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 email@example.com