Creating Holiday Variations

One of the first forms many organists attempt to improvise is most likely a variation on a hymn tune. Perhaps you needed a little extra music for communion or didn’t have time to practice a postlude, opting instead to fill the time with some modified version of the last hymn that was sung. Louis-Claude Daquin (born on July 4, 1694) was famous for his variations on Christmas carols which he played before Midnight Mass at Notre Dame in Paris. Pierre Cochereau delighted audiences with his concert variations on popular tunes. Even the complex tonal language of Max Reger becomes more accessible when there is a chorale stated amongst all the chromaticism. Remembering the improviser’s goal to sound like a composition, I thought we would spend the next few weeks looking at some written variations to see what we could learn about improvising from a written piece.

Because we just celebrated Independence Day here in the US, the first set of variations I’d like us to consider is Variations on ‘America’ by Charles Ives. E. Power Biggs asked Ives if he had any organ music that he could perform on his weekly radio program in 1948. Though Ives had written the piece in 1891 when he was sixteen, Biggs performance on July 4, 1948 led to the publication of the piece in 1949. If you are unfamiliar with the piece, I encourage you to listen to the performance by E. Power Biggs below which will also allow you to follow the score (sometimes with Ives’ manuscript):

Out of the fourteen-page modern edition, there are only a handful of measures where there is material that is not explicitly connected to the theme. No aimless wandering here!


As today is the introduction to our survey of variations, we’ll focus on the introduction that Charles Ives writes. While only two pages in length, it offers a wealth of practice ideas for us to master. Looking at our theme America, we can see that it uses two-measure phrases. The only time Ives deviates from two-measure units is in measures 5-8 (repeated as 29-32) when there is a tension building harmonic progression that has the loosest connection to the theme of any material in the piece. Here’s our first element we can extract for practice. I’ve simplified the chord progression for these measures below. Ives provides two different figurations in the introduction. How many more can you develop?

You should also learn to transpose this progression into every other key (as suggested when we explored color).

Transposition is also something Ives uses liberally in his introduction. Phrases of the theme appear in F major, G minor, D minor, D major, B major (or E Minor). Later on, we have an entire variation in Db Major, so being able to play the theme in any key seems like a worthwhile skill to practice. If the entire theme seems a little long to work with, Ives seems to change keys every two measures (in keeping with the phrse structure), so try practicing in bite-size two measure units. Depending upon the theme you have chosen, the adaptation in to minor mode (from major) can sometime prove tricky. When Ives ventures furthest afield in the introduction (mm 17-24), he keeps the rhythm, but adapts the melody to suit his harmonies. While it can be a worthy exercise to be strict in your transposition, don’t be afraid to make adaptations and adjustments to make the changes more musical. After all, we are in the process of making variations here!


Whether you are making variations on a patriotic tune for a concert or competition, providing an extended Christmas prelude, or introducing or concluding a hymn, studying written variations can provide us with ideas and tools to practice. Just as we break down repertoire into chunks to practice, so too we can break down our improvisations into bite-size practice bits. Looking at Ives this week, we identified nuggets about practicing phrase length, transposition, and a harmonic sequence in just the Introduction to Variations on ‘America.’ Next week, we’ll explore ideas from the actual variations. How much more gold can we find in this piece?

Hoping the freedom you have inspires you to freely create music!


Recent additions to




Newsletter Issue 11 – 2014 07 07
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
Sign up to receive future issues using the box to the right on this page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.