Chapter I: The Brass Tunnel
Alice leaned over the railing of the box and gazed, fascinated, at the broad stage below her. It was filled with gentlemen all dressed exactly alike in tail coats and striped trousers, and seated in half-circles so that they all faced toward a little raised platform which stood at the center of the front edge of the stage. Round the platform was a brass railing, and behind the platform was a kind of desk made of beautifully carved wood. It was not the platform, however, nor the desk - nor even the gentlemen in tail coats - that interested Alice, but the strange looking objects which the gentlemen held in their hands or between their knees, or which stood upon the floor beside them. These peculiar objects were of so many different shapes and sizes, and there were so many of them that Alice was quite bewildered. Some were long and thin, some were short and fat, some seemed to be made of wood, some of silver, and some of brass, and each one seemed to be busily engaged in making a different kind of noise, for there rose from the stage a most extraordinary jumble of sounds. Alice was surprised, for she knew that the queer-looking objects were supposed to be musical instruments, and the sounds they were making did not sound at all like music.
"Perhaps," thought Alice, "they are having a sort of musical Caucus race - the kind of race in which everyone starts when he pleases, and runs in any direction he pleases, and leaves off when he pleases - and everybody wins a prize."
Alice, you should know, was not the same little girl who fell down the rabbit hole and had all those exciting adventures with the Dodo and the Duchess and other remarkable people, but she had read all about that other Alice and was rather proud that she had the same name as the little girl in the story. She was sure that they must be distantly related - third or fourth cousins, perhaps - and she wished that she too might fall down a rabbit hole or get through a looking-glass into Wonderland. Indeed, she was confident that some day she would find her way into that delightful country, so she kept her eyes open for likely-looking mirrors and rabbit holes, and was ready to follow the very first white rabbit she saw with a watch and a waistcoat.
Today Alice's mother had brought her to hear her first symphony concert, and she was very much excited about it. She was fond of music and took the greatest interest in her piano lessons - she practised an hour every day - but she had never seen or heard a symphony orchestra until this moment. The number and variety of the instruments astonished her, and she wondered whether they could possibly all play at once without getting mixed up. She wished she knew the names of all of them, and how they were played, and what sort of sound each one made. Her seat was almost directly over the right-hand side of the stage, so that she could see them all quite plainly, and she began to try to pick out the ones that she did know.
"There," she said to herself, "are the violins." (She recognized them because her brother Hugh had a violin on which he had recently begun to take lessons.) "But what a lot of them there are! Dozens and dozens! Why, they reach right across the stage in a double row - and there are lots more behind them. And those big things at the back that look like giant violins are the bass viols - I know that. Oh! and there's a trombone - and another - and another. Three of them! I know them by the way they slide in and out. They look as if they went right down the men's throats. I wonder if they do. Now, let me see, are there any more that I know?" She looked carefully at all the instruments, but there were no others whose names she was sure of. One she thought might be a flute, and there were several, of different shapes and sizes, which she supposed were horns; but she was not at all certain.
One enormous instrument particularly fascinated Alice. It was made of gleaming brass and looked like a huge snake all coiled up with its mouth wide open. It was almost underneath the box in which Alice sat, and for a moment she had the unpleasant feeling that it had opened its great mouth in order to swallow her, as a boa constrictor swallows a sheep. She soon realized however, that such a notion was absurd.
"Of course it isn't really a boa constrictor," she told herself, "because it's made of brass - and besides, its mouth is really more like a funnel. It certainly looks big enough to swallow me; but if it did," she went on, smiling at the idea, "it would most likely choke to death, because its throat gets smaller and smaller all the way down to its tail. Now, I wonder where its throat ends and its tail begins?"
That was an extremely difficult question to answer, and Alice was still pondering over it when her speculations were interrupted by a loud clapping of hands. Looking up she saw a very elegantly dressed gentleman, also in a tail coat and striped trousers, who had just come through a door at the back of the stage. Making his way to the little platform with the brass railing, he mounted upon it and smiled and bowed to the audience. Then, turning round toward the orchestra, he rapped upon the desk with a little white stick, waited until everybody was quite still, and then gave the signal to the orchestra to begin to play.
Glancing at her programme, Alice was delighted to find that the first number was Mendelssohn's Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"Oh, how jolly!" she exclaimed to herself. "I wonder if there will be anything in it about Bottom and Puck and the other fairies!" For Alice was well acquainted with the charming people of Shakespeare's fairy play. She had not only read about them in Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare," but she had also seen the play performed, only the summer before, by a company of actors who had visited her school. So she leaned over the railing and listened very attentively.
At the first sound of the mysterious magic chords with which the overture begins, a spell seemed to fall upon the vast auditorium. The stage was changed, as if by a wave of Titania's fairy wand, into a lovely forest glade surrounded by giant oaks and flooded with silvery moonlight. For a moment all was still; not a leaf rustled, not a cricket chirped. Then, suddenly, came a sound of pattering feet, tinkling elfin laughter, and faintly, in the distance, a fanfare of tiny trumpets. Titania and her court were approaching. Nearer and nearer they came until finally with a lively fanfare from the fairy trumpets, the procession appeared in the moonlight and marched gaily round the glade. Preceded by her trumpeters and surrounded by her guard, who were armed with lances of sharpest spike-rush, rode Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Her chariot was a moon-flower drawn by six spirited fireflies; on her brow sparkled a diadem of tiny stars, and in her hand she held a shining wand.
With great pomp and ceremony the procession circled the glade and drew up at one side, and instantly a company of elfin dancers appeared before it and began to perform an entrancing ballet. Round and round they twirled, now in couples, now in groups, now joining hands in one great circle which revolved so swiftly that it made one dizzy to watch it. Again they would leap into the air and go whirling madly about among the tree-tops, their little wings humming like bumblebees and their laughter tinkling like silver bells.
All at once they were gone, and for a little while the glade was empty. Then from the depths of the forest came a loud and harsh "hee-haw!" and into the moonlight strode a most extraordinary creature. It had the body of a man, dressed in a leather jacket and short breeches, but its head was the grave and solemn head of a donkey. Alice recognized him at once: he was Bottom the weaver. He walked up and down the glade in a very pompous manner and attempted to sing a song, but he must have had a very bad cold in his head, for his voice was dreadfully hoarse and gruff.
When he had finished his song Bottom lay down upon a grassy bank and fell fast asleep, and he had hardly begun to snore when a very lively little elf all dressed in red came leaping and somersaulting down the glade, snatched off the donkey's head and darted away into the forest, leaving Bottom's own head in its proper place on his shoulders. Then all Bottom's friends - Peter Quince the carpenter, Snout the tinker, Starveling, Snug, and Flute - came out of the wood and wakened Bottom, and the whole company joined in a jolly and extremely comical dance. They danced themselves away at last, and then back came all the fairies - Queen Titania with King Oberon, followed by Puck and Peaseblossom and Mustardseed and all the rest - tripping, dancing, singing, and laughing as merrily as before.
But soon the first faint blush of dawn appeared. The night was nearly over, and, as no well-brought-up fairy ever stays out after daybreak, away they flitted to their homes in acorn cups and rosebuds, to sleep until the stars should wake again. And as they vanished the enchanted glade slowly faded away, the trees changed back into bass viols and the grassy banks into gentlemen in tail coats. The spell was ended.
Everybody applauded heartily. The conductor bowed with great dignity and went away through the door at the back of the stage; but as the applause continued he came back again and bowed once more and waved his hand at the orchestra, and all the gentlemen in tail coats stood up and looked very solemn. Alice did not applaud. She sat quite still and stared hard at the stage, hoping that the fairies would reappear; but it was no use - they refused to show themselves again. Presently Alice's mother leaned forward and said:
"How did you like it, dear?"
Alice turned round, her eyes bright with excitement. "Oh, Mother!" she exclaimed, "wasn't it wonderful! I saw Puck and Titania and Bottom and - and all, just as plain as could be!"
"Did you really?" said her mother. "Why, it must have been almost as good as seeing the play."
"It was better," Alice declared, emphatically, "lots better; because in the play the fairies were just grown-up people dressed like fairies, and these were real ones - little tiny ones, like the fairies in story books, with hats made out of buttercups and frocks made out of daffodils. Puck had wings exactly like a dragon fly's."
"How charming he must have looked!" said her mother.
"Didn't you see him too?" Alice inquired.
Her mother shook her head. "I'm afraid my eyes are not so sharp as yours," she said. "But I heard him quite clearly."
Alice was disappointed. It seemed to her that anyone should have been able to see the fairies-they were so plainly visible to her. But she said nothing more about it, and presently became interested again in looking at the various instruments of the orchestra. The one which looked like a brass boa constrictor still reared its enormous funnel-shaped mouth almost underneath Alice's seat. It seemed to yawn invitingly, as much as to say: "Won't you drop in for a moment? There's plenty of room - I'm sure you'd find it very comfortable and cozy."
"That's all very well," Alice thought, "but how should I get out again? Of course, if I were like the Alice in the story I could eat a little cake or a bit of mushroom or something and grow smaller and smaller until I was small enough to crawl right through and out at the end of its tail. That would be fun. I would't be any bigger than a fairy when I got out. I wonder if the fairies would let me come and dance with them? They might think I was a fairy too - only I shouldn't have any wings. I wonder if there are any fairies without wings. Of course, I might borrow some from a bumblebee or a butterfly or a moth. I think I should like a moth's wings best - they're so soft and downy."
It was a delightful idea, and Alice would very likely have gone on thinking about it until, in her imagination, she had got herself fitted out with a pair of wings of the most fasionable design, been crowned queen of the fairies, and had a row with Oberon into the bargain; but just then the conductor reappeared and prepared to begin the next number.
Looking again at her programme Alice learned that the next number was a "Symphony in C," by Schubert; but as she did not know what a "symphony" was she was little wiser than before. It proved, however, to be very agreeable to listen to. Its lovely melodies and warm, rich harmonies seemed to caress and lull Alice into a state of delicious dreaminess, and leaning back in her chair she closed her eyes in order to enjoy more fully this delightful sensation. She felt as if she were sitting in a swing which swayed gently to and fro in the shade of a spreading oak tree, while a gentle summer breeze fanned her cheeks and softly tousled her hair. The air was warm and drowsy, full of the scent of new-mown hay and the hum of bees, and Alice thought she would like to sit there with her eyes closed and dream daydreams for hours and hours. So she was rather annoyed when she heard a voice calling her name.
"Oh, dear!" she said to herself, "just when I was feeling so nice and comfy! Now I wonder who it can be that wants me."
The voice was very faint and far away, so Alice sat quite still with her eyes closed, thinking that she might have been mistaken. She was not mistaken, however, for soon she heard the voice again, faintly but quite distinctly, calling, "Alice! Alice!" So with a sigh she opened her eyes and sat up - and then she opened her mouth as well, and stared, and rubbed her eyes, and stared again; for what she saw was most surprising. Just in front of her was a high green hill, in the side of which was a circular opening like the entrance to a tunnel. Evidently it was a very long tunnel, for though Alice was looking directly into it she could not see the other end; and what seemed still more remarkable was that it appeared to be made entirely of polished brass. Alice was wondering how many barrels of brass polish it took to keep the tunnel so bright and shiny, and thinking that she shouldn't particularly care to have the job of polishing it every week, when she became aware that the voice was still calling her name, and that the sound undoubtedly came from inside the tunnel.
"Well," she said, aloud, "I'm sure I don't know who they are or what they want, but I s'pose I'd better go and find out." So she jumped out of the swing and went skipping down the long brass tunnel."
See what Alice saw just before the music began! View the Philharmonia Orchestra just before a concert. (This is a great picture - take the time to let it load.)
Orchestral Seating Arrangement from ThinkQuest. Click on the instrument names to learn more about the instrument.
What is a Symphony Orchestra?
How do they make those sounds? Visit Sound is Energy to find out.
Play the instruments of the orchestra! Visit the Musical Instrument Encyclopedia
Think you know it all? Take the Musical Instrument Quiz to find out.
Felix Mendelssohn & His "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
A little history from the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Hear the overture at The Mendelssohn Connection
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Photographs from the 1935 movie version of the play starring Mickey Rooney as Puck & Olivia de Havilland as Hermia.
ClassicNotes explaining the plot, etc. of the play.
The School of Midsummer Dreams from ThinkQuest.
What is a Symphony?
Visit The Symphony: an Interactive Guide
And now, on to Alice in Orchestralia, Chapter II: A Strange Journey