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
- Glenn A. Gentry