The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

The Eternal One

A tender portrait of the divine

Words by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay, “The Oversoul,” extols a supreme being endowed with infinite benevolence, beauty, omnipresence, and, above all, unity with all beings. The lyric of this warm and tender ballad is comprised of some of the most poetic images from this essay, creating a portrait of God that is both powerful and intimate.

Vocal Ranges: Low: a-c#” / Medium: c’-e” / High: e’-g”

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

I was initially wary about setting a Ralph Waldo Emerson text, not because he wasn’t a compelling thinker and writer but because his essays were so intense. As with many writers of the time, his sentences were long, winding and dense. Metaphor followed metaphor, leaving me gasping for air.

But I kept thinking I’d find just the right text if I looked hard enough! Emerson was so compelling! One of the few people in early America who was familiar with Buddhist and Sufi philosophies, he thought of God as neither patriarchal nor judgmental but instead, all-embracing and benevolent. This divine presence, which he called the “Over-soul,” flowed through the mind and spirit of every living being, not rigid but in constant flux.

When I finally came across a direct and approachable excerpt from Emerson’s essay “The Over-soul” I ecstatically set it to music. It was performed by a terrific baritone at a music conference and I thought all was well.

Alas, I discovered a few weeks later that the excerpt itself had been greatly adapted! I immediately began correcting altered words and phrases back to the original text, but there was one correction that I could not bring myself to make. In an attempt to render Emerson’s writing gender-neutral, the editors had changed all references to “man” and “his” to “us” and “our” — an intimate, first-person voice. Here, God was understood as a presence endowed with infinite benevolence, beauty, and unity with all beings. And I found that understanding to be breathtakingly beautiful.

Text

Excerpt from The Oversoul

It comes to the lowly,
It comes to the simple,
It comes to whomever will put off what is foreign or proud.
It comes as insight,
It comes as serenity,
It comes as grandeur.
Within us the soul of the whole,
Within us the wise silence,
Within us the universal beauty
To which every part and particle is equally related:
The Eternal ONE.

When it breathes through our intellect, it is genius.
When it breathes through our will, it is virtue.
When it flows through our affection, it is love.

Forever and ever, forever and ever,
There is no ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens.
Within us the soul of the whole,
Within us the wise silence,
Within us the universal beauty:
The Eternal ONE.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Adapted by Elizabeth Alexander
© 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander

Performers

Performers

Premiere: John Huber and Elizabeth Alexander. UUMN National Conference (Madison, WI)
Andy Wilkowske and Elizabeth Alexander (St. Paul, MN)
Beena David. First Unitarian Church of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Briana Moynihan and Benton Schmidt (Minneapolis, MN)
Choir of First Parish in Concord / Beth Norton (Concord, MA)
Jason Shelton (Nashville, TN)
Jeanette Lallier. Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (Portland, OR)
Kris-Anne Weiss and Ruth Palmer (St. Paul, MN)
Sarah Ponder Brock (Chicago, IL)
Shreyas Patel and Susan Snyder (Nashville, TN)