Jul. 2, 2016

Heel Or Toe, Part II

(con't from Part I)
Organ music with an independent pedal part is written on 3 staves with the right hand notated on the top staff, the left hand on the middle staff, and the bottom staff is reserved for the pedal line taken by the feet.
In the days of J.S. Bach and even earlier, polyphonic organ music was often notated on 2 staves only, where the performer was free to employ either the left hand or the pedals to supply the bass line.
Marks are placed by editors, either above or below the pedal notes written on the bottom staff in the score, to indicate whether a heel or toe is to be used; a "point" sign (^) indicates toe, and a half circle (U) indicates heel; a small circle (O) might also be used to indicate heels.
When the ^ and U signs are written above the pedal note, it indicates that the right foot is to be employed; when written below the pedal note, the left foot is indicated (photo).
When only 2 staves are used to notate the music, the pedaling indications are written either above or below the bass line in the score (or above the tenor line when the bass and tenor are close together).
Organists will recognize this excerpt from Bach's organ Toccata in F Major as an example; it illustrates how the pedal markings for heels and toes in this edition were used to indicate the editor's suggestions for performing this passage on a modern pedalboard [See blog, Touch, Part I].
For playing Bach (as well as all other organ music from before 1800), toes-only pedalling with insertion of deliberate breaks between all notes along with the general abandonment of the use of the heels is being promoted in academia today as the only stylistically authentic and "correct" way to play Bach; every voice in fact, is played broken, not just the bass.
The right toe would therefore hop from the high F down to the Eb and then down to D with breaks in between these notes; after a break following the note D the left toe would then take over on C, then hop down to Bb with a break in between.
This creates additional leg and ankle movements for the brain to have to coordinate; it also contradicts the notion widely taught in former times that all unnecessary movement on the pedals is harmful because it wastes time and effort, and that the "best" pedalling is that which results in the least movement.
If this passage were truly to be performed in conformity with this latter idea the editor's markings would have to be changed; the high F would be taken with the right toe and the Eb with the left toe, the other 3 notes being pedalled the same as indicated by the editor.
It has been said in many other places on this blog that no rule in organ playing is ever absolute and that there is no such word in the glossary of organ playing; it also applies here.
When we're playing the pedal part of a fugue the idea is, above all, to get things smooth and controlled so that the bass voice can be perfectly followed; the heels at times can and should be used for that because they're necessary for balance, and everything in organ playing is balance.
It's a fact that J.S. Bach was not forced to generally abandon the use of the heels; the Hoffman restoration of the original console from the Wender organ of the Bachkirche in Arnstadt, Germany, permits the heels to be used over the entire compass of its flat pedalboard, proving that Bach could have used the heels to play the pedals at a very early point in his career, if he wanted [See blog, Bach d minor, Part IV].
On the flat pedalboard of the Trost organ of the Stadtkirche in Waltershausen, Germany, which Bach may have played himself, using heels is perfectly feasible [See menu bar, Videos, Bach d minor BWV 565]; the same goes for the Hildebrandt organ of Naumberg, Germany, an instrument designed by Bach himself; so we can quite safely assume he was able to use his heels; whether he did or not is a somewhat more difficult question to answer, but, if it could improve his playing, he was certainly free to do so.
There is no direct evidence, either way, as to whether he used his heels or not; German organists probably used very little heel on the flat pedalboards of his day, as this was sometimes awkward; when the pedal lines got to the top or the bottom of the pedalboard they probably either 1) used a heel once in a while, 2) used alternate toes, although this can get uncomfortable for high or low notes, or 3) just hopped around on one foot.
The answer to this is to do whatever keeps the body balanced and works for the player, bearing in mind that what works in one application may not work equally well in another -- it depends on what the hands are doing at the time and the overall balance of the body; different ways of pedalling should be tried and given a fair attempt before settling on what works best.
Bottom line: the whole heel or no heel debate with Bach playing is very much one of personal preference, or possibly even comfort; this may contradict much of what has been written, said, or taught about playing early music.
Some of the really puristic Organ departments of colleges and universities may want to grab this author around the neck and shake him for saying so, but there seems to be nothing to gain by practicing the same pedal passages in a Bach work over and over again with a rigorous avoidance of the heels, trying to get it stylistically authentic, if the only by-product, after days and days of working at it, is frustration, fatigue, ruined enjoyment, and a lack of progress.
We can keep pushing the new organist like this; we can keep insisting that the toes must be used to play every pedal note in every passage of every piece of early music played on every kind of pedalboard -- and that to do it any other way is not true to the music or to the composer.
This is a good way to get that new organist stalled in learning a fugue; and it will sink him (or her) [See blog, How To Learn A Fugue].
Some of us have had the experience of trying to learn a contemporary fugue ourselves with total avoidance of the heels only to discover that it's very awkward, has us off balance, and is virtually impossible to employ without making multiple mistakes -- but then when the heels are brought into play everything seems to fall into place and become easier.
This author knows of one instance where, after trying to practice it for weeks using toes-only with zero progress, one well-trained organist had to use the heels in fully 35 per cent (105/300) of the pedal notes in order for him to get anywhere learning it.
If it comes to seeing new organists either play the pedals in a fugue using the heels or watch them sink beneath the waves, the choice seems obvious.
There's a difference between work and drudgery.
It's important to get somewhere.
It's also important to enjoy.
(con't in Part III).