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It is a high claim indeed to present Bach’s FeetThe Organ Pedals in European Culture as a ‘new interpretation of the significance of the oldest and richest European instrument’ (dust-jacket). Expectations arise, not only from this, but also from the ‘Bach’s Feet’ concept, which has caught the attention of more than just a few organists and scholars.

There are problems on both fronts with this ‘new interpretation’. The apologia on page 16, which states that the book is‘only tangentially concerned with the issues of performance practice’, is the other disappointment. This makes little sense in contexts that centralise Bach the performer, and as a result what emerges is that the exciting topic of ‘Bach’s Feet’ – precise, neglected and critically important, inviting painstaking and lengthy research in its own right – is relegated to the realms of the superficial in what amounts to a series of essays drawn together through a number of implanted common threads connected both with the ‘new interpretation’ and the encyclopaedic subject ‘The Organ Pedals in European Culture’.

The purposes of the ‘new interpretation’ are redefined several times. On p.17 for instance: ‘my main concern is the cultural significance in the use of the feet across several hundred years from Schlick to J.S. Bach.’ Why is this main concern then dispelled for almost 100 pages in considerations of the periods after Bach? P.16 would seem to have the answer in yet another redefinition: ‘the importance of the pedal in creating a sense of German pride, not only at the organ but also in musical culture more generally, is the central theme.’ Another ‘main theme’ is the significance of the organist admired for his/her physical skill in the playing of pedal parts of varying degrees of difficulty. In its observations regarding the latter, and in the more general commentaries, it tends to achieve little. Here is an example from p.51 on the physical side of playing the Great G minor Fugue, BWV 542/2: ‘After swivelling the body down from the highest part of the pedals and manuals towards the comforts of the middle register, the feet and left hand continue their downward trajectory and the right hand splits off from the fauxbourdon freight-train and climbs upward as the pedal descends to the deep end of its compass and the pedal point at bar 65 that provides some relief from these exertions.’

What, perhaps, this book ought to have been called is ‘Selected Essays on matters relating to the Organ Pedals in Germanic Culture’. Considering it as this, and forgetting the ‘new interpretation’ and the focused demands of the ‘Bach’s Feet’ topic, some of it finds merit and parts of it are worth reading.

The sections on Schlick in chapters 1 and 2 are among these, although a highly worthwhile résumé of the Spiegel was provided by Elizabeth Berry Barber in the Organ Yearbook (OY) of 1975. Elsewhere, chapter 1 reprints the article by David Yearsley that originally appeared in the OY 2010: ‘Bernhard the German and the Invention of the Pedals’. There is some selective extrapolation from Burney in chapter 4, which makes use of the references to the organ playing of Bach’s sons, and later, the perspective of Quantz that ‘Italian music was … sublime’ and that ‘all Germans were practitioners of the “gusto barbaro”’ is placed in sensible opposition to the defence by Mattheson, who ‘invoked the longstanding notion that it was mastery of the organ that set Germans apart’ (p152-3). Bach’s Vivaldi/Ernst concerto arrangements are advanced as an obvious source of reconciliation in this would-be article that exposes relevant Italian-German tensions of the 18th century. One or two fascinating pieces of information come to light, for instance that one of Bach’s last students, J.G. Müthel, wrote both pedal exercises and the draftof a treatise on keyboard performance that ‘expanded the possibilities of Bachian pedalling, demanding virtuosic facility of the feet that went beyond the techniques that his teacher had asked for’ (p.255). Few will have previously seen the selected illustrations of German attire and footwear from the early 18thcentury either (p.259).

Elsewhere there are many evaded arguments, such as the pedal compass as the reason for Bach’s handwritten instruction re Kommst du nun, BWV 650 (p.57) or the unquestioned acceptance of Werner Breig’s conclusions re the authenticity of An Wasserflüssen, BWV 653b (ped. doppio), despite the doubts of others (p.94). Wider angles are bound to reveal selectivity but some omissions are regrettable, including, in the earliest chapters, the direction in Buxheim, tenori inferius in pedali, and of the very earliest pedal references in Ileborgh. A number of more basic errors should perhaps be pointed out. For example, the assertion that Bach began his exploration of the stile antico in the 1730s (p.98 – what about WTC I or BWV 545?), the transposing of Gauntlett’s christian names (p.200 – Henry John not John Henry), and the 1851 exhibition was The Great Exhibition, not The International Industrial Exhibition, which was in 1862 (p.193). The comments on Mendelssohn’s early repertoire are unclear, although even William A. Little’s comprehensive monograph found itself placing stop-press information on this in the appendix. Elsewhere, selectivity can lead to distortion of the overall picture: the Dresden Schneider and Hesse are considered at some length with regard to their influence in England, but neither Haupt, who was consulted in connection with the design of the later Crystal Palace organ, nor Thiele, whose pedal parts Haupt eventually declared too difficult for him, get a mention. This is presumably because neither played in England, yet the relevant chapter’s title is ‘The Worldwide Expansion of the German Pedal Ideal’. Thiele died at an early age, but during the generations that followed, it was his pinnacle of pedal virtuosity, the Variations in A flat, that became the pedal test piece in conservatoires across Europe.

The final chapter is itself called ‘Bach’s Feet’. Its first section is rather more than ‘tangentially concerned with performance practice’ since it begins with a highly useful consideration of Bach’s footwear. ‘Bach’s rising from orphan to one of the leading civic musicians in 18th-century Germany’ (p.253) is used to show that the style of his footwear changed during his lifetime. This is thought-provoking regarding the early use of all-toes, but the hypothesis that ‘probably, Bach played … in Lübeck wearing the same shoes he made his long journey in’ (p.249) is completely undemonstrable. The well-known existence in the Nachlass of two silver shoe-buckles as evidence for raised heels is certainly convincingly argued, however.

The perennial, often over-simplified, toes-only dogma receives little consideration. All-toes is ostensibly contradicted in a quote from E.L. Gerber (son of Bach’s pupil) that ‘Bach used to make long double- trills with both feet … on the pedals’ (p.266). Earlier, the question is dismissed rather more perfunctorily: ‘[Bach] did use his heels, though not nearly as often as in modern pedal technique. There are many documented examples of the use of the heel in the 18th century in the Bach circle, especially in passages either directly transcribed from instrumental music, or composed in imitation of it. Given this evidence, it would be hard to maintain that Bach only ever used his heels in exceptional cases’(p.16). Three sources for these ‘many documented examples’ are given, but none is quoted or discussed.

Samuel Petri receives consideration with regard to pedalling, but the anachronism problem with reference to JSB, and the most important foundation of Petri’s approach (the forward-backward positioning lines) are both passed over. Even if performance practice is not the principal aim, the dimensions of Bach’s Arnstadt console, as they are preserved, are surely relevant to Bach as a pedal-player in any context? There is no consideration of research on important topics such as evidence, either from the dimensions that are preserved in the organs themselves or the implications of primary sources, of lateral position on the bench in relation to the tessitura of the pedal passage to be played. This would have been a good place to collate critical evidence regarding the heights of benches, dimensions of pedals and pedalboards as far as they can be determined. Thus there is no mention of the extent to which disparities created by independent organ builders’ differing dimensions produced non-standardisation. (H.G. Trost’s 27-note 1720s pedalboard at Waltershausen, for example, was an enormous 1.312m wide, as now restored to its original dimensions by Joachim Stade). Adlung’s description of the position of the feet is not cited, and although proof that Adlung saw Bach play is lacking, he was so close to those associated with him that his remarks are rather more than pertinent.

The ‘new interpretation’ seldom appears to encompass style-critical reference. Degrees of detachment between notes and what this might imply could have been one area to incorporate, regarding the pedal. Peter Williams’s counsel was, for instance, for the detaching of the bass in the big Vater unser, BWV 682 as if a separately bowed violone. Applied more generally, does this remain interpretational rather than historiographically demonstrable, and how might approaches to the degrees of detachment, selectively-applied legato, left and right toe-selection, crossing feet, forward-backward positioning be affected? Perhaps the new angle should cause us not to expect this kind of citation, but it is so critical to any view of the topic of ‘Bach’s Feet’.

This final chapter then moves on to discussions that, together with passages in the rest of the book, are born of the ‘new interpretation’. Rather than serving to invite serious consideration, however, regrettably they do nothing but trivialise. There are passages on the organ’s role in sinister Nazi visions, and what is described as ‘bringing Bach back down to earth’. This is the sort of thing:

Let’s move … back to the larger of the two instruments in Lübeck’s Marienkirche, Buxtehude’s church, where Bach arrived in the late Fall of 1705 after his long walk north from Thuringia in those sturdy German shoes. When Bach played at a Sunday morning service or at the close of Vespers on a Saturday night by candlelight, and looked up from the console, to the instrument stretching above him, his perspective shifted from the human-scaled keys and stops nearby to the towering pipes of the organ and its architecture.

Directly above the keyboard the organist saw the biggest pipe rising towards the vaulted ceiling, the pipe mouths decorated as fearsome faces … It is an uncomfortable, even awkward position to assume: head back, arms reaching over the keyboards, feet at the pedals. The pose cannot be held for long, especially if the music being played is physically involved. With ears directed upward and not straight into the console, one hears more of the organ and its immediate effect, and also more of the echo out in the church; one experiences a greater awareness of the monumentality of the instrument, but also a keener sense of the mass and character of the sound. This posture and view can also lead to vertigo. (p.271)

JOHN SCOTT WHITELEY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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