Eric Whitacre: Little Tree
Composed in 1996, Little Tree is a festive choral work by American composer, Eric Whitacre. The commission came from San Francisco Symphony Chorus conductor, Vance George, who was looking for a new work to perform at their annual Christmas Concert. George was looking for a work that not only highlighted the 80-strong choir, but also their accompanist, Marc Shapiro. Whitacre had an incredibly tight deadline to meet, but of course he still took this exciting project on:
“Hila, my wife, found for me the timeless E.E. Cummings poem ‘Little Tree’. I started writing as fast as I could and noticed something very strange happening on the page: I was writing with a completely different voice. Part of it was the nature of the poem, but most of it was residue from my first year at Julliard. During that time I had studied composition with David Diamond, a notoriously old-school composer whose style is closest to early works of Barber and Bernstein, and I had become obsessed with intricate counterpoint and that very American sound from the 1940s. It all ended up in the music somehow; so strange how these things work themselves out.
Anyway, I killed myself finishing the piece on time and then all of the musicians went on strike. The work didn’t receive its premiere for another year (1997), and Vance surprised me an hour before the performance and asked me if I would like to conduct. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus. In Davies Hall. With 3000 people in the audience. Oh yes…”
Taken from E. E. Cummings’ ‘Little Tree’.
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and right
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and I will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
In true Whitacre style, the ethereal atmosphere is created right from the start of Little Tree. The bell-like piano parts rings above the voices, creating a sparkling effect that Whitacre went on to use in a number of his other choral works. Whitacre’s use of cluster chords and warm textures molds together to form a truly mesmerising choral sound that has distinguished him apart from his contemporaries. The choral swells that highlight the text creates a warm atmosphere that is soon broken down and built back up again.
Although technically a festive work, the mood of the piece is not necessarily joyous. There is a certain haunting feeling to Little Tree, with the way that Whitacre handles the voices. The mood of the music adds to it being truly mesmerising, especially as the voices build up to explode into glorious colour together. The more upbeat central section does break down the sombre mood, but the way that Whitacre utilises the fugue keeps it very grounded throughout. Little Tree concludes loud and proud with all the voices and piano together.
Ⓒ Alex Burns