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Angela Tilby: Dance to the tune of our salvation  

23 December 2022


A statue of Gustav Holst in the Imperial Gardens, in Cheltenham

A statue of Gustav Holst in the Imperial Gardens, in Cheltenham

ONE of the Christmas carols that I love is “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”. The words first appear in print in a carol collection of 1833, but it is generally thought to be much older — even perhaps to have its origins in a medieval mystery play:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing
I would my true love did so
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Sing Oh! my love, Oh! my love,
    my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

I first came across “Dancing day” in The Oxford Book of Carols, set to a traditional tune. I was intrigued by the words, but what initially won me over was a setting by Gustav Holst. As in other compositions by Holst, there is a sense of processional movement. Think of the stately march of Saturn in the suite The Planets, or his arrangement of the hymn “Turn back, O Man”.

But “Dancing day” progresses musically in the form of a strange lolloping romp, as the voice of Christ tells of his birth, of the wilderness, of betrayal and the cross, and of his final, joyful rising from the dead. Encountering Holst’s setting as an Evangelical teenager helped me to understand that Christ’s love for us is ecstatic rather than forensic. Christ himself sings as the bridegroom of humanity, the lover of the human soul.

In 1983, I wrote a book about the creeds, and I called it Won’t You Join the Dance? (SPCK). While Lewis Carroll provided the title, the book ended with words from “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that a dance is a wonderful representation of inclusivity and participation, of salvation offered to all, not only to those who know the steps or find them easy to follow. The incarnation is not a present for good Christians, but the sign that God is gathering us all up in the new creation.

Sadly, the Holst setting is used less often these days, as the lines about the betrayal of the Jews reflect medieval attitudes that we cannot be reconciled to today, and, as the piece progresses as a whole, the offending verses can’t simply be omitted.

One year, when I was at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, our Christmas Eve carol service included another setting of “Dancing day”, this time by John Gardner: a brilliant jazzy, syncopated realisation of the theme. As soon as it started, I could feel my feet tapping. I loved it at first hearing. I have it on a playlist on my mobile phone, sung by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. The playlist has the title “Joy”, and I play it when it all seems too much. Today may be grim, but tomorrow . . .

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