FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Shoes: the Outside Story, From Beckham to Clinton to Bach

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Yesterday’s White House send-off of the U. S. World Cup soccer team by President Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton was notable for the attention  the sports-loving statesmen paid the players’ shoes—not their soccer shoes, but their tan Oxfords. “I want to be on this team just for the shoes,” enthused Clinton, who is honorary chairman of the USA Bid Committee, hoping to bring the World Cup to the US for 2018. Clinton was President the last time (which was also the first time) the tournament was held in the US in 1994. At yesterday’s White House gathering Clinton hoisted his own ex-presidential left foot in its sleek black shoe so the cameras could compare it to the footwear of the national soccer team now headed for Johannesburg. Clinton has a longstanding affection for shoes and for showing them off, as he demonstrated with his fashion-browns in a kick-about with Pelé in Rio de Janeiro back in 1997.

At yesterday’s White House gathering Clinton went on: “This is the only team that I’ve ever seen that had these cool shoes.” Obama agreed, “that those are some sharp shoes,” and then oggled Glasgow Ranger and  US team midfielder Maurice Edu’s ostentatious watch. It was a day to celebrate fashion accessories. As David  Beckham has most comprehensively proven, packaging your image off-the-field is more important than your accomplishments on it. The Huffington Post reported that the soccer team’s shoes were cap-toe Oxfords (with concealed Nike Air technology for maximum comfort) by Cole Haan, which retail for around $200. That figure seems downright Spartan given what is probably the average cost of the shoes in, for example, Beckham’s closet, or even compared to his line of Adidas Predator soccer cleats which go for $220. (I recommend Producers and Footwear in the Long Eighteenth Century. During that period a middle-class Englishman would spent about 5% of his annual income on shoes; for a French laborer the outlay was more like 15 per cent a year.

The talk of shoes and other accessories brings me to Bach’s feet.

The ninth section of Bach’s estate concerns itself with the deceased’s clothing and accessories.  Listed are a silver dagger, a walking stick with silver mounting, three fine coats (one of them for funerals), and a pair of silver shoe buckles. It seems likely that these were the very same silver buckles Bach wore when he played the organ for the great German princes of the age: in Dresden for Augustus father and son, in turn Saxon Elector and Polish King; and in Potsdam for Frederick the Great. It was in the 1660s that shoes began to be equipped with buckles, which had attained an increasingly important function in the fashion of the 18th-century because of the relative lack of variation in men’s shoes themselves, whose design remained largely unchanged in the period.

German shoes were made mostly from leather, English or Cordovan, with heals either of built-up leather strips or of wood; the so-called quarter (the rear part of the upper) came from the heal around either side of the ankle and then narrowed into straps (called latchets in English; “ears” [Ohren] in the German of Bach’s day). These straps were fed through the shoe buckle and tightened. As opposed to the dozens of pairs of shoes our soccer players have, these shoes were all-purpose, the ultimate cross-trainers, good for walking in conditions that were often wet and muddy—that is, through the kinds of places Bach ventured, especially in his ambulatory youth. These shoes must have been good for playing the organ, too, in light of the difficulty of so much of Bach’s music. Bach needed only one pair of shoes to do all these things.

With the standardization in the shape of pair of men’s shoes, buckles became a crucial accessory for the projection of social status and fashion consciousness. But the importance of the physical properties of shoes for an organist were also vital: the pliability of the leather; bulkiness, fit and comfort; the size of the heel (on average about 2.5 inches tall in Bach’s day).

Buckles were the focal point of others’ attention when they looked down at his feet in the process of getting the measure of a man, his social status, his self-image, his  regard for fashion.  And if he played the organ the buckles caught the eye since they adorned the most eye-catching feature of performance at the instrument: the feet.  We know from reports of Bach’s pedal wizardry that he was one of the greatest show-offs in the history of organ playing. As in that most flamboyant case of the  20th-century virtuoso, Virgil Fox and his diamonded-studded organ shoes, the showman needs the proper shodding to draw attention to a sparkling pedal technique. Beyond that flash and dash, he needs the right gear—like silver buckled shoes. These accoutrements were common enough for members of the middle-class, but they proved for the many who looked at Bach’s feet when walking around town, standing in front of a choir, or dancing that the Bach had arrived at a certain station, that of bourgeois respectability. His ability at the organ had brought him there, from orphanhood at age ten to his first professional position as violin-playing lackey at the Weimar Court in his late teens, to one of the most prestigious and tradition-rich civic posts in all of Germany, Director of Music in Leipzig and Cantor at the Thomasschule at the age of thirty-seven. And these buckles certainly enhanced the visual effect of his performance at the organ, where bystanders’ attention to the feet was at its most intense; this was not the only reason for Bach to wear them, but he was doubtless aware of what was on his feet and how this contributed to the spectacle of his performance.

Other organists knew this, too. It is a curious coincidence that the 1783 will of Bach’s last student, Johann Gottfried Müthel, lists a pair of silver shoe buckles of an “old-fashioned small appearance.” As far as I can tell they were the only item described as “old-fashioned” among Müthel’s effects. Could these buckles have been an in-kind payment made by the cash-strapped Anna Magdalena Bach for musical services Müthel might have provided soon after Bach’s death, and which were to be paid for by his widow? Like his teacher, Müthel enjoyed showing off with his feet at the organ. He worked up an acrobatic trick in which his left foot jumped over the right foot in a maneuver analogous to hand crossing on the manuals. Müthel highlighted his astonishing pedal virtuosity with silver buckles, whether they were Bach’s or not.

Bach’s other accessories were silver, too, and together made a fine ensemble: silver-mounted walking stick in and silver sword at his side and silver buckles on his feet. That he had a taste for elegance is suggested by the articles of clothing listed in his estate: the first of his three coats is of gros du tour (that is, gros du Tours), a costly silken ribbed fabric, generally black; Bach’s garment was “turned” (gewendet), that is adorned with elaborately textured piping or brocade. The figure of eight Thaler assigned to this coat in the specification of estate makes it the second most valuable item in the clothing section, four Thaler less than the sword and of the same value as Bach’s Stainer violin. These violins were by the end of the 18th century worth four times as much as those of Stradivarius; still highly prized, especially by early music specialists, the relative value of Stainer’s instruments has declined precipitously over the last two hundred years. Clothes were far more expensive in the 18th-century, but it is clear from all this that when he wanted to, Bach could look quite fancy and present himself as more than merely respectable.

The account of the youthful brawl between Bach and an affronted bassoonist named Geyersbach in Arnstadt in the summer of 1705 offers another glimpse of Bach’s look. In the incident Geyersbach accosted Bach, aggrieved at the organist for having called allegedly him a “a greenhorn bassoonist.” Bach had coming from the direction of the castle; as things heated up Bach, who’d had his pipe between teeth, reached for his sword, but the bassoonist fell upon him and the hot-tempered pair rolled around until separated by the other students. There, in the shadow of the Neue Kirche, its young organist seems to have worn his sword that Tuesday evening.  We might even surmise that the sword was part of Bach’s usual sartorial ensemble, and that he wore it while playing the organ, as in the that most famous image of the organist at his bench—with sword and buckled shoes—from  the encyclopedic L’art du facteur d’Orgue of 1766 by Dom Bédos de Celles.

When Bach visited organs from Halle to Hamburg he might have had his silver accessories with him: sword and shoe buckles; the walking stick he’d presumably put down when he seated himself at the organ bench.

These accoutrements likely accompanied him on a trip to Kassel to inspect a new organ in 1732. According to a contemporary report, Bach astonished the local ruler with his footwork:

“Bach ran over the pedals with this same facility, as if his feet had wings, making the organ resound with such fullness, and so penetrate the ears of those present like a thunderbolt, that Frederick, the legitimate hereditary Prince of Kassel, admired him with such astonishment that he drew a ring with a precious stone from his finger and gave it to Bach as soon as the sound had died away.  If Bach earned such a gift for the agility of this feet, what, I ask, would the Prince have given him if he had called his hands into service as well?”

If the Prince commented on Bach’s “cool,” or perhaps already “retro” shoe  buckles, the remark went unreported.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail