Orgel, Orgel Über Alles: How the German Organist Put His Foot Down

Along the same tributary of Lethe which bears such narcoleptic headlines as “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative”, “Trade: A Two-Way Street”, “Surprises Unlikely in Indiana,” and “Funniest Man in Luxembourg”, there surely floats the banner “Fascinating Book on Organ Music.” The sad truth is that organists – ex officio as it were – tend to subsist at a popularity level far lower than that of I.R.S. agents, and only marginally higher than that of pedophiles. A quick Google search reveals that the phrase “organists + Asperger’s” leads to no fewer than 398,000 websites, and “organist + nerd” to more than 1,700,000.

In many respects the average organist has more in common with a chess champion or a train-spotter than with the average player of an orchestral instrument. He is overwhelmingly male, nearer 60 than 30 years of age, and his attempts to defend his rights generally remain as ineffectual as they are persistent (with a few gratifying exceptions, such as this parking-space from near Cincinnati). Seldom stupid – Yehudi Menuhin once expressed doubt as to whether a dim-witted organist was even theoretically possible – the organist usually lacks all panache, even that Nietzschean panache which can derive from taking a hammer to his mother’s skull (as one Tasmanian organist of considerable talent did a few years ago, after years of utterly normal behavior to which this reviewer can attest).  In terms of pick-up lines for attracting the opposite sex, “I’m an organist” must rank somewhere alongside “I’m an accountant” or “I majored in Swiss constitutional law.”

And yet, every decade or so the Cone of Silence that normally encloses organists, as once it enclosed Maxwell Smart, is penetrated by a brightly written book which makes organ-playing seem generally, if briefly, attractive. One such book is All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and its American Masters, by New York Times correspondent Craig Whitney.  With the improbably named Bach’s Feet, we shall have, with luck, another.

The author of Bach’s Feet, David Yearsley, is a Cornell professor who originally had sections of his monograph printed in (of all improbable locales) Counterpunch. Several high-quality CDs contain Dr. Yearsley’s solo playing; but even if they did not, every sentence of his prose would still bespeak the accumulated wisdom of a practical recitalist. This performer-centric approach is increasingly common in musicological literature, and most agreeably so, not least for its implied threat to that monstrous regiment of blowhards who spent the late 20th century parlaying their Marxist and feminist rages into pseudo-scholarly careers without possessing enough practical know-how to play Chopsticks. Nowadays such blowhards have largely exhausted even the Ivy League’s patience – how long ago it seems since über-blowhard Susan McClary could extort scholarly kudos by interpreting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in terms of rape! – and by far the most prominent of them in 2012 has neither gained nor sought collegiate employment: England’s Norman Lebrecht, whose recent journalistic output comprises no more than the pursuit of Netanyahuism by ostensibly musical means, and can thus be safely ignored by all Western readers outside the specialist disciplines of abnormal psychology and political policing.

Dr. Yearsley’s title could well seem a puzzler. Why Bach’s feet? Why not Bach’s hands, his fingers, or what Pogo Possum would have called “his own special brain”? And why Bach, rather than some other outstanding figure in the organ’s annals? These questions are best answered simultaneously in point form.

First, Bach remains, 262 years after his death, organ music’s supreme master. The organist who cannot perform Bach is as intrinsically absurd as is the solo pianist who cannot perform Beethoven, or the Lieder singer who cannot perform Schubert.

Second, part of Bach’s supreme mastery lies in the enterprise which he brought to writing for the organ’s pedal-board. In this enterprise he had numerous heirs, but few genuine successors and still fewer precursors. To this hour, certain of Bach’s organ pieces – above all his Trio Sonatas – daunt all interpreters, however hardy, thanks to  their pedal lines’ exuberant independence. They have not been made one whit easier by all the mechanical developments which overtook the instrument between 1800 and 1950. Dr. Yearsley’s summation of the Trio Sonatas is germane:

“[F]or all their conversational refinement and gallant finesse, the relentlessness of the pitfalls is unmatched, the slightest hitch is noticed, the disturbance of the flow marked by the player’s body and the listener’s ear. Things can go wrong immediately and irrevocably as in no other genre: it is impossible to fake your way through a trio sonata movement.”

Third, Bach’s colleagues viewed him as an organist first and as a composer only second. This assessment might have been (as William F. Buckley asserted in National Review on May 3, 1985) as misguided as praising Shakespeare primarily for being an actor; but it happens to have been the unanimous verdict of distinguished 18th-century musical minds, and it permeates Bach’s most celebrated obituary, dating from 1754.

So much all organists know full well; so much numerous non-organists know tolerably well. Where Dr. Yearsley’s unique contribution resides is less in disclosing new documentary evidence, than in shedding abundant new light upon documentary evidence already recognized. It is, to sum up, his contention that pedaling at a Bachian level became inextricably bound with questions of Germanic national pride; that this pride was at once more bellicose and more persistent (not to mention more Bismarckian) than most historians ever imagined; and that grasping it is crucial to a proper comprehension of organ music as a whole. On occasion Dr. Yearsley must slip into hypothesis mode where one would prefer something more like a Q.E.D.; but for 95% of the time he is forensically formidable.

By a paradox, the organ is at once among the oldest of instruments and (in technological terms) among the newest. It is also among the most mysterious. Nobody knows – though British musicologist Peter Williams has impressively theorized about – how it became a church adjunct in the first place, when it had long been so deeply associated with the anti-Christian horrors of gladiatorial contests. Nobody knows exactly what the earliest church organs played (were they, as Dr. Williams has conjectured, mere glorified sirens ad terrorem?). Above all, nobody knows how, why, or by whose efforts the organ first acquired a pedal-board. We know that it did so in the 15th century; but in what circumstances the acquisition happened, and why it should have occurred in the German-speaking lands rather than (say) in northeastern Castile, continues to be anyone’s guess. In 1448 there appeared – attributed to one Adam Ileborgh, who taught music in Brandenburg – the first collection of organ works with a discrete pedal part (curiously, Dr. Yearsley does not mention this); but the preferred “onlie begetter” of organ pedaling was a still more enigmatic figure from around 1480, known to us simply as “Bernhard the German,” who not only might have failed to attain the pedal-inventing feats (above all in Venice) which after 1600 would be associated with him, but who might not even have existed. Still, never say die; you can’t keep a good – if fictive – organ-builder down, and for almost 400 years it became a point of German honor to acclaim Bernhard as the Man Who Invented The Pedal-Board. This supposition, notwithstanding the doubts which started surrounding it from 1837 onward, was still being querulously upheld as late as 1957 by Heinrich Schütz’s biographer H.J. Moser, whose own pro-Nazi past never inculcated in him much decent postwar reticence on matters chauvinistic.

Yet why the requirement for such self-protective braggadocio? Presumably Germans, of all people, need no more be defensive about their musicians than Japanese need be defensive about their sumo-wrestlers? This is to take an anachronistic modern view, one inevitably colored by recognition of Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Weber, Wagner, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. Before Bach, if anything, Germany remained somewhat of a musical underachiever. Take the history of European music between 1500 and 1700. Any general account of this – one which avoided concentrating on specific genres – would be obliged to include two Netherlanders (Josquin Desprez, Roland de Lassus), three Italians (Palestrina, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, with perhaps Francesco Cavalli as a fourth); at least one Spaniard (Victoria, possibly Francisco Guerrero as well); at least four Englishmen (Tallis, Byrd, Dowland, Purcell); and three Frenchmen (Lully, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Couperin le Grand). The only German automatically warranting inclusion in such an account, by virtue of innate significance, would be Schütz. One German against a dozen foreigners: not an outstanding Teutonic total.

Only if we concentrate on organ music did pre-Bach Germans manage greater distinction. There we have a veritable litany of major names, which would mean almost nothing to the average concert-goer, but which modern organists ignore at their peril: Buxtehude (Danish-born but German-resident), Michael Praetorius, Jacob Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt, Franz Tunder, Heinrich Scheidemann, Matthias Weckmann, Johann (Canon in D) Pachelbel, Vincenz Lübeck, Nicholas Bruhns, Johann Adam Reinken, Georg Böhm, and so on through seemingly endless columns of Grove. Other countries – especially France – had their own traditions of notable organist-composers, but nothing like this roll-call. And it showed in how Germans thought of themselves, once Bach’s organ output had been appreciated at something like its true worth.

See, for instance, Essay on Playing the Flute, published in 1752 by Frederick the Great’s tame maestro J. J. Quantz. In all non-organ music, Quantz found the German manner “flat, dry, meager, and paltry.” Solely with the organ did his musical countrymen excel. Johann Matheson, Hamburg-based lexicographer extraordinaire – and duelist against Handel, whom he failed to slaughter only because his sword broke upon one of Handel’s coat-buttons – said much the same thing (in the very same year): “Concerning finally the best-known and greatest masters of the organ, one can certainly say that Germany produces the most famous organists.”  (Boldface font in Matheson’s original.) And why did Germany do so? Because Germans had more consistently mastered the art of pedal-playing than had anybody else. In England, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Italy, and even France, organs’ pedal-boards remained pretty rudimentary, seldom even amounting to an octave and a half, when indeed they could be found.

This problem supplied a protracted obstacle – one which scarcely shrank till the 1840s – to a proper awareness by foreigners of Bach’s (and his predecessors’) organ writing.  It is unjustified to assume, as lecturers in Music History 101 hitherto ritualistically proclaimed, that both Bach’s name and Bach’s compositions were forgotten after he died. He remained high in the estimation of that minority with enough historical sense to revere past music at all. But outside the ranks of Haydn, Mozart, and suchlike greats, it was habitually an estimation such as a 21st-century dilettante with no opera-going experience will feel toward Wagner: at best, mere dutiful acquiescence in an established reputation, rather than any direct knowledge of what the stuff sounds like in a live context.

Doing anything like full justice to Dr. Yearsley’s insights would require a review long enough to try readers’ patience and webmasters’ bandwidth. Even those of us who have been playing Mendelssohn’s First Organ Sonata for years will derive fresh enlightenment from Dr. Yearsley’s description – lucid but with any amount of corroborative detail – concerning Mendelssohn’s compositional processes: how his own pedaling (good by German standards, great by the debased criteria then prevalent in England) echoed Bachian techniques while appearing at times almost to deconstruct them. There is more food for pondering in Dr. Yearsley’s comments on how the Third Reich usurped the ancient ethnic organ-related beliefs already mentioned. When tourism poster artist Lothar Heinemann wanted (1935) to express in visual terms “Deutschland, Das Land der Musik,” he did so not by alluding to Wagner’s operas or Brahms’s symphonies, but via the mother and father of all pipe-organs, where the pipes themselves metamorphose into the stylized wings of an eagle, although the pedals, the manuals, and the stops are alike unseen.

On one area alone does Dr. Yearsley skimp: the course of Bach revivals in France. He intelligently summarizes the epoch-making visits to Paris of the German virtuoso Adolf Friedrich Hesse (who died in 1863), but ignores the equally epoch-making – and slightly later – impact upon Parisian connoisseurs left by the Belgian organist and fellow Bach expert Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens. Likewise overlooked is the way in which Lemmens’s slightly older compatriot César Franck had to acquire a reasonably fluent pedal technique when already in his 30s, and did so partly through becoming conversant with Bach’s organ idiom.

Yet caviling will get us nowhere. Seldom does an organ text prove so exciting to read and re-read as to act, late at night (to quote Dorothy Parker praising George Jean Nathan’s theater criticism), “like so much black coffee.” Bach’s Feet is just such a text. The non-organist who ignores it will be missing a treat. The organist who ignores it will be committing intellectual suicide.

Bach’s Feet: The Organ Pedals in European Culture, by David Yearsley;
Cambridge University Press, 312 pages, ISBN 9780521199018

R.J. Stove


R. J. Stove is a Catholic convert and resident of Melbourne who, for several years, edited the quarterly Organ Australia. His most recent book is César Franck: His Life and Times.