students so often have. A nurse who was a neighbor regularly fed the birds in her back yard which led to a daily chorus of song right out our window. The interlude in the first song and “The Garden of Live Flowers” are pretty much literal quotations of those bird songs which reoccur throughout the cycle.

So many composers have approached the Alice books by highlighting their absurdity, but William’s goal was to capture the way the books are a portrait of Lewis Carroll himself, and above all Carroll's love for children. The composition faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, where George Crumb was a member, was the first to strongly advocate a break from serialism and a return to tonality. William had been writing 12-tone music, but through George’s influence wrote this largely tonal work. The lyricism seemed better suited to capture Lewis Carroll’s much overlooked neo-romanticism, his sense of wonder, and devotion to children.


2. A video score and orchestral simulation.



This is an orchestral simulation without the solo voices. A piano outlines the vocal parts when they are not doubled by an orchestra instrument. By following the score you can read the words the characters sing.  (See also the German version of the songs below.) There is also a full ochestral perfromance below by the Israel Chamber Orchestra of the opera's last song.)The work is in ten chapters:

I. Prelude: 0:00
II. Looking-Glass House: 2:42
III. The Garden of Live Flowers: 12:23
IV. Tweedledee and Tweedledum: 15:36
V. Wool and Water: 18:49
VI. Humpty-Dumpty: 23:40
VII. The Lion and the Unicorn: 30:43
VIII. The White Knight: 34:11
IX. Queen Alice: 38:46
X. Which Dreamed It?: 42:03




A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky (from the staging of the opera by the Israel Chamber Orchesta in March 1985.  Sung in Hebrew.)



3.  A Song Cycle Taken from Alice


There is also a cycle of six songs for soprano and baritone taken from the opera in both English and German. (Scroll down for the video score of the German version.) The titles of the six songs included in this cycle are below and hyperlinked to where they begin in the video score.  Farther down is a performance of the first song, "Kind mit der kalren Stirne du," by Yaron Windmueller and Leonore Hall recordedin 1984.


1. Child of the Pure Unclouded Brow (baritone.)

2. The Jabberwocky (soprano)

3. The Garden of Live Flowers (soprano)

4. In Winter (duo)

5. Little Fishes (baritone)

6. A-Sitting On A Gate (baritone)

7. A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky (duo)




The German version of the song cycle.  (The same German setting could be used for the full orchestral opera.)


1. Kind mit der klaren Stirne du  (Bariton)

2. Der Zipferlake  (Sopran)

3. Im Garten der sprechenden Blumen  (Sopran)

4. Im Winter  (duo)

4. Kleine Fische  (duo)

5. Hoch droben auf der Pforten  (Bariton)

6. Ach, jenes Boot am Uferrain  (duo)





Kind mit der klaren Stirne du recorded by Yaron Wind Mueller and Lenonore Hall in 1984.



4. Program Notes


The opera begins with Lewis Carroll singing the poem that opens his book Alice Through the Looking-Glass.  The verses lovingly commemorate the day he first extemporized the story for Alice as they drifted down the Thames in a rowboat--July 4, 1862.  We go to Alice's house, where she discovers that she can step through a mirror into the "Looking-Glass World"--a land laid out like a huge chess board inhabited with living chess pieces and amusing characters from English fairy-tales.  Like a pawn in a chess game, Alice journeys across the board meeting these fantastic beings, and eventually becomes a Queen.  A banquet is held in her honor, but it turns nightmarish, and she awakens to discover that her "Looking-Glass World" was all just a dream. Lewis reappears, and he and Alice sing the poem that closes the book, again recalling the "golden afternoon" on the Thames when he first told her the story. 


The beauty of Lewis Carroll's books is that they appeal to both children and adults, and I wrote this opera in that spirit. His work embodies a child's world of fantasy and make-believe, but one can also find wry commentary on the logical absurdities of language, the violent imagery of fairy-tales, and the foibles of his Oxford colleagues. I hope the work will appeal to whole families.  


As Alice moves across the checkerboard land, each new square brings a new character or set of characters into her life. Each character is centered around a specific musical instrument according to the table below.  This deliniates the characters and helps more observant children learn about the instruments of the orchestra:


The White King


The White Queen


The Tiger Lily   

English Horn

The Rose

E-flat Clarinet




Bass Clarinet

The Sheep




The Unicorn

Enlish Horn

The White Knight



Lewis Carroll's keen sense of the ephemerality of life fills his books with scenes of transformation that children love. In this ever-flowing universe the White Queen turns into a sheep, the notations in the White King's memorandum book transform into the drama of the Jabberwocky, scented rushes teasingly vanish into thin air, and unicorns float in and out of sight.  This ephemerality is most poignant when the White Knight sadly watches his dear Alice run down a hill with tearless and eager eyes to become a Queen. 


This could be a world of existential horror, but Lewis Carroll meets it with a wry and sardonic humor tempered by a deep sense of kindness and generosity.  It is his compassion for childhood that gives the books their most beautiful character and meaning. He reveals the "eternal child" in all of us. As the opera closes, Lewis Carroll simply asks, "Life, what is it but a dream?"


5.  Here are PDF files of the scores and parts:

Full orchestral score    (tabloid size or A3)

Full Piano score of the opera    (concert paper 9x12 inches or 22.86x30.48 cm, print on tabloid or A3 and trim to size.)

Six Songs From Alice Through the Looking-Glass

Sechs Lieder von Alice hinter den Spiegln

Orchestral parts    (concert paper  9x12 inches or 22.86x30.48 cm, print on tabloid or A3 and trim to size)

violin I, violin II, viola, cello, contrabass, flute I, flute II, oboe I, oboe II (plus English horn), clarinet (plus e-flat and bass clarinet), bassoon I, bassoon II (plus contrabassoon), trumpet, horn I, horn II, harp, percussion.