Feet, Organs and Empire

In the age of Twitter revolts and Facebook rebellions, what is the King of Instruments to do about the  uprising of feet across the globe. The usurpation of the autocrat’s power began back in the 1930s with the Hammond electronic organs and their promise, so redolently revealed in such images as their Christmas ad from 1940. Now every member of every American family could crown himself or herself a musical monarch. The instructional books that came with these diminutive electronic rulers offering absolutist keyboard might promised also to show the burgeoning suburban royalty a quick and easy way to deploy the true source of their legitimacy as organists—how to exercise musical power through the exercise of their feet.

Since the invention of the organ pedals by the Germans around 1500, it was they alone who played the instrument with the full participation of all four limbs. Their fellow Europeans had rich organ-building and playing traditions but they involved the feet only minimally, for drones and the like. The English were the most deficient in the lower appendages. Well into the 19th-century their organs were for the most part utterly without pedals.

In the posthumous literary battles between the devotees of Bach and Handel— the two greatest organists of the 18th-century, and arguably of all time—this state of affairs led Bach’s eldest son to elevate his father well above the expatriate Handel, because the latter had been “compelled, as an Englishman, to renounce his skill with the pedals that, as a German, he had possessed.” To the Germans at the organ the feet were indispensable, often given long and arduous solos, sometimes even including full chords for the pedal alone.

For the Germans on the Grand Tour and when visiting England, the foreign organs they encountered were not really organs at all. To be worthy of the throne, the King of Instruments had to be elevated to royal status with legs and arms in full motion.

The North German  organist A. F. C. Kollmann transplanted himself to London in the late 18th-century, and was shocked at what he saw as the dismal state of the pedal-less organs. He found only a few meager indications toward “improvement” and the adoption of the German ideal of four-limbed performance, but in general Kollmann lamented the lack of appropriate instruments in England for the greatest of organ works—those of J. S. Bach. Such a deficiency was more than simply a musical matter, but reflected poorly on the standing of a great nation: “In regard to organs, it is remarkable, that throughout the whole British empire, and in the most opulent city on the face of the globe, London, there is, according to the best of our enquiries, not one organ equal to those which are frequent in the principal cities of Germany.”  Compared to the politically divided Germany, England was a global power, but it had no organs worthy of its geopolitical standing.

Over the 19th-century, spurred by their unmatched obsession with the music of J. S. Bach that began around 1800 (this obsessions surpassed even the nationalistic devotion of the Germans themselves), the English adopted pedal playing with the zeal of converts. After little more than a century the English could uncork pieces like the literally breathtaking stunt of George Thalben-Ball, organist at the Temple Church in London, of devising a devilish set of variations for feet alone based on demonic 19th most demanding showpiece; the 24th Caprice. Thalben-Ball answered Paganini’s bravura with his own pedal glissandi, ankle-contorting chords, hip-swiveling chromatics, and sprinting figuration.

But earlier in Thalben-Ball’s life a few early 20th century English organists began at last to reflect on what had been lost, or at least submerged, in the conversion to the German ideal. One of these was Charles Pearce, an expert on old churches of London and their organs; his Notes on Old City Churches: their organs, organists and musical associations had appeared in 1909; Notes on English Organs of the period 1800-1810 came out in 1912. Pearce’s antiquarian interests led him to try to exhume an older performance practice from the newly solidified strata of ubiquitous pedal performance. In 1919 he gave a “recital of old English organ music played exactly as written, and with only scanty use made of the pedalboard a century ago. The Wednesday afternoon concert at Trinity College of Music in London included a brief lecture to provide the proper historical context for something as unlikely as playing the organ without the feet. Such seeming austerity—what we would now be called “authenticity” or “historically informed performance,” had acquired the status of novelty. Withholding the feet even from music originally written for hands alone had become eccentric. The English organ past had itself become a foreign country.

The London Times could similarly report of the Dolmetsch family’s 1952 Haslemere Festival that “the special attraction of the first concert was a little eighteenth-century organ without pedal-board, made by Snetzler.” Ralph Downes played a Handel concerto Op. 4, no. 2, in B-flat major without the feet, just as Handel himself had done.  The attitude prevails to this day, though the early music movement has reclaimed pedal-less organ repertories from Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Italy, Bohemia and other regions of Europe.  Nonetheless, current plans for the restoration of the well-preserved 1735 Richard Bridge organ in Christ Church Spitalfields, one of the last surviving remnants of English 18th-century organ building, include a detachable pedalboard on which one can play Bach.  If this scheme is realized, one will be able to have it both ways: sit at the organ with feet on the floorboards, or roll in a pedalboard and let loose on Bach’s organ works in a manner that would have flabbergasted Richard Bridge. His original instrument had no pedals whatever.

While reclaiming something of his country’s pedal-less past, Pearce remained loyal to the view of history that embraced the adoption of the German system as a necessary, indeed inevitable, advance. In 1927 Pearce published The Evolution of the Pedal Organ and Matters Connected Therewith in which he admitted that “the evolution of pedal playing in England was as slow as the progress of the pedal organ itself.” His diagnosis had a venerable pedigree: “Old fashioned organists were such skilful left hand players that it took time to convince them of any necessity for playing with their feet.” By the end of the book the humble beginnings of English feet at the organ have been more than overcome by all the great English organists who’d adopted the German four-limbed approach.  Pearce could confidently pronounce that the “evolution of pedals and pedaling is complete.” He then cast a proud glance across the British Empire stretching over the globe from the Royal Albert Hall in London to Sydney Town Hall in Australia, the specifications of both these great organs occupying pride of place in his book. Also included in this dominion was the United States. As Churchill would do later, Pearce brought the Americans into the Empire culturally under the red-white-and-blue umbrella of “English-speaking.” Having mastered the pedal, indeed, says Pearce, excelled at it, the “English-speaking race is once more in the ascendancy, all the world over.”  Without pedal power a people cannot count themselves as truly powerful. As the German émigré Kollmann had pointed out more than a century earlier, an empire should have great organs—with massive pedals to be skillfully played by imperial organists. Over the 19th century the British had expanded their empire and with it the imperial reach of the organ pedals: it was through the missionary zeal and military might of the British that German feet had conquered the world.

In Asia, where the Bach cult now thrives most vigorously, the large German pedals and German-style pedalists were objects of intense fascination.  My colleague John Hsu, the great viola da gambist remembers as a boy going to the Anglican Cathedral in Shanghai of a Sunday and after the service gathering around the organ console with other dumbfounded church-goers to watch the British organist’s feet in musical motion. Recent large-scale organ projects in China demonstrate that country’s push to produce not only world-class violinists and pianists, but also masters of the organ. Japan’s commitment to Bach and to the organ has been unflagging since the 1950s; Tokyo is rich with world-class organs and organists who know how to use hands and feet.

Given this cursory outline of the globalization of the organ pedals, what are we to make of Asian girl-power organ playing on the Yahama Electone, a competitor to the Hammond company’s one-time hegemony invented, and now a  YouTube phenomenon, as we saw above with the Japanese girl in white cap and black high-tops kicking the stuffing out of a 1981 rock hit from the Canadian band Rush. It ain’t Bach, but it’s weirdly mesmerizing stuff.

The repertoire of her girlish Electone colleagues is vast, extending from heavy metal to Hollywood soundtracks and beyond, The extant of the arranging chops and commitment  to performance is still more astounding.

It’s true that the short Elecone pedals are smaller than the substantial pedals of the mighty organs known to Bach and his epigones down the three centuries since his death, and therefore don’t allow for the use of both toes and heel as in the Thalben-Ball fireworks. Many of the Asian Electone virtsuosas treat the feet, as in the YouTube Rush tribute, as tools of percussion alone, like the pedals of drum set. That the resulting music might see seem dubious to many, and a waste of talent to more than a few others, should not distract one from the larger message these images convey: the empire of musical feet continues to extend its dominion in ways that old Bach and all these imperial British organists could never have imagined.

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




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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

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