The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Before the Bread

A gracious canon setting of a traditional English blessing

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: English folk prayer

A gracious canonic setting of a traditional English blessing celebrating the cycle of planting, growth and harvest. With an arching melody suggesting the limitless bounty of the world, this simple song ushers gratitude and thanksgiving into formal and informal celebrations alike.

Details and Ordering Information

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

When setting a pre-existing lyric to music, I typically refrain from changing, omitting or “modernizing” words. So you can imagine my dismay when I discovered that I had accidentally substituted the word “bread” for the word “flour” when setting the following folk blessing:

Before the flour the mill,
Before the mill the grain,
Before the grain, the sun and rain,
The beauty of God’s will.

I found myself strongly resisting the correction, for I had become thoroughly attached to the sound of the word “bread.” Could I leave the mistaken word unchanged, I wondered, since this was after all a folk blessing?

I decided to delve deeper, and soon discovered that I was just one in a long line of liberty-takers! My first searches yielded these three-line versions:

Before the flour the mill,
Before the grain the earth and rain,
The beauty of God’s will.

Before the flour the mill,
Before the mill the grain,
Before the grain the sun, the earth, the rain.

Furthermore, subsequent searches revealed that I was also not the only person to use the word “bread.” Interestingly, these versions contained alternate names for God as well:

Before the bread the mill,
Before the mill the grain,
Before the grain the sun and the rain,
The beauty of Nature’s will.

Before the bread is the snowy flour,
Before the flour, the mill,
Before the mill, the field of wheat, the rain,
And the Father’s will.

So much for discovering the “original version” of this blessing! Emboldened by these various folk variations, I left my own inadvertent bread/flour word substitution unchanged.

No matter what words speak most strongly to you, I invite you to try to sing and engage with the words I chose to set, keeping in mind the universal sentiment behind this blessing.

A special note about the phrase “God’s will”:

For those of you who wince at the oft-abused phrase, “God’s will,” I’d like to share my memory of a story I heard many years ago, which was told by Rev. Max Coots in a sermon entitled, “The Rabbit, the Radish Bag, and God’s Will.” His story went something like this:

Max was walking through the woods with a friend when they spotted a dead rabbit by the path. They inspected it briefly and then walked on. Later on the same path they spotted a plastic bag that had formerly held radishes, probably discarded by a thoughtless hiker. They thought little of these discoveries until they took the same walk on subsequent days. They noticed the radish bag each time, but the rabbit’s body gradually decomposed and disappeared altogether.

Max realized that the natural order of things was what God intended – for living beings to reach the end of their days and then be folded back into the cycle of life. On the other hand, he was not at all sure that the manmade plastic radish bag was working within this natural order. In this one tiny way, Max actually knew the will of God. Not an arrogantly manufactured “will of God” like “God wants us to win this war” or “God wanted this child to recover from cancer.” But a true and humble glimpse of the cosmic mind, a small rare certainty in a mostly uncertain world.


English Folk Blessing

Before the bread the mill,
Before the mill the grain,
Before the grain, the sun and rain,
The beauty of God’s will.



Premiere: Choir of First Universalist Society of Hartland Four Corners / Patricia Talbot (Hartland Four Corners, VT)
Camerata Singers of Muskegon / Floyd Farmer (Muskegon, MI)
Choir of Boulder Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship / Clelyn Brown (Lafayette, CO)
Choir of First Baptist Church of Ithaca, NY / Christopher Morgan Loy (Ithaca, NY)
Choir of First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, VA / Suzanne Riehl (Richmond, VA)
Choir of First Unitarian Society of Ithaca / Jennifer Lawrence Birnbaum (Ithaca, NY)
Choir of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester, MN / Joe Mish (Rochester, MN)
Choir of Richfield United Methodist Church / Elizabeth Alexander (Minneapolis, MN)
Choir of Saint James Episcopal Church of Richmond, VA / Virginia Whitmore (Richmond, VA)
Choir of Unitarian Church of Charleston / Martha Welch (Charleston, SC)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of LaCrosse / Becky Post (La Crosse, WI)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard (Vineyard Haven, MA)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills / Ekaterina Anoshkin (Wellesley Hills, MA)
Choir of Unity Church-Unitarian of Saint Paul / Ruth Palmer (St. Paul, MN)
Choir of UU Society of Wellesley Hills / Suzanne Cartreine (Wellesley Hills, MA)
Endicott Singers and First Baptist Church Choir / Rebecca Kenneally (Beverly , MA)
Walden Hill Vocal Ensemble / Joe Mish (Rochester, MN)

2-4 part treble choir
Premiere: Children’s Choir of First Unitarian Church / Jennifer Haywood. Stewart Park (Ithaca, NY)
Boston Children’s Chorus. Benefit Concert (Boston, MA)
Children’s Choir of First Parish in Lexington / Mary Neumann (Lexington, MA)
Evanston Children’s Choir / Kate Ulett. Interfaith Thanksgiving Service (Evanston, IL)
Parish Singers of Old North Church / Rebecca Kenneally (Marblehead, MA)
WomanKind / Virginia Whitmore. Womankind Retreat (Richmond, VA)
WomanKind / Joy Hirokawa. Womankind Retreat (Bethlehem, PA)