Eric Whitacre's composition little tree began with a phone call and a tight deadline. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus wanted a piece from him for its Christmas concert, but wanted it in a matter of weeks. Whitacre accepted, and in great haste began writing music for a delightful little text by e.e. cummings (to whose poetry Whitacre returns again and again), an ode to a small Christmas tree. The poet speaks to the Christmas tree (a tree presumably more substantial than the one Linus and Charlie Brown must choose, but still "more like a flower"), and asks if the little tree was sad to be taken from the forest. No troubles, says the poem, for the tree's new owner will hug the tree "just as your mother would," and will take out all the decorations that themselves sleep all year waiting to be part of the Christmastide celebration. All of the ornaments will be the duty of this little tree to bear, and the tree can stand proudly in the window, for everyone to see. Even more intimately, the speaker and his sister will love the tree, and dance around it, and sing. Whitacre dedicated his setting of the text, which wonderfully avoids mere Hallmark syrup, to his own little sister. Sadly, the musicians went on strike right after the composition of little tree, but it was sung the year after, with Whitacre himself conducting.
Whitacre describes the music that he hung on this text as a different voice, and ascribes it to his experience at Juilliard studying with the eminent (but different) American composer David Diamond. Little tree works musically, but does echo different strains in American music than otherwise occur so obviously in Whitacre. The opening is quite angular in the women's voices and piano, evoking a Barber-esque simplicity of wonder at the little plant; the full choir sings around the tree in kissing its bark and hugging it as the mother would have. A change of pace happens as the text moves to the ornaments: new rhythmic vitality arrives in lilting carol patterns, and some voices even take contrapuntal "fa la la" additions. The staring of strangers at the then-proud little tree once again changes rhythm dramatically and arrestingly, while the reaction of the two small people arrives in a simple duet texture. The final climax of dancing and singing "Noel," though effective, may be the farthest from Whitacre's musical voice.