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Three Songs of Faith

In 1999 I was commissioned by Northern Arizona University to write a set of choral works commemorating the 100th anniversary of their school of music. I chose three of my favorite E.E. Cummings texts and started writing. i will wade out, the first piece in the set, seemed to cry out with lush, neo-romantic harmonies. The third, i thank you God for most this amazing day, is such a beautiful and joyous poem that the music was at times almost effortless. It was the middle installment, hope, faith, life, love, that was causing me to lose sleep.

Writing a commissioned work can be tough, especially if it is for a big glorious occasion, and my first reaction is almost always leaning towards grandeur. I mean, for God’s sake, the school has been around for a hundred years, the least I can do is write something that will really bring the house down. This is exactly the mentality I was trying to force upon this set, and exactly the kind of thing that tends to get me all tangled up.

I will wade out is the first in the set of Three Songs of Faith, and was a joy to set to music. The text is so passionate, so sensual; I found it to be the perfect opening to a cycle of pieces about my own personal faith.

In hope, faith, life, love the original poem is actually quite long, with sounds of clashing and flying and singing, and calls for music that is vibrant and virtuosic, a real show piece. The more I thought about faith, however, the more introspective I became, and I modified the poem entirely to fit that feeling. I took only the first four words (hope, faith, life, love) and the last four (dream, joy, truth, soul) and set each of them as a repeating meditation. Each of the words, in turn, quotes a different choral work from my catalog, and its corresponding musical material comments on the word I set (i.e. the word “life” quotes the musical material from Cloudburst, where the text is “roots, trunk, branches, birds, stars”). Because I wrote it last, the middle movement even quotes the first and the last piece in this set on the word “soul.”

The 2009 revised edition of i thank You God for most this amazing day replaces the original edition, published in 2000, which is no longer available. Page 12 has been exchanged at the my request – the rest of the work remains as it was first published. The decision to rewrite a section of a work after publication has its own interesting story.

When I originally premiered i thank You God with Northern Arizona University back in 1999, I made a lot of changes during the few days I had with the choir before they first performed it. One section I didn’t change, and that I loved, was the text “now the ears of my ears awake, now the eyes of my eyes are opened.” For that first performance in 1999 it was just a simple chant-like round, and I felt that it elegantly set up the next section, a cluster-y meditation on the word “opened.” Then, literally the night before I sent back the final proofs for publication, I freaked. I thank you God was the third in a set of three pieces (the Three Songs of Faith), and it suddenly occurred to me that I could tie the whole set together by quoting the beginning of the first piece, i will wade out, at the end of i thank You God. So I quickly rewrote the “now the ears of my ears” section, echoing the first leaps in i will wade out, and sent it off to the publisher. I can remember feeling actual pride – a very ‘scholarly’ pride – for so brilliantly and effortlessly manipulating motivic material.

The piece was published, and a year later I hear the new version actually performed. I was horrified. Page 12 was ridiculously difficult, and I could see the otherwise excellent choir sweating just to make it sound natural. Much worse, thought, was this: it completely masked the meaning of the words. The text just became lost in the ‘clever’ writing, and the most important sentence in the poem just vanished in a fog of academic writing and… pride.

I conducted that version for years, trying every way I could think of to make it work. It never did, not even once. So when it was going to be recorded by the British ensemble Polyphony, I sent them the original version of i thank You God. That’s the one they recorded, and that’s the one I’ll do from now until the end of time. It’s so much more simple, and humble, and to my ears, the meaning of the text now explodes off the page. It was a great lesson for me, and I think of those measures every time I start to ‘overthink’ while I’m writing.

So – if you are conducting or singing i thank You God for most this amazing day, please know that I am most happy to have found my way back to the original and true version in today’s 2009 publication.

Available from all good retailers including GIA MusicMusicroom.

i will wade out

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers

i will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
alive
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness

in the sleeping curves of my body
shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
will i complete the mystery
of my flesh

i will rise
after a thousand years
lipping
flowers

and set my teeth in the silver of the moon

E.E. Cummings, 1894 – 1962

hope, faith, life, love

hope, faith, life, love

dream, joy, truth, soul

E.E.Cummings, 1894 – 1962

i thank You God for most this amazing day

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

E.E.Cummings, 1894 – 1962

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