Fancy Footwork

The feet are indispensable to so many human activities that their almost complete lack of involvement in music making in the Western classical tradition is astonishing. Since human beings first began moving their bodies to musical sound, the feet have been crucial to expressing the power of song through dance. Yet the feet, capable of so many crucial skills, now lie largely unused but for a few musical acts. Vital to so many quotidian tasks, and taken so much for granted, the feet of most classical musicians remain as immobilized as those of their audiences. It is only at the organ that the feet are given the chance to pursue their musical potential. The most energetic form of musical performance, organ playing unites dance and music.

It might seem logical enough that organists use their feet in ways that other musicians do not. The organ is the largest instrument and therefore could rightly demand the largest physical commitment from its players. The body of the organ itself often architecturally encompasses that of the player: the instrument sprawls above, to the sides, and even, in an arrangement typical of many traditions across Europe and common in Bach’s time, behind the organist. Stacked in front of the player are multiple keyboards: two, three, four, or as many as an outlandish six at the John Wanamaker Store organ in Philadelphia, where the behemoth, said to be the largest organ in the world, inhabits the seven-stories of the building’s central Grand Court.

Below an organ’s manuals is a keyboard for the feet whose standard compass on modern instruments stretches to two-and-a-half octaves. Many amazed witnesses lucky enough to have been invited up to the organ loft to take in the spectacle of four-limbed musical performance at close quarters, or in attempts to match the immediacy of piano recital where the performer is always visible, through closed circuit television. For these spectators the organist appears as much an acrobat as a musician. The ability to play with all the limbs together, but also to make music with the feet alone, impresses such witnesses perhaps more for its gymnastic virtuosity than for the musical eloquence it may aspire to. Those organists who play without using the pedals, or only hold down an occasional note with the left foot, usual consider themselves—and are considered by others—to be not really organists at all. The modern organist must be able to use her feet independently from the hands; the fully certified virtuoso can manage scales, leaps across large intervals, contrapuntal lines in each of the two feet simultaneously, even ornaments such as trills, and myriad combinations of these and other figures.

Nearly all organ competitions, from Dallas to Johannesburg, place the music of J. S. Bach at the core of the repertoire; inevitably, works by Bach loom on the repertoire list for the opening round. The requirements for the first stage of the 2008 Musashino-Tokyo Organ Competition were typical: the very first obstacle to be tackled was the mighty Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 543) by J. S. Bach. After the work opens with a display of lengthy, monophonic manual figuration, much of it heard above a long-note held by the left foot alone, a short but arduous pedal solo charges the two feet with mimicking what the fingers have just tossed off at the outset of the piece. The Prelude enacts the words of Bach’s Obituary, published in 1754, a document whose title describes the deceased expressly as “A World Famous Organist”: “With his two feet, he could play things on the pedals that many not unskillful clavier players would find it bitter enough to have to play with five fingers.” In Bach’s organ music the interplay of contest and cooperation between feet and hands is perpetual. Once the hurdle of the A Minor’s first pedal solo has either been cleared or has felled the aspirations of the competitor, the prelude commences a concerto-like dialogue between hands and feet, with short solo bursts interjected by the feet. The material from the solo is then taken up in a multi-voiced textured which demands exact coordination between hands feet: what the pedal previously did alone when first announcing its solo skills it must now do together with the manuals. After these diverse hazards have been dealt with, a lengthy and spirited fugue looms before the player, whose feet must keep meticulous pace with the racing polyphony of the upper parts before a final pedal solo, the most perilous of the entire work, marks the finish line. The piece is a musical decathlon unto itself, requiring speed, endurance, flexibility, timing, balance, coordination, marksmanship (where is that low pedal E in the last solo passage for the feet?), dexterity, strength, and, perhaps most of all, confidence.

In the Tokyo Competition, as at almost every other event like it in a globalized organ culture, the pedaliter music of J. S. Bach guards the entrance to the organist’s fraternity, not only because of its overall musical qualities—chief among them its contrapuntal craftsmanship—but also for the purely physical reason that it provides the classic test for the independence of the feet. There are more difficult pieces involving the pedal, when judged in numerical terms: more notes, played faster, with more accidentals.  But in judging the requirements of the feet and hands in relentlessly exposed counterpoint, no subsequent composers have surpassed Bach’s music as a barometer of technical sufficiency with two hands and two feet. In short, “real” organists must show that their feet can do what Bach’s could do.

The purported universality of Bach’s music, and its ubiquitous presence in the international organ repertoire since the 19th century tends to obscure the cultural specific origins of this often flamboyant, pedal-based approach to the instrument. Equipping organs with full pedal boards and a battery of independent pedal stops and playing on them with great musical force as well as finesse became the standard across Western Europe only in the middle of the 19th century. Bach’s music was essential to the introduction of this approach to the organ beyond German borders. Long before Bach, Germans believed they had invented the pedal, and that this technological and musical advance that symbolized their dominance in organ building and playing. The pedals and the towering pipes they commanded endowed their instruments with visual and sonic gravity and solemnity; they provided the foundation for an expansive musical texture extending downward to the threshold of musical perception, even while the high-pitched stops pushed to, and in some cases even beyond, the uppermost limits of human hearing. And while the image of towering pedal pipes and the dazzling footwork of the organist has attained universal recognition in both high and popular culture, in literature, film, and music, it was a national—or better proto-nationalist—symbol before it was a global one. At least three hundred years before the German nation was forged in the 19th century, the German’s believed that they had been responsible for this crucial invention, one which, they boasted, had revolutionized the musical possibilities afforded by the instrument and in so doing had further inflated its already impressive visual impact. The Germans had endowed the King of Instruments with its fundament, the pedal, and therefore too the contrapuntal reach, dynamism, that compete with orchestra of four-limbed performance.

For only about the last century-and-a-half, that is, since the export of the German mode of playing it, has the concept of the “organ” necessarily meant an instrument with pedals. Gerard Hoffnung’s organist caught speeding by the police lampoons the technological excess and physical overload that organ performance represents to non-organists.

Somehow in the surveying the many composer anniversaries of last year—the births of Purcell of Mendlessohn, the deaths of Handel and Haydn—I forgot to offer tribute to Hoffnung, fifty years after his premature death at the age of thirty in 1959. A Jew who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 as a teenager, Hoffnung became the definitive English humorist of music, as a cartoonist, as raconteur in the persona of a rambling skatter-brained school teacher with the perfectly over-the-top and plummy English accent.

The Hoffnung Companion to Music: In Alphabetical Order, first published in 1957, just two years before his death, includes many of his most famous send-ups of the delights and difficulties, the ardors and absurdities, of musicians at the tasks to which they’ve devoted so much of their lives. With Hoffnung’s entry for the organist, this refugee from a Nazi Germany—a country that had viciously exploited the power of the organ and its largest pedal pipes for as a nationalist symbol, as in the notorious poster by Lothar Heinemann, Deutschland printed in 1935—deflated the organist’s tendency towards megalomania and toppled the ideology of power that the instrument itself had long embodied. Though one wouldn’t want to make too strong a connection between Hoffnung’s pacifism and his art, I can’t help but see a seomwhat larger message in the humor. I like to imagine that the unseen organist behind the Nazi eagle with pedal pipes as its wing feathers is Hoffnng’s goofy little guy apprehended by the authorities.

With one cartoon, Hoffnung took in not only a vast swath of the organ’s history, but said something essential about what it means to play the King of Instruments. Nearly dwarfed by his console, Hoffnung’s myopic musician peers up from his hymnal and the profusion of keyboards to see a police car pursuing him in the rear view mirror. The image would be incomplete and far less funny without the visually prominent pedals and ungainly, dangling feet canted at weird angles One can hardly expected that this musician with his glasses and tails, his big hands and shoes, could really find it in himself to speed. Yet, the cartoon corresponds to the image of the organist in a wider culture: busy with both hands and feet, he operates a technologically sprawling console with his entire body; he is a kind of musical jet pilot, absurdly busy at his array of controls. The diminutive organist wins much of his comic effect by seeming barely up to the task of discharging the multiple responsibilities that such a machine demands.

But the image also offers a kind of commentary on the often solitary nature of organ performance. Generally cut off from other musicians in his lonely organ loft or tucked in some distant corner of a church, the organist communicates with other musicians only indirectly, through the mirror, or straining to hear the sound of the congregation’s voices dragging along in the hymn. Perched at the console of the instrument of instruments, banks of individual sounds available at the stop knobs to his right and left, the organist is punished for his self-sufficiency by being relentlessly denied the joys of communal music-making. Because he is a symphony unto himself, the organist must mostly go it alone; because he can use his feet, he must tread the solitary path. The cops in the mirror of Hoffnung’s organist are not only after him for some violation of the rules of the road. There is also the taint of deviance surrounding this little man trying to break free of anything that would contain him.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, 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





DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at