Dale Wood, An American Original


"He fell out of the nest with all he needed"


by James Welch


(December 27, 2003)


The world of sacred music suffered a tremendous loss on April 13, 2003, with the death of Dale Wood, distinguished composer, editor, author, organist, and conductor. His music is sung or played worldwide by small church choirs, renowned organists, symphony orchestras, and choral groups as large and well known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which has performed and recorded many of his works.


Dale Wood was born in Glendale, California, on February 13, 1934, of Finnish-Polish parentage (his father's last name was Wojtkiewiecz, which immigration authorities shortened to Wood). Dale grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Franklin High School, where he was voted "most likely to succeed" in his class. Raised a Lutheran, his career as a composer was launched at age 13 when he won a national hymn-writing competition for the American Lutheran Church. His first choral anthem was accepted for publication one year later. His knowledge of music was immense, and his appreciation ran the gamut from classical to the Broadway stage. He admired composers from Leroy Anderson to Villa Lobos, and he was comfortably conversant with artists such as Marcel Dupré and many theatre organists. Although he attended Occidental College, he never received a college degree. In the words of his second wife, Gloria, "No, the boy didn't need any degree. He fell out of the nest with all he needed."

Dale began playing the organ in church at age 14, and he served as organist and choirmaster at Eden Lutheran Church in Riverside and The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco. He published numerous articles on worship, liturgy, and church music and was a contributing editor to the Journal of Church Music for over a decade. He lectured and conducted choral festivals throughout the United States, Canada, and Northern Europe, and served as editorial consultant for several hymnals. He headed the publication committee of the Choristers Guild from 1970 to 1974. After serving as music director at the Grace Cathedral School for Boys in San Francisco from 1973 to 1974, he was appointed executive editor for The Sacred Music Press, a position he held from 1975 to 1996. He served as editor emeritus of The Sacred Music Press from 1996 until 2001. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) honored Dale Wood annually from 1967 for his work. In April 1993 Dale was honored with the prestigious Exemplar Medallion from California Lutheran University for his "more than forty years of joyful service to the church and humanity through the inspiration of his music."

Hymns and canticles composed by Dale Wood are found in the Lutheran Book of Worship, Worship II (a Roman Catholic hymnal), Seventh Day Adventist Hymnal, The Presbyterian Hymnal, The United Methodist Hymnal, the Agape Hymnal Supplement, the Moravian Book of Worship, the Chalice Hymnal, and several hymnal supplements.

Wood's musical activities were not limited to sacred music. While still a college student, he entertained as organist at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles and appeared on television shows produced in Hollywood. In 1975 he was employed by the Royal Viking Line to entertain passengers on a 70-day cruise of the South Pacific and Orient.


For many years Dale maintained his home and studio at The Sea Ranch, California, 115 miles north of San Francisco. It was here, amidst acres of redwood trees and gentle meadows on the rural and spectacular coastline of Northern California, that he composed most of his organ works, using a three-manual electronic theatre organ. Dale had a strong theatrical streak in him, and he maintained close ties with the American Theatre Organ Society. In his later years he collaborated with his partner, Ivan de la Garza, in designing the ATOS website.


In 1977 Dale and jazz pianist George Shearing created a volume of organ settings of early American folk hymns entitled Sacred Sounds from George Shearing. Over a period of 11 weeks Shearing had recorded a series of improvisations at the piano. After the tapes were transcribed to paper, Shearing visited Dale in his studio at The Sea Ranch. Dale spent hours at the organ making suggestions of registrations and textures, while Shearing with his critical ear listened for accuracy.


It was in the mid-1970's that I discovered Dale's music and its tremendous appeal in church services and recitals. In 1981 I sent Dale a copy of a recital program in which I had included one of his works. He thanked me by sending one of his recent publications, "Let Us Break Bread Together," and this short note: "Are you familiar with the enclosed 'creampuff'? You can milk it to death. Awfully easy, but there are times when simplicity has a great deal to say." This was the beginning of a long correspondence and friendship between us, although we met in person on only a few occasions.


In recent years, Dale composed at the computer and was able to hear his work played back via MIDI, obviating the need for tedious proofreading. Previously, however, Dale had sent many of his manuscripts to me for proofreading and suggestions. I could always count on receiving an inscribed copy of the finished product, usually with a characteristically witty or self-deprecating quip. Some examples:

           "You are ever so kind to read through this collection of overripe harmonies!"

           "If your supply is running low, here's more paper for the bottom of your bird cage."

           "After accurately proofing close to 1,000 pages of engravings last year, why must nasty errors creep into my latest organ book? (Yes, a B-flat is what I had in mind! I hope the nation's Miss Suzies have the sense to correct it!)"

           Always his notes showed his genuine appreciation: "My deepest thanks for your continued encouragement and especially your high regard for a good old tune that speaks to the people."


Dale published more than 125 settings for solo organ, each full of his characteristically beautiful harmonies, modulations, romance, wit, and humor. In his own themes as well as in his arrangements, he draws from such disparate sources as early American hymns, Victorian hymns, contemporary hymns, gospel songs, spirituals, international folk tunes, Gregorian chant, and baroque chorales. In his settings modal tunes from the Old World take on new life; some of his original melodies sound uncannily like ancient folk tunes.


The following tempo markings found in Dale's scores are descriptive of the wide range of moods in his music: with great calm; animated; expressively; with sturdy motion, flowing gently; with vigor; freely; joyfully; gently; spirited; simply; stately; with great warmth; boldly; with ease; tenderly; with sparkle; flowing smoothly. Most people would probably agree, however, that the signature Dale Wood sound is warm and romantic, with colorful harmonies and the melody always prominent.


Most of his pieces were conceived with a three-manual organ in mind but are readily adaptable to smaller instruments. He gave general suggestions for registrations, but he always trusted in the performer's own imagination ("The printed music is just a blueprint, and it is the performer's job to complete the project," he liked to say). He used unusual techniques in several pieces, such as wedges in keys for pedal points ("Il est né," "Meditation on KEDRON"). His hymn arrangements were not all easy. Many require a significant amount of finger substitution; several involve "bridging" (playing on two manuals simultaneously with one hand); and his pedal lines sometimes go to the top of the pedalboard ("Amazing Grace" sports a high F#). Nor was he afraid to write pieces with accidentals. I cautioned him about a piece in six flats he planned to include in an upcoming volume, suggesting that some organists would find it overly challenging. He responded, "Well, then, they'll just need to practice!"


His sense of humor is clearly evident in such pieces as "Blessed Assurance," "Caricature of a Sunday School Song," "I Saw Three Ships," and "The Ash Grove." In the original version of the latter piece (commissioned for the 75th anniversary celebration of a Reuter organ), he included a quotation of "Happy Birthday," which undoubtedly was very amusing in its premiere performance. (He altered the line slightly for the published version.)


His first wife, Linda, said that Dale couldn't always explain the source of his musical inspiration. "He sometimes felt he was a medium for the music that was sent to him. There were other times when his writing just took hard work and skill, as with all composers." Linda remembered hearing Dale say, "Sometimes it's hard to know if what you're writing is something original or something you've heard in your past. I can only ask for forgiveness if it's something I've heard before."


Some of the best descriptions of Dale's feelings for the music and the tunes he set are found in the prefaces he wrote to his organ collections. Below are three selections:


Organ Book of American Folk Hymns, 1970

           "The settings in this volume make no attempt to be profound or involved. The statement of the tune is always clear and direct, and I hope this will please many of my colleagues who also happen to like a good old melody now and then."


Wood Works, Book 1, 1986

           "Mention folk music and many images come to mind. But true folk music is music of the people which is characterized by the directness and simplicity of the feelings expressed. It is precisely this simple art form which has given us the tunes which endure. Most of the tunes on which these simple organ settings are based can honestly be called favorites of the people. Some may evoke childhood memories; others recall the revivalist's era of the Sunday School gathering. That which we call a tune (by the very meaning of the word) must be a melody of simple and easily remembered character."


Softly and Tenderly, Volume 1, 1992

           "Hymnologists may argue that gospel songs do not possess real literary merit. Hymnal editors and their committees attempt to discard these so-called 'old' favorites but the demand for this type of religious song indicates that many will live on, despite attempts to replace them with what some might view as higher standards of hymnody.

           The tunes gathered in this collection all stem from unpretentious origins. They are etched into the memory and never fail to appear in national polls which name favorite hymns of the people. The melodic appeal which is at the very heart of these hymns suggests organ settings which are direct and uncomplicated, and it would seem inappropriate to garb such simple tunes in formal attire."


Music critic Robert Commanday of the San Francisco Chronicle said of Wood's compositions, "His music is skillfully written, idiomatic, eminently practical, and direct in its effect." The conductor of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Earl Bernard Murray, paid tribute to the music of Dale Wood by saying, "No conductor in the world could have had more beautiful music to premiere. His pen has been a fountain of joyful song. His music won't let go of us."


Because most of his works were on sacred themes, I asked Gloria Wood, shortly after Dale's passing, about his faith. She responded, "He was raised in a family of ministers and missionaries, so he was a walking theological encyclopedia. This I know--Dale believed in God and trusted that his soul and spirit were going back to the Source--however one defines that. He was in no way fearful of dying and said he was at peace with what lay ahead for him. His life's work speaks volumes as to the inner workings of Dale's heart. His spiritual beliefs are in every melody and chord progression. Simply put, Dale was a Believer, and as he would phrase it: "'Nuff said!"


How fortunate we are that he has shared this music with us. His musical legacy will live on in generations yet to come.


For further information about Dale Wood's career, compositions, publishers, and recordings of his music, visit <http://www.mcn.org/k/woodworks/>.

The author:

James Welch is organist of Santa Clara University. He has recorded numerous compositions by Dale Wood, including an all-Dale Wood CD entitled A Treasury of Woodworks. Visit www.welchorganist.com.


Music for Organ by Dale Wood

All published by Sacred Music Press, except where otherwise noted.


Christmas Pipings


Festive Hymn Introductions for Organ

Grand Processional on "Lobe Den Herren"

Interludes for Organ

Little Classics for Organ

Lyric Pieces for Organ

Music for Organ

New Settings of Twenty Well-Known Hymn Tunes (Augsburg)

Organ Book of American Folk Hymns

Preludes and Postludes (Augsburg)

Processional for a Joyful Day

Sacred Sounds from George Shearing

Seven Folk Tune Sketches (Warner Bros.)

Softly and Tenderly (Volumes 1, 2, 3)

Songs of the Heart (Brigham Young University Studies)

The Artistry of Dale Wood (with companion CD by James Welch)

Two Tuneful Whimsies (Warner Bros.)

Wood Works for Organ (Books 1, 2, 3, 4)

Wood Works for Christmas

Wood Works for Lent and Easter

Wood Works on International Folk Hymns (Volumes 1, 2)

Wood Works on Original Themes



Music for Organ and Other Instruments


American Folk Hymn Suite

For Organ, Harp and Handbells
Harold Flammer, Inc. (Shawnee Press)


Christmas Album for Harp and Organ


Grand Processional on "Lobe den Herren"

Martin Shaw / Arranged by Dale Wood
For Organ and Any Combination of Instruments


Il Est Né, le Divin Enfant

For Organ and Handbells, optional Tambourine


New Settings of Twenty Well-Known Hymn Tunes

Free Organ Accompaniments with Optional Descants
Augsburg Fortress Publishers


Pastoral on Forest Green

For Organ and Handbells (or Harp)
Harold Flammer, Inc. (Shawnee Press)


Prelude and Jubilee

For Organ and Piano, and Organ and Handbells


Three Duets for Organ and Harp (or Harpsichord)

C.P.E. Bach, with performance options by Dale Wood


Winds Through the Olive Trees

Robert Wetzler / Arranged by Dale Wood
For Organ, Harp, and Handbells



Dale Wood, left, with Marcel Dupré. July  23, 1967, Meudon, France. On this occasion Dale presented Dupré with a composition, and Dupré responded with a short musical greeting.


Dale Wood with blind jazz pianist George Shearing at The Sea Ranch in January 1977, where they worked on the organ volume Sacred Sounds from George Shearing.


Dale Wood at his home, October 2002. Photo courtesy Ivan de la Garza.