The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Tree Song

A simple and wise reflection on the generosity and interdependence of trees

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: George Ella Lyon

A wise song about giving, receiving and interdependence. George Ella Lyons’ lilting poem is paired with a whimsical list of trees, creating a vocal counterpoint both sweet and playful. At the center of it all are the cello and piano, two of the most graceful instruments ever crafted of wood.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

After an early rehearsal of Tree Song a singer wrote me the following note: “I’m reading a book entitled Quiet by Susan Cain all about being an introvert in a world that prizes talkative, extroverted people. Your song resonates with some of the topics in the book…like the benefit and power that different kinds of presence and energy bring to the world.”

As for me, I’m not very introverted. To be honest, I’ve had to work hard to learn to listen well. This has involved learning to be more accepting of other people, of myself, and of the world. When doing this work I was – and still am – inspired by trees.

Trees are very good teachers. As far as I can tell, trees don’t waste any of their precious energy straining against present circumstances, but instead accept their place in the scheme of things. They aren’t giving themselves makeovers, fretting about their inadequacies, or calculating their rank in the tree hierarchy. They do not move to New York City or the Pacific Northwest when they want more out of life. They stay where they are, going about the quiet business of being. Even when the old oak tree in my backyard is clearly stressed from heat or wind or drought, it just keeps on keeping on. Some of its branches might die back or its acorns drop prematurely, but it accepts the gifts of sunlight and rain just as it does during more favorable conditions, singing its patient tree song all the while.

The generous world of trees was close to my heart when I wrote Tree Song. I kept my setting of the words simple and elegant, just like George Ella Lyon’s original poem. The names of over fifty trees are woven throughout, from “peach and plum” to “bunya-bunya.” And the cello and piano, two of the most exquisite instruments ever created from wood, are not located off to one side. The are nestled in the center of the singers, part of a gentle dialogue of giving and receiving.


Tree Song

Roots, trunk,
branches, leaves.
As a tree gives
so it receives:
food from
the earth,
rain and sun
from the sky.
Its roots
reach deep
and its crown
rises high.
in spring,
fruit in
summer and fall:
home for many,
shelter for all.

Peach, plum, pear, prune, pine,
Poplar, persimmon,
Alder, ebony,
Elder, abba,
Champaka, cashew,
Cottonwood, yew,
Acacia, bamboo,
Maclura, mahogany, mangrove,
Cedar, cinnamon, willow, cocobolo,
Kahikatea, Cacao, coffee, cashew,
Camilla, cherry, catalpa,
Tupelo, tulip,
Olive and chinaberry,
Chokecherry, mulberry, loblolly bay,
Aamla, sal,
Linden, laurel, lilac, larch,
Juniper, joshua, jellyfish, bo,
Bottletree, baobab, bunya-bunya.

George Ella Lyon
© 2009 by George Ella Lyon. Reprinted by permission of the poet



Premiere: Twin Cities Women‘s Choir / Mary Bussman (Minneapolis, MN)
Bella Voce Singers / Jessica Corbin (Brooklyn, NY)

Solo voice
Premiere: Ruth MacKenzie and Elizabeth Alexader. Harmony for Mayo (Rochester and Minneapolis, MN)