THE CONTINUO READS      -       Bach's Feet, by David Yearsley
Cambridge University Press, 2012. This book is also available formatted for Kindle.

The biggest difference between playing an organ and playing a piano (or other manual keyboard) - the sine qua non - is that the organist - or at least the "compleat" organist - must play with the feet on a separate keyboard. While there is a touch difference - the organ continues to sound while a key is held - this is much easier for a pianist to bridge than learning to play the pedals. Curiosly, for several hundred years organs with pedal keyboards (and organists who could play with their feet) were almost exclusively confined to Germany, while organs without pedals were common throughout the rest of Europe. Although not by any means the first to use his feet at the organ, Johann Sebastian Bach is the central figure in the fascinating history found in David Yearsley's landmark study, "Bach's Feet"; it was said of Bach, for example, that he could play with his feet passages that most organists would find difficult to play with their hands.

People have long been fascinated by the motor skills of musical virtuosos. At piano concerts - especially informal ones - many will try to choose seating that gives them the best view of the pianist's hands, and at some contemporary organ recitals where the pedals are hidden from view, a large screen tv will sometimes be set up with a camera to show a close up of the pedal board. One also recalls Paganini's extraordinary skill with the violin - that some attributed to a pact that he must have made with the devil that enabled him to play in seemingly impossible ways. This same fascination applied to Bach's ability with his feet (as well as - to a lesser degree - to some other German organists), so that this technique became a source of national pride - partly because it was so impressive to see and to hear, and partly because it was not found in any other nation.

But Bach was not the first to exploit the pedalboard; the oldest organist about whom we have much information was Arnolt Schlick (b. 1455-1460, d. after 1521), who preceded Bach (1685-1750) by almost as many years as Bach preceded us. Schlick was blind, but left behind several compositions making effective use of the pedals, including one with passages for the feet in which each foot played two notes at the same time. Schlick, who also left a treatise on organ-building and organ-playing, had at his disposal organs with pedal divisions of modest compass but independent stops suitable for polyphony. After Schlick's death the organ pedal developed at a rapid pace; a later instrument (1592-1596), the famous organ at Gröningen Castle (in Germany, east of Halberstadt) had three manuals, and its pedal section had 26 stops, ranging from 16' to 1', almost as many as the three manuals combined!

Musical tourism flourished in Germany during the 18th century, but the visitors - while dazzled by the German organists' footwork - when returning home showed little interest - or influence - in getting local organists and organbuilders to try their hands (or feet) at this new and exciting music. Part of the problem was that organs are not portable, and the other part was that for an established musician to learn to play the pedals was difficult - although not impossible, as Mendelssohn showed; after Mendelssohn became popular during his visits to London, English organbuilders eventually adapted to the need for significant pedal divisions.

This story is told by Yearsley in a most compelling way: while technical details abound, so do the emotional responses of the various characters. Personally, I have long felt that the pedal is the glory of the organ, and have been waiting for this book for more than 50 years. It should be required reading for every organ student, and is recommended for all who have an abiding interest in the organ.

Coda - David Yearsley is not only an established musicologist, but an exceptional organist himself, with solid credentials in early music. The American Guild of Organists and the Mississippi Academy of Ancient Music are thus pleased to collaborate in presenting him in a recital at St. Peter Catholic Cathedral on November 22, 2013, at 7:30 P.M. More details will be found in upcoming Continuo Updates.

- Glenn A. Gentry