How does one capture the essence of Eleanor Roosevelt in a song cycle? Eleanor served in countless roles throughout her lifetime, including wife, mother, teacher, journalist, First Lady of our country, U.S. delegate to the United Nations, and an ambassador to other nations. She amassed a body of essays, speeches, and letters that depict a portrait of a woman who fought for equality and basic human rights for all people, and whose keen intellect exhibited a deep and concerned understanding of the people and events that shaped people’s lives until her death in 1962. One of her greatest achievements was helping to draft and pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as part of her work with the United Nations.
The focal point for this song cycle is her “My Day” syndicated newspaper column that ran from 1935 until 1962. The column gave Eleanor a means to communicate to Americans all across the country about a variety of topics, from tidbits about daily life in the White House to the largest political and social topics of her time. Americans communicated with Eleanor by writing letters to her; a number of these letters are addressed in Eleanor’s columns.
In Eleanor’s Words features excerpts of six of her columns that present Eleanor Roosevelt in a variety of lights. These excerpts are arranged in chronological order and span from her earliest articles to almost her last. I. The Newspaper Column introduces her newspaper column; in this particular article, she shares a funny situation in which finds herself while trying to meet her column deadline. Her strong feelings about prejudice are expressed in II. Are You Free. In III. An Anonymous Letter, she writes of a friendly anonymous letter that she received, while IV. The Supreme Power gives us a taste of her humor as she and the other delegates in the U.N. General Assembly were finishing the details of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. V. The Dove of Peace recounts her trip to Russia during the Cold War. The final movement, VI. What Can One Woman Do? deals with a topic referred to in several of her essays and column entries: how individuals can make a difference in preventing future wars, particularly after the invention of the atomic bomb. Movements V and VI both show Eleanor's strong beliefs to particular ideals, even if those beliefs were erroneous or simply beyond the capabilities of her time. For instance, she solidly believed in turning "weapons of total destruction" over to the United Nations and establishing world law, neither of which has happened.
In Eleanor’s Words (the original version for voice and piano) was commissioned by Thomas J. and Nadine Hamilton through a grant to The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation to honor Marget Hamilton in celebration of her 90th birthday. A new version, for voice and large chamber ensemble, was orchestrated in 2008 for Indiana University’s New Music Ensemble.