Bach's feet

Occasionally you come across a book which while not perfect makes you love it regardless. I've had this experience quite often with fiction, but never before with a non-fiction read but Bach's feet by David Yearsley is that sort of book. Ok, I'm an organ nerd, and this is definitely one for the organ nerd, preferably the organ-playing-organ-nerd (not the type who, rather like that strange breed who collect car number plates, are more obsessed with the statistics of the organ "What? You never realised that there were 6000 pipes in this instrument?" "Um, no, I just noticed that doesn't necessarily make it very good to play..."). Bach's feet is a celebration of the organ and in particular of what appears to be that vital component, what makes an organ an organ, the pedalboard. Most people, even those who know nothing about the organ (perhaps especially those) would think that the pedals are the defining feature of an organ. It's what differentiates it from any other keyboard; and yet, for much of its history, as this book reveals, organs lacked pedalboards. They had at best odd notes that could be held down by the feet as a sort of drone, and some countries (England!) completely lacked pedals altogether.

The revolution came in Germany where at an early stage in the Early Modern era pedalboards were introduced not just as something that could supply the odd long note, but as an extra keyboard with the feet replacing the hands. And then there came Bach....who elevated (although we really need a word that indicates both a downwards motion and positivity) the pedals to a whole different level - they soared, they swooped, they danced. What comes through in this book is Yearsley's own joy in pedal technique, and how it differentiates organists from "non-organists". We probably all know a non-organist, someone who has played the organ for donkey's years, but never quite got around to learning the scary pedals. In fact as any "organist" can tell you, the pedals aren't scary, they are wonderful.

There's a physicality (something that also comes across in the book) about organ playing that surpasses all other instruments, and this is in spite of the distance of the instrument from the player. It comes from the fact that at its best the whole body is in motion on the organ, so that you're engaged physically in playing in a way you never are with the piano, for instance. A fugue can soar through your whole body moving between the hands and into the feet. And as it moves up and down the pedals, your body goes with it, the motion of the fugue moving through you. It's wonderful!

And I guess why I liked this book, after not having played the organ for some time and recently having started again, was that it reinforced what I love about the instrument. The author's passion for the instrument mirrored mine, and I felt very proud to belong to the confraternity of pedalling organists, who know the sheer joy of playing a fugue with both hands and feet. an academic read it does have its problems. There is some very sloppy editing. Occasionally Yearsley seems to be unsure of his facts and vacillates between one theory and another : Bernhard the German built an organ with full German pedalboard in Venice, and then he didn't, and then he does, and .... I don't care really whether he did or didn't but the author needs to come off the fence and make a decision about this. Some footnotes have been conflated erroneously, and there are some silly mistakes - a pedal entry, for instance, is described as coming in early and then two sentences later becomes a late entry.

The other problem is that the ordering of the information within the volume is sometimes less than ideal. The closing chapter consists mainly of a series of reflections on the footwear of Bach's day, and how it influenced the art of pedalling - all interesting stuff (yes, honest - I warned you I was a nerd) - but then sashays into a section on the organ and the Third Reich. This was fascinating, but in completely the wrong place, and appeared to have minimal relevance to anything else - perhaps a topic for another book that accidentally strayed into this one.

As an academic read, to be honest, I wouldn't rate it - there are too many mistakes. And though the prose descriptions of how it feels to play a Bach organ work will resonate with fellow organists it tells them nothing new, while I'm not sure how comprehensible it would be to a non-pedalling-organist (other than perhaps to show them just what they're missing!). However as a purely pleasurable read for an organ-nerd it's thoroughly enjoyable, and made me feel very proud that I'm an organist.

Video at the top is of the wonderful Peter Hurford (my personal organ hero when I was a teenager) playing Bach's E flat major prelude and fugue, BWV 552 "St. Anne". In spite of the dodgy pedal tuning in places this sort of shows what it's like - one of the most fun preludes you can play with a cracking pedal part guaranteed to make any organist laugh out loud just for the joy of playing.


McGonagall said…
Thank you for the Bach clip! I love organ music but don't play. Writers who are passionate about their subjects are often compelling, even if you know nothing about it. Same for television presenters - Mary Beard is endlessly fascinating.

I have been blundering about trying to keep track of the latest posts from blogs i like. Finally seem to have hit on a solution that works even for terminally distracted people like me.
Book-hound said…
You'll have to share your solution - I manage to follow some blogs from the dashboard, but some I'm afraid fall by the wayside :(

Popular Posts