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Before the Bread

Illustration from "The Little Red Hen"
by Florence White Williams, 1918.

A canonic setting of a traditional English blessing
Poet/Lyricist: 
English folk prayer

This traditional English blessing is set to music as a lyrical canon, celebrating the cycle of planting, growth and harvest.  With its arching melody suggesting the limitless bounty of the world, this piece is a welcome addition to celebrations of gratitude and thanksgiving.

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https://www.seafarerpress.com/sites/seafarerpress.advantagelabs.com/files/samples/recording-alexander-before-the-bread-ssaa.mp3 2 or 4-part treble choir a cappella - Choral Score
3'00" ME SEA-023-02 Sheet Music
$2.50
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3'00" ME SEA-023-02D Licensed PDF
$1.50
SATB a cappella - Choral Score
3'00" ME SEA-023-03 Sheet Music
$2.50
SATB a cappella - Choral Score
3'00" ME SEA-023-03D Licensed PDF
$1.50

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.

Composer's Note: 

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.


I was quite pleased when subsequent searches revealed that I was not the only person to begin this blessing with the phrase “Before the 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.

Which version is the true “authoritative” one? We will probably never know. Following the folk tradition of this blessing, I left my own inadvertent bread/flour word substitution unchanged. No matter what words speak most strongly to you, I invite you to sing and engage with the words I chose, keeping in mind the universal sentiment behind this blessing. -E.A.

A Final Note about “God’s will”:

For those of you who wince at the oft-abused phrase, “God’s will,” I'd like to share a story I heard many years ago, as told by the Rev. Max Coots in his sermon, “The Rabbit, the Radish Bag, and God’s Will.” (My apologies for any inaccuracies that might have crept into my retelling of his story.)

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, no doubt 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 then 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, he 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.

Program Notes / Performance Notes: 
Performers: 

SATB:
     PREMIERE: First Universalist Society of Hartland Four Corners
/Patrcicia Talbot
          (Hartland Four Corners, VT)

     Camerata Singers of Muskegon / Floyd Farmer (Muskegon, MI)
     First Baptist Church of Ithaca / Christopher Morgan Loy (Ithaca, NY)
     First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, VA / Suzanne Riehl (Richmond, VA)
     Richfield United Methodist Church / Elizabeth Alexander  (Minneapolis, )
     Saint James Episcopal Church of Richmond / Virginia Whitmore (Richmond, VA)
     Unitarian Church of Charleston / Martha Welch (Charleston, SC)
     Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills / Ekaterina Anoshkin (Wellesley Hills, MA)
     Unity Church-Unitarian / Ruth Palmer (Saint Paul, MN)
     Waldon Hill Vocal Ensemble of First UU Church/ Joe Mish (Rochester, MN)

SSSS:
     PREMIERE: Children’s Choir of First Unitarian Church
/ Jennifer Haywood (Ithaca, NY)
     Bethlehem Children's Festival Choir / Joy Hirokawa (Bethlehem, PA)
     Boston Children's Chorus / John Hancock Hall (Boston, MA)
     Children's Choir of First Parish in Lexington / Mary Neumann (Lexington, MA)
     Evanston Children’s Choir / Kate Ulett (Evanston, IL)
     WomanKind Retreat Singers / Virginia Whitmore (Richmond, VA)

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