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Pedalling In Bach


Richard Washington
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Just to remind you, really I'm a pianist but I'm trying to build up a level of competence at the organ. I'm currently having a go at the well-known Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I am aware that one should probably just use the toes in Bach, yet it seems a more flexible approach might enable some nice legato playing of the pedal part. What is the scholarly position here - did Bach really never use his heels? If so, should the whole of the pedal part be in a 'pizzicato' style (except for long notes and semiquavers), or should I aim for a legato sound at moments where the possibility exists. Should I be crossing my legs to achieve legato quavers?

 

Any views on this would be greatly received. Thanks.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I believe the purists will tell you that toes only is the right and proper thing to do. And some will swear that the dimensions of some pedal boards from Bach's day make toes the only way to play.

 

Personally, I cheat, largely because my technique is so poor and I've mostly only played on modern pedal boards. I do know organists who play Bach seemingly entirely with toes and get legato lines, but I think there must be some crossover.

 

And I can't imagine how you would play the pedal solo in Bach's Toccata from the Toccato, Adagion and Fugue in C without using heels and/or crossing over but, as I said, my technique is indescribably dreadful and needs rebuilding from scratch.

 

I've always thought that if there was room to crossover, then there is enough room to use a heel. But I'm sure there are other people out there who are better qualified to give you a more meaningful answer.

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  • 1 month later...

Of one thing I am certain. The Willis/Wesley pedalboard has not been one of English organ building's most enduring gifts to organ performance.

 

Observe a continental pedal board in a romantic German organ by Sauer. Flat and straight. Now play romantic repertoire on it and you will see how effortessly one can play the pedal parts of Reger, Rheinberger, Karg Elert etc with complete comfort. Apply that also to the English Victorians and the Edwardian repertoire.

 

Historical performance practice on the appropriate instruments will tell you most about playing the pedals and inform you alot better than the tutors of Trevor or CH Phillips. Am I the only one to apply continental pedalling techniques to English romantic music because this 'turning of the feet' is so physically uncomfortable for a bigger proportioned person?

 

It was salient to see an very tall Danish organist try to adjust to a concave and radiating pedalboard here in New Zealand. He moved the seat back almost to the rear extremity of the pedalboard!

 

Remember-North German/Thuringian pedal boards differed too.

 

Explore the instruments, explore the repertoire and apply a common sense and comfortable technique. Your pedalling will improve and you'll stop feeling guilty of not observing all those heal/toe and angled ankle signs!!

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  • 3 months later...

I would endorse the eminently sensible and practical points made by Michael Cox.

 

In addition, with careful work and study, it may well be possible to improve one's pedal technique to the extent that the playing would be quite accurate and relatively effortless, regardless of whether the pedal board were of the continental or Anglo-U.S. form.

 

I have found that to be the case when playing on French, German, Dutch and Norwegian instruments. Then again, the pedal boards of the H&H instruments at Coventry and Exeter cathedrals are incredibly comfortable. However, whilst I found the pedal board of the Rieger organ at St. Marylebone Church uncomfortable, the pedal board of the Rieger at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford is extremely comfortable (I also greatly prefer the sound of the Christ Church instrument) - God knows why this should be the case. (comfort, not sound...)

 

Anyone know why this might be the case, or am I just weird??

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks for that!

 

No you are not weird, just practical. I see from the playing tips in Church Music Quarterly (Anne Marsden Thomas) that the heal/toe approach dies hard. That's fine.

 

Most builders diverge somewhat in their dimensions.

 

I had a lesson from Catherine Ennis at Marleybone shortly after the new organ was insalled in 1987. I loved it then but would like to return to assess it now. We have an excellent Rieger here in NZ at Christchurch Town Hall and a new two manual in another Christchurch church. Both are very good indeed. :wub:

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  • 4 years later...

I've never played anything except various shapes and sizes of English R&C pedalboards. Last weekend I was playing for a wedding at Trinity College Cambridge (wonderful instrument, but that's another story) and did some practice the day before, very nervous about dealing with a continental style pedalboard. I found that after a couple of hours one gets very used to a straight, flat board and indeed on the day didn't play a single bum pedal note (more than can be said for some Sunday mornings - I can tell you!). So it seems that - like trigger swell pedals - it's really not a big deal.

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I am no great expert in these matters, but would just say this.

 

When I was a student, my teacher impressed upon me the importance of playing with toes as much as possible, in Romantic music as well as Bach.

 

Being young and big - headed, naturally I ignored him.

 

Twenty years on I think much harder about my technique, and am re - constructing pieces I learned 20 years ago.

 

Surprise, surprise ; I find myself using toes much, much more. The line is clearer, the attack cleaner, and phrasing can be controlled much more precisely. This applies in romantic and modern music as well as baroque.

 

As a result of using toes more, I find that I also cross my legs much more, and often at the extremes of the pedalboard. At first I thought this was taboo, but then I remind myself of Roger Fisher's very wise remark, that applies to pedalling even though it was originally devised for fingering ; if the fingering [pedalling] is secure and gives musical results, then it is good pedalling.

 

(Gillian Weir put it another way, apocryphally, when listening to some very earnest but dull performance with authentic fingering ; ' I don't care if you play it with your elbows if it gives musical results').

 

It requires more practice to control your feet when they are crossed - the wires in your brain feel scrambled - but it gives better results and for me, that is what matters.

 

Having said all this, I do not completely avoid heels in Bach. I have heard 'all toes' performances of Bach and Buxtehude where the music is crying out for a legato bass line (particularly in the chorale preludes) and we are presented with a clumpy series of notes with the toes pecking away at the pedal board. I don't care what the scholars say ; the musician in me just doesn't want to listen.

 

Hope that might help !

 

Best,

m

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CONTROVERSY ALERT!!

 

An R&C pedalboard is designed so that heels may be used easily. The unintended consequence is that clean playing with toes only is made more difficult than is the case on boards of other configurations.

 

It could be argued that to play 18C music with all heels on an R&C board is rather like making elaborate registration changes in a romantic piece on an instrument with a 18C style console. The player is setting themselves an unnecessarily difficult task, the successful fulfilling of which is by no means guaranteed to yield musical results.

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Having said all this, I do not completely avoid heels in Bach. I have heard 'all toes' performances of Bach and Buxtehude where the music is crying out for a legato bass line (particularly in the chorale preludes) and we are presented with a clumpy series of notes with the toes pecking away at the pedal board. I don't care what the scholars say ; the musician in me just doesn't want to listen.

 

Couldn't agree more.

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I think that the problem arises when an organist plays in only two ways - legato and staccato. If an organ does not speak precisely, and if the action is insensitive, then those may be the only possibilities, in which case most of Bach would sound better with the legato option.

the

Under the right conditions it is possible to use the "normal touch" which is very slightly detached. That description certainly doesn't cover "clumpy series of notes with the toes pecking away at the pedal board" which is not what the scholars were suggesting.

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This issue is very complicated. The first recorded use of the heel is in the method of Kittel. People say that because Kittel 'studied' with Bach (in fact his contact with Bach was minimal) that this "proves" that Bach used heels. I say "no".

 

It must also be stressed that, on historic organs it is not just physically difficult to play with heels, but, moreover, hard to make a good sound, and to control that sound.

 

In general, pedal pipes take longer to speak, so they need to be played more legato, whether you want it to sound legato or not. On the other hand the character of the pedal playing varies dramatically whether it's a continuo line, a cantus firmus line, or a polyphonic line. In 565 the pedal part plays plays no cantus firmus but it does play examples of the other two.

 

"Of one thing I am certain. The Willis/Wesley pedalboard has not been one of English organ building's most enduring gifts to organ performance."

 

Of course, because it's the only pedal board which promotes EQUALITY between the toe and the heel, which is unheard of outside the UK until the dogmas of Dupre and Germani.

 

Playing all toes should be the default way of playing Bach, but should be seen within the broader aesthetic of the performance. If your organ is a Norman and Beard with a slow penumatic action, take you Novello edition, play with your heels and open the box gradually.... your organ, and the music will sound better.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

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Playing all toes should be the default way of playing Bach, but should be seen within the broader aesthetic of the performance. If your organ is a Norman and Beard with a slow penumatic action, take you Novello edition, play with your heels and open the box gradually.... your organ, and the music will sound better.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

 

I have no problem with toe and heel in Bach or Buxtehude &c but I would never use the swell pedal(s) when playing music from that era, which probably makes me a semi- or pseudo-purist! Neither do I have any real argument with Novello, especially the Orgelbuchlien. The inclusion of the chorale and text assist the interpretation of the music, in my opinion.

 

Peter

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Neither do I have any real argument with Novello, especially the Orgelbuchlien. The inclusion of the chorale and text assist the interpretation of the music, in my opinion.

 

Peter

 

An aside - but some of the most enjoyable Bach experiences I have had where when singers actually performed the chorale before the CP and the text was also provided. Somewhere I have Hurford's complete Bach Orgelbuchlien with the appropriate chorale performed first - it works well.

 

A

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take your Novello edition, play with your heels and open the box gradually.... your organ, and the music will sound better.

 

Greetings

 

Bazuin

 

Observations from a sunny country garden.

It must surely be stated that some of the Novello edition volumes are some of the very best to secure and they are at a more than reasonable cost than others from abroad. Walter Emery was a scrupulous editor and you can play with assurance from any of his pages - the best being the Sonate. It is a pity that some Novello volumes need a re-think (in the light of present opportunities for inter-continental research), because they maintain editorial traditions of a century ago. However, a player can go (as they always must, I say), beneath the phrase additions and the Englishness of registrations, as the notation is what we are all after, after all. Historically though I say, those registration schemes must be treasured as it showed how such instruments and teaching were used and imparted in our shores. It is all a link with the past. The same goes for Guillmant and all the French Baroque music. The right dots are (mostly) there. The squiggles are there. What more is necessary?

As for toes - the feet, like the fingers -are there to communicate the music. So many instruments are unutterably dissimilar that not only is orchestration/registration quite different but also the way they are played. Unlike almost any other musician, the organist must adapt in so many ways - quickly. Therefore, to communicate the music as the brain wishes and the ears demand, I say, do what will work the best to achieve this goal. However, in BWV 648 you land in stomping trouble if toes are only used. The nature of the original bowed music can sound ever so wooden I think.

Best wishes,

NJA

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