For the summer of 1960, Blitzstein rented a cottage at South Beach on Martha's Vineyard. There he alternated his work between the opera Sacco and Vanzetti and a song cycle, commissioned for three hundred dollars by Alice Esty. A wealthy amateur, she possesed a pleasant soprano voice and every year gave a recital featuring her latest collection of commissions.
o by the by : This is obviously a kite; the image must be kept throughout, of a comical volatility. Poignance at the diving and the climbing, and especially at the "throbbing like , , . singing like. . . ," And then a final frustration (comic again) as the string is let go.
when life is quite through with : Elegiac, muted; at the grave of the beloved.
what if a much of a which of a wind : A kind of young, roistering paean to the indomitableness of man, It is strophic; the three stanzas are set to exactly the same music, with some tempo variation in the third verse. Watch out for the meaning at the end: "The most who die the more we live" means "the most of us who die," so that the sentence is not callous or cut-throat at all; simply stated, there is no nothing, the "single secret will still be man."
silent unday by silently not night : The most ambitious of the lot. Death, purgatory, transfiguration; or, death-not-death, raging breaking-apart, the rising of the phoenix.
until and i heard : Possibly the hardest to perform. Light as a feather, yet soaring, with a lyrical rising to the triumphant "grave gay brave bright cry of alive."
yes is a pleasant country : Tiny, slight, but not trivial or facetious. Again affirmation.
open your heart : I like it the best of the lot, We need big climaxes and sudden hushes; and then the last phrases, quieter and quieter, to the endless word "ocean."
Eric Gordon has remarked that the songs bring "the simple monumentality of Hugo Wolf" to mind. Certainly the concentration of Blitzstein's unfussy and perceptive settings of Cummings' words recall that German master. The harmonic language harks back to the pre-Cradle work, but in the expressive vocal lines, and pithy, deceptively simple and witty piano accompiments we hear voice and experience of a mature composer at the height of his powers.