o by the by (2007)
(SATB, full orchestra with opt. saxophone and baritone horn) 8'00"
A frolicsome, sometimes prankish glimpse of life through a child's eyes in this setting of a poem by E.E. Cummings.
Listen (mp3, 9.5 MB; Edina (MN) High School Band, Choir, Orchestra; William Webb conducting)
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This work was commissioned by the Edina (MN) High School music department to celebrate winning GRAMMY awards in 2005 and 2007 and also to inaugurate the opening of the Edina Performing Arts Center. I was asked to compose for their combined concert choir, band, and orchestra, but I have cued the saxophone and baritone horn parts so that it may be performed by choir and orchestra only. See text below. NOTE: o by the by (2002) is another entirely different setting of this same text, for SATB, SA treble choir or soloists, and piano.
Composer's remarks from premiere performance:
I am deeply grateful to Edina High School and its music students and directors for this opportunity to be a part of your GRAMMY celebration this evening. Congratulations to all of these fine musicians for your dedication to musical excellence and for the accolades you have received. There should be a good amount of healthy pride in the auditorium this evening!
With all of the art forms that can involve groups of people (dance, music, theater), there is the opportunity not only for individual expression, but also the more important dynamic of cooperation and teamwork within the ensemble in order for the art to be effectively communicated to an audience. This is even more essential in the case of a commission, where the musicians and conductors (in this case, several conductors) are in a sense creating the composer's music for the first time. This process of birthing a new work offers additional challenges and rewards for all of us involved, and I have enjoyed immensely this collaboration with these competent students and staff. We look forward to sharing the fruits of our labors with you tonight.
One of the joys for me in beginning a new work which involves singing is the time I necessarily spend reading a lot of poetry to find an appropriate text. For this occasion, I have returned to the work of American E.E.Cummings, a very popular poet with composers. "o by the by" is one of his many miniature gems which offers a nostalgic glimpse of the time when through a child's eyes we all saw the world differently, with a sense of wonder and imagination that somehow fades (for some of us more than others) as we grow older. With an economy of means for which Cummings is so revered, he ingeniously uses the metaphor of flying a kite to pose the question of why we lose this innate ability to approach each new day with a simple, playful, peaceful innocence, with our eyes wide open to the wonder of it all! I have tried to accentuate these characteristics of the poem in the music, which is at times frolicsome, jovial, even prankish (as in the extended instrumental introduction), balanced with more tender moments of longing, even mourning, for the passage of time that sadly diminishes our passion for the gift of life.
I interpret Cummings' choice of the color blue not only to mean literally the sky (or perhaps God) as it does in the first section, but also to symbolize whatever it is (the burden of responsibilities, the lack of fulfillment of our dreams, the loss of loved ones and other sorrows in life?) that causes us to "let go" of the string connecting us to our childhood. I draw this connection with sadness and loss because of jazz connotations (as in "singing the blues"). Cummings spent much time in Greenwich Village where he would have been well-acquainted with the jazz and blues scene. This is reflected musically in the composition by the dramatic shift to jazz rhythms and harmonies in the setting of the third section of the poem.
o by the by
has anybody see
who stood on a green
hill and threw
his wish at blue
with a swoop and a dart
out flew his wish
(it dived like a fish
but it climbed like a dream)
throbbing like a heart
singing like a flame
blue took it my
far beyond far
and high beyond high
bluer took it your
but bluest took it our
away beyond where
what a wonderful thing
is the end of a string
(murmurs little you-i
as the hill becomes nil)
and will somebody tell
me why people let go
"o by the by" from COMPLETE POEMS: 1904-1962, by E. E. Cummings, edited by
George J. Firmage, is used with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Copyright © 1944, 1972, 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust.