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Bach’s Feet: The Organ Pedals in European Culture by David Yearsley (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 1, September 2013
pp. 119-122 | 10.1353/not.2013.0105

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If asked to name the first two concepts that come to mind when considering the pipe organ, most classical musicians would likely offer a sound, the music of J. S. Bach, and an image, the use of the feet on the pedal keyboard. Studies that deal as much with the visual curiosity of “four-limbed performance” (to borrow David Yearsley’s evocative term) as with the sonic grandeur of the instrument are rare and, among recent volumes, perhaps none accepts the challenge more ambitiously than Yearsley’s appropriately titled Bach’s Feet: The Organ Pedals in European Culture. Yearsley, a professor of musicology and performance at Cornell, is an acknowledged authority on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music as well as on historical performance practices at the keyboard. His most recent book, however, is unique in that it focuses neither on a specific corpus nor on an aspect of performance practice, but rather on the organ and organists as cultural icons and their role in successively wider cultural contexts. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the volume, and one that deserves special mention at the outset of any review, is his stunning erudition, which is on full display on every page. Not only is the research meticulous, but the scope and range of sources seemingly at his fingertips imbues the text with a richness of detail and makes the 240-item bibliography an invaluable resource in itself.

Bach’s Feet’s 280 pages are organized into six extensive, subtitled, and largely self-contained chapters that proceed roughly chronologically from ca. 1500 to the present day. The first, “Inventing the Organist’s Feet,” begins with a discussion of the once-ubiquitous and now almost-forgotten myth regarding the invention of the pedals by a certain “Bernhard the German,” whose name is first mentioned by an obscure fifteenth-century Venetian scholar as having added pedals with separable (independent) stops to the organ at St. Mark’s. Later writers somewhat surreptitiously expanded Bernhard’s role to that of inventor of the pedals, a subtle but important change for Germans’ conception of their role in organ history. Yearsley resurrects the legend of Bernhard in order to introduce one of the main themes of the volume: for German commentators, almost from the beginning, the modern organ was defined more than anything else by the presence and use of a robust pedal division which, for several hundred years, was the exclusive domain of German organists. Furthermore, to be able to claim the inventor of this defining aspect was a significant point of national pride, and it is surely no accident that, as Yearsley points out, the last ardent defender of the viability of the Bernhard legend was the Nazi scholar Hans Joachim Moser (p. 39).

The remainder of the chapter explores the way in which the pedal became an equal partner with the hands. Yearsley chooses to focus on the organ trio, the purest example of the organ’s contrapuntal potential, in its development from the elegant verses of Arnolt Schlick to the effervescent six trio sonatas of Bach, BWV 525–530, still measuring sticks for young organists nearly 300 years after their composition. Here and in similar sections discussing specific pieces of music, there is an unfortunate tendency toward blow-by-blow descriptions of musical phenomena, which are generally rendered redundant by the ample and excellent musical examples.

The second chapter, “Harmonies of the Feet, Visions of the Body,” retreads the same historical ground from a new and intriguing perspective: the idea that performance with four limbs allowed the organist “unique means to understand musical space … the disposition, contour, and cooperation of discreet polyphonic voices” (p. 73). This concept has special relevancy for blind musicians, who seem to have been drawn to the organ from the very beginning. As Yearsley notes, three of the earliest organists whose names are recorded—Conrad Paumann, Paul Hofhaimer, and Schlick—were all blind, and it was Schlick who produced the still-unsurpassed “Ascendo ad patrem meum,” a monumental piece of ten independent parts (six for the hands, four for the feet). Although Schlick wrote that the piece was originally choral, Yearsley makes a compelling case for its having been conceived...



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