The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Where there is Light in the Soul

A Chinese proverb connecting light, beauty, harmony, honor and peace

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Chinese proverb

In this delightful setting of a timeless Chinese proverb, the five interdependent ideals of Light, Beauty, Harmony, Honor and Peace are woven together into a rich, a cappella affirmation. This bestseller’s four arrangements are carefully crafted to suit adult, women’s, men’s and young choruses.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

Because the five central concepts of the Chinese proverb — Light, Beauty, Harmony, Honor and Peace — are at the core of this text, I gave myself a delightful musical challenge. I gave each of these five words a distinct character, using rhythm, harmony, melody, articulation and texture. For instance, the word “light,” always ends with a minuscule rest after the “t,” making the word clean and sharp and bright. And whenever the choir sings “harmony,” you’ll be sure to hear a lively dotted rhythm. These musical “signatures” are always present, giving each concept a distinct musical personality.

About the Text

In the years since I wrote this song, I have come across other versions of this Chinese text, but with different words and sentence structures. Some versions contained only three lines, while others contained five or more! What was going on?

Eventually I could not contain my curiosity any longer. A full day of internet research revealed that this “proverb” is actually an adaptation of a passage in Dà Xué, or The Great Learning, a well-known summary of the teachings of Confucius compiled in the 1st c. BCE by his disciple Zeng Shen (Zengzi). In its original context this passage is the second half of a palindromic verse, which moves from the wider world to the individual, and then back out to the wider world. The result is an endless circle of cause and effect.

The text has been translated by quite a few scholars. Here are two of them:

“Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.”

James Legge (19th c. Oxford University)

“When things are investigated, knowledge is extended.
When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere.
When the will is sincere, the mind is correct.
When the mind is correct, the self is cultivated.
When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized.
When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed.
When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land.”

A. Charles Muller (2013, University of Tokyo)

I never discovered who created the translation that I set to music, or why the writing was abridged. But it’s no mystery to me why this teaching still endures after 2000 years. Its kernel of wisdom is still true. It is the thoughts and actions of individuals which ultimately shape their families, communities and nations — and indeed shape the entire world.


Chinese proverb

Where there is light in the soul there will be beauty in the person.
Where there is beauty in the person there will be harmony in the home.
Where there is harmony in the home there will be honor in the nation.
Where there is honor in the nation there will be peace in the world.



Premiere: Choir of Mayflower Community Congregational Church / Nancy Grundahl (Minneapolis, MN)
2012 Illinois All-State Chorus / Emily Ellsworth, Illinois Music Educators Association (Peoria, IL)
Choir of Camrose United Church / Darryl Dewalt (Calgary, Alberta, CANADA)
Choir of Eliot Unitarian Chapel / Leon Burke III conductor (Kirkwood, MO)
Choir of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester / Joe Mish (Rochester, MN)
Choir of Marquette Unitarian Universalist Church / Barbara Michaels (Marquette, MI)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair / Judith Rew (Montclair, NJ)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville / Ruth Lewis (Gainsville, FL)
Du Page Chorale / Lee R Kesselman ~ College of Du Page(Glen Ellyn, IL)
NE Iowa Choral Director’s Association Middle School Honor Choir (IA)
OVation, of One Voice Mixed Chorus (Nine city tour of Minnesota and Iowa)
OVation, of One Voice Mixed Chorus ~ GALA Choruses Festival 2008 (Miami, FL)
Southern Chorale of Birmingham Southern College / David J Smith (Birmingham, AL)
The Dewalt Family Singers ~ Camrose Music Festival (Camrose, Alberta, CANADA)
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Chico / Mary Collins (Chico, CA)

Premiere: Kantorei, The Singing Boys of Rockford / Joel Ross (llinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio & Pennsylvania)
All-County High School Chorus / Darla Bair (Rochester, NY)
American Music Abroad Honor Choir / Elise Figa & Susan Kirkland (USA, AUSTRIA, GERMANY, SLOVENIA)
Arizona Unitarian Universalist Choral Festival / Elizabeth Alexander (Phoenix, AZ)
Bridgewater Community Chorus / Marcia Bender (Bridgewater, VT)
Camerata D’Amici / Karen Sponheim (South Salem, NY)
Carbondale Community High School Chamber Singers / Carlyn Zimmermann (Illinois Music Educators Conference (Peoria, IL)
Caritas Vocal Ensemble (Minneapolis, Golden Valley & Saint Paul, MN)
Choir of Bethany Mennonite Church / Marcia Bender (Bridgewater, VT)
Choir of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church / Henry Sgrecci (Bethesda, MD)
Choir of Church of the Holy Spirit / Sue Ellen Echard (Harleysville, PA)
Choir of First Unitarian Society of Madison / Dan Broner (Madison, WI)
Choir of First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco / Mark Sumner (San Francisco, CA)
Choir of First Universalist Church of Rochester (Rochester, NY)
Choir of Second Congregational Meeting House / Diane T Lehman (Nantucket, MA)
Choir of Unitarian Church of Lincoln / Julie Enerson (Lincoln, NE)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham / James Sullivan (Birmingham, AL)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin / Shari Smagatz (Elgin, IL)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh / Yuri Yamamoto (Raleigh, NC)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Midwest Summer Assembly / Pam Blevins Hinkle ~ Camp Lakewood (Potosi, MO)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship / Cynthia Bizzell (Raleigh, NC)
Choir of Unitarian Universalists of Transylvania County / Teresa Sandoval (Brevard, NC)
Choir of Unity Church-Unitarian / Ruth Palmer (Saint Paul, MN)
Choir of Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington / Diana Munch (Farmington Hills, MI)
Choir of Wellesley Unitarian Univeralist Church / Ekaterina Anoshkin (Wellesley Hills, MA)
Clermont Festival Chorale / Tim and Tracy Carpenter (Loveland & Milford, OH)
Harmonium Choral Society / Ann Matlack (PORTUGAL, SPAIN, GREECE, TURKEY)
Humble High School Choir / Adam J. Hightower (Humble, TX)
Mechanicsburg Ecumenical Choir: 150 voices from 35 churches, New Hope Ministries Benefit Concert (Mechanicsburg, PA)
North Shore Choral Society / Julia Davids (Skokie, IL)
Northern Illinois Big 12 Festival Choir (Rochelle & DeKalb, IL)
Rose State College High School Choral Festival / Tracey Gregg-Boothby (Midwest City, OK)
Saint Edwards Masterworks Singers / Morris Stevens (SCOTLAND)
Social Justice Through Music Choral Festival Choir / Elizabeth Alexander, St Mark’s Presbyterian Church (Tucson, AZ)
Spectrum Singers / Amy Saari (Detroit, MI)
Springfield Interfaith Thanksgiving Service / Leslie Adler (Springfield, NJ)
University of Central Arkansas Concert Choir and Chamber Singers / John Erwin (Conway, AK)
University of Massachusetts Chamber Choir / Stephen Paparo (Amherst, MA)
Waldon Hill Vocal Ensemble / Joe Mish, First Unitairan Universalist Church of Rochester (Rochester, MN)
Wooster Chorus / Lauri Hegel, The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH)

Premiere: Riverside Singers / Nancy Grundahl (Minneapolis, MN)
Congress of the International Association of Individual Psychology Women’s Ensemble, College of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN)
AKSARA / Victoria Schneider (Manchester, NH)
Aria Singers / Mary Chapin Durling (Boulder, CO)
Brattleboro Women’s Chorus / Becky Graber (Brattleboro, VT)
Ladies Night Out Women’s Chorus / Lucy Allen Tenenbaum (Proctor Union & Wallingford, VT)
Lyrebird Youth Choir / Anika Kildegaard and Cassandra McNally (St. Paul, MN)
Meredith College Chorale / Shannon Gravelle (Raleigh, NC)
Common Woman Chorus / Cindy Bizzell (Chapel Hill, NC)
Ohio University Women’s Chorale / Peter Jarjisian ~ Ohio University (Athens, OH)
One Voice Women’s Ensemble / Deborah Mensh (Lafayette, CO)
Princeton Girlchoir (Princeton, NJ)
Silicon Valley Boychoir / Julia Simon (Palo Alto, CA)
Sister Singers Network Festival ~ Loyola University (Chicago, IL)
Sistrum: Lansing Women’s Chorus / Meredith Bowen (East Lansing, MI)
Songbird Young Women’s Choir / Cassandra McNally (St. Paul)
The Treblemakers ~ Jefferson Unitarian Church (Golden, CO)
Twin Cities Women’s Choir / Mary Bussman (Minneapolis, MN)
Women’s Trio of Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church / Teri Sandoval (Gray, TN)

Premiere: Cordus Mundi / Rick Rosen (Gwenedd & Doylestown, PA)
Choir of Saint Michael’s Choir School / Teri Dunn (Toronto, Ontario CANADA)
De Profundis / David Poole (Albuquerque, NM)
Men of Song Festival / Christopher Kiver (University Park, PA)
Oshkosh West High School Wildcat Chorus / Herb Berendsen (Oshkosh, WI)
Westminster College Choir / Natasia Sexton (Fulton, MO)