Bach’s Incredible Feet

On Wednesday J. S. Bach’s  birthday rolled around for the 327th  time. He’s been dead, though not so comfortably, for 262 of those anniversaries. His bones have been moved twice and subjected to various moldings and manipulations. His skeleton (see image) casts a fine figure, and especially praised by German phrenologist who saw in the make-up of his ear cavities proof of native genius.

Since Bach exhumations—both aesthetic and physical (for more on this curious story  go here)—of the 19th century his birthday festivities become ever more widespread and vigorous. I’m sure sales in the Bach Museum gift shop in Leipzig were especially brisk on Wednesday. One can pick up Bach t-shirts, ties, watches, music-boxes, liqueur, pen-drives (imagine what the great man would have thought of the possibility fitting all of his music on a gizmo smaller than his little finger) not to mention books and CDs. What better pretext than a posthumous birthday bash to move product?

And so, in the spirit of Bachian commerce and blatant self-promotion, I offer here the first thrilling pages of my recently released Bach’s Feeta book not just about the greatest organist of his or any other day, but also his legacy as a performer with a penchant for razzle-dazzle footwork that made him the marvel of the age.

The organist seated at the king of instrument with thousands of pipes rising all around him, his hands busy at the manuals and his feet patrolling the pedalboard, is a symbol of musical self-sufficiency yielding possibilities beyond that of any other mode of solo performance. In this book I presents a new interpretation of the significance of the king of instruments by investigating the German origins of this uniquely independent use of the feet in organ playing. Delving into a range of musical, literary, and visual sources, Bach’s Feet demonstrates the cultural importance of this physically demanding mode of music-making, from the blind German organists of the 15th century, through the central contribution of Bach’s music and legacy, to the newly-pedaling organists of the British Empire and the sinister visions Nazi propagandists.

Now to those opening pages:

The feet are indispensable to so many human activities that their almost complete lack of direct involvement in music–making in the Western classical tradition is astonishing. Since humans 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. At the piano and the timpani, for example, they discharge an important, but still secondary function; on both instruments, pedals were introduced relatively recently, at the beginning and end of the nineteenth century respectively. The modern harp, too, requires the use of the feet, but not to play independent polyphonic lines or to break into solos during which the hands are idled. Vital to countless quotidian tasks, 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, playing the organ 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, its mechanism the most involving for the player. Stacked in front of the player are often multiple keyboards—two, three, four, or as many as an outlandish six at the John Wanamaker Store in Philadelphia, where the behemoth, said to be the largest 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 extends to two-and-a-half octaves. In the course of this book, we will meet 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. 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 witnesses even more for its gymnastic virtuosity than its musical eloquence. Those organists who play without using the pedals at all, or who merely hold down an occasional note with the left foot, usually consider themselves—and are considered by others—not really to be organists at all. Modern organists must be able to use their 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 today, from Finland to Australia, place the music of J. S. Bach at the core of the repertoire; inevitably, works by Bach are to be played in the opening round. The required pieces for the first stage of the 2008 Musashino-Tokyo Organ Competition reflect this standard:

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992): Le banquet céleste

Johann Sebastian Bach: Praeludium et Fuga in a, BWV 543

Johann Sebastian Bach:

Choose one chorale from the following:

– Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BWV 652

– An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653

– Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 654

– Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659

– Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 662

– Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 663

After the centenary of Olivier Messiaen’s birth is marked by the intensely slow Le banquet céleste of 1928, the competitor must tackle Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 543). The work opens with a display of manual figuration, much of it heard above a long-note held by the left foot alone, before a short but arduous pedal solo charges the two feet with mimicking what the fingers have just tossed off. 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, [Bach] 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 feet and hands oscillate between contest and cooperation. Once the hurdle of the Prelude’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. This multi-voiced texture demands exact coordination between the four limbs: what the pedal previously did alone when first announcing its solo skills it must now do with the manuals. After these diverse obstacles have been dealt with, a lengthy and spirited fugue rises up to test 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.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor is a musical decathlon unto itself, requiring speed, endurance, suppleness, poise, balance, coordination, marksmanship (where exactly is that low pedal E in the last solo passage for the feet?), steadiness, strength, and, perhaps most important of all, confidence.

The Bach chorale preludes also on the Tokyo competition’s required list are more introspective. But they also have obbligato pedal lines that demand perhaps even greater attention to the nuances of melodic contour and articulation. In this first round of an international competition, as in so many others, the feet must not only amaze with their dancing accuracy, but they are also charged with moving the listener with their subtle expressivity. In the Tokyo Competition, as at almost every other event like it in international organ culture, the pedaliter music of J. S. Bach guards the entrance to the organists’ fraternity, not only because of its overall musical qualities—chief among them 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 when judged in purely statistical terms: more notes, to be played faster, with more accidentals.  But in the exposed writing for the feet and the requirements of aligning them deftly with a relentlessly exposed counterpoint, no prior or subsequent body of organ works has surpassed Bach’s music in gauging technical sufficiency with two hands and two feet. “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, tend to obscure the culturally specific origins of this often flamboyant, pedal-based approach to the instrument. Equipping organs with full pedalboards and a battery of independent pedal stops and playing on them with great musical force and finesse became the standard across Western Europe only by the second half of the 19th century. While the association of the organ with monumental pedal pipes and the dazzling footwork of the organist has attained pervasive recognition in both high and popular culture, in literature, film, and music, this conception of the instrument and its player was a German one before it became global. At least three hundred years before the modern German nation was forged in the late 19th century, the people living in the cultural-linguistic area known as Germany believed that they had been responsible for the invention of the pedal in the 15th century; they boasted that this development had revolutionized the musical possibilities afforded by the organ.

No instrument has changed as much as the organ, not only over its long history of two millennia, but even over the last one hundred years.  The modern Steinway has far more in common with the first Cristofori pianos from the early 1700s than the giant organ in the John Wanamaker store in Philadelphia does with the Silbermann organs known to Bach. Yet a well-trained organist should be able to perform a Bach fugue, that by-now timeless standard, on both instruments. None of these variables is more unsettling or requires greater adaptability on the part of the organist than playing pedals with their disparate compasses, layouts, octave widths, and key sizes. The pedalboards of Bach’s time were flat and had wide keys, though their size was by no means standardized from country to country, or even region to region or builder to builder. In the 19th century various innovations led to new forms: curved pedalboards brought the upper and lowers keys somewhat out from the console and up towards the bench, supposedly allowing for easier access, since organists’ legs describe an arc as they splay.  Extending this thinking into three dimensions—as the legs splayed they not only rotated back but also upward—produced the most typical arrangement on modern organs, standardized by the American Guild of Organists: the radiating and concave pedalboard.

Imagine confronting a flat piano keyboard one day and a curved one the next. Sitting down at the organ and surveying the unfamiliar terrain—the spread and placement of the registers, the distance between manuals, and legions of other aspects of this new landscape—was and is a bracing, often unnerving experience, especially when a concert must be played within hours of this first encounter, often with a host organist, or other onlookers, experts and amateurs, listening and watching. Trying out an organ for the first time is an adventure like none other in music. All musicians need to have their wits about them when playing a new instrument, but none so much as the organist, who must have a body trained in the art of adaptability and a temperament eager for the unknown. To be a traveling organ virtuoso—and we will meet many in this book—was, and is, to be a brave soul.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. 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