Augsburg Fortress has published my new collection: A Time to Dance: Settings for Organ, To play the organ is to dance. The definition of dance in the Oxford English Dictionary —“to leap, skip, hop, or glide with measured steps and rhythmical movements of the body”—could apply as well to organ technique as to dancing. Organists take dancing seriously: when I took organ lessons in college, it was suggested that I buy a pair of Capezio dance shoes. In 2008, Augsburg Fortress editor Norma Aamodt-Nelson suggested to me that a volume of organ dances would be an interesting project. Many of the tune-based dances in this volume were suggested by Norma, including “People, Look East,” “On Christmas Night,” “O Living Breath of God,” and “Oh, Sing to God Above.”

I thought it appropriate to express familiar tunes in historical dance garb, while adding original dances like the sicilienne and minuet. A book of dances for organ should certainly include an estampie, a fourteenth-century Italian stamping dance, for the earliest surviving music written specifically for keyboard, The Robertsbridge Codex (1360), contains three estampies. Like those, my imitation rolls along in triple meter with a central hocketing section.

The tune we know as “Ding Dong! Merrily on High” appears first in Arbeau’s 1589 Orchésographie, a French dance manual, where it is called “Branle l’official.” No one dances the branle (or “brawl,” as the English call it) anymore, but it was a popular group dance of the “basse dance” variety, in duple or triple meter. George Woodward adapted that secular tune and added a text for the 1924 Cambridge Carol Book to give us the Christmas carol we sing today.

“Branle l’official” in Arbeau’s Orchésographie, 1589

“Vårvindar friska” (Spring Breezes) is another instance of the secular becoming sacred. Traditionally the Swedish folk tune is associated with the Valborg holiday (Walpurgis Nacht, April 30–May 1), but the song may also be familiar from the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s, where Ingrid Bergman, as Sister Mary Benedict, sings it to her community. Listen to Sissel sing it on YouTube. My variations may be played as a concert piece or arranged in any sensible manner as a prelude, offertory, or postlude.

To dance is to smile, to laugh. The pavane was a slow, processional dance popular in the Renaissance. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was composed as a Latin hymn, but why not dance it as a pavane? A pavane was typically followed by a lively dance. “Away in a Manger” becomes a jolly sailor’s hornpipe. In the final bars you may recognize the “U.S. Navy Song” on high, suggesting with a wink that the music is “aweigh in A major.”

This is my sixth collection published by Augsburg Fortress, following Early American Tunes, Welsh Tunes, A Taste of Cana’s Wine, Fruit of the Spirit (all for organ solo) and Wassail! Christmas Carols for Piano. My work also appears in two Augsburg Fortress collections for organ and instruments: Pipings and The Minnesota Organ Book. And individual chorale preludes appear in many volumes of The Augsburg Organ Library. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This exciting collection features seven familiar tunes expressed in historical dance genres, along with three original pieces that include a sicilienne and minuet. Highlights include a light and quick Passepied on “People Look East,” a gentle Pastorale on “On Christmas Night,” and a lively Tarantella on “Oh, Sing to God Above.” Be sure to check out the original Sicilienne, an example of the composer’s best writing.
smiling couple

James and Marilyn Biery, 2016. Photo by DET

A special word of appreciation to Marilyn Biery, who as the editor of this volume became a collaborator. Not only did she suggest registrations, her thoughts on writing for organ resulted in countless improvements. My thanks also to David Sims for coordinating the project. The volume is dedicated to Michael Barone, the host of the long-running American Public Media YourClassical show Pipedreams! Michael has done more to make the organ dance than anyone I know.

Listen to Marilyn Biery play Sicilienne on Facebook.

Purchase A Time to Dance from Augsburg Fortress Publications.

This post incorporates text from the Preface of A Time to Dance, copyright © 2022 Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission.