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 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 Guild standard pedalboard [See blog, Touch, Part I].
For playing Bach as well as all other "early" (pre-1800) organ music, 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 is played broken, including the bass.
In this Toccata passage 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.
Aside from the fact that this changes the duration of every note in the score, it also creates additional leg and ankle movements for the brain to have to coordinate; AND, it also contradicts the notion widely taught in former times that all unnecessary movement on the pedals is harmful because it involves additional effort -- a notion which held that the "best" pedalling would be that which results in the least movement.
Because this is a scalar passage in the pedal, if were performed in conformity with the rule of "alternating toes" the editor's markings would have to show the high F, D, and Bb taken with the right toe and the Eb and C with the left toe, with definitely audible breaks or separations inserted between the notes.
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; that concept also applies here.
Much depends on the type of pedalboard at hand, i.e. whether it's an early flat pedalboard with parallel non-radiating keys or built to Guild standards, but when we're practicing the pedal part of a fugue the idea is, above all, to consider clarity and the overall balance of the body; the heels should not be blindly rejected for this because they're necessary at times to improve balance, and everything in organ playing is balance.
It's a fact that J.S. Bach was not forced by the construction of German pedalboards in his day to completely abandon the use of the heels; the Hoffman restoration of the original console from the historic 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 historic Trost organ of the Stadtkirche in Waltershausen, Germany, an instrument 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 historic Hildebrandt organ of Naumberg, Germany, an instrument designed by Bach himself; so we can quite safely presume that he was able to use his heels; whether he did so or not is another question -- one more difficult 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, parallel pedal keys of his day, and when the pedal lines got to the top or the bottom of the pedalboard they either 1) used heels very sparingly, 2) used alternate toes, although this can get uncomfortable and error-prone at the extreme high or low ends, or 3) hopped around on one foot.
For the new organist the answer to this is to do whatever works best for balance and clarity, 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.
For scalar passages using alternate toes, obviously the feet cannot be placed side by side -- one foot will need to be placed slightly in back of the other to allow room for the toe of the other foot to cross in front of it.
Generally speaking, for playing scalar passages with alternating toes, one system in use is to cross the right foot over the left in the bottom half of the pedalboard and the left foot over the right in the top half; as for the middle of the pedalboard, the performer would be free to use either way.
Bottom line: the whole "heel-or-no-heel" debate with Bach playing boils down to what works best with balance and clarity, or possibly even comfort; this may contradict much of what has been written, said, or taught about playing early music, but it's the unadulterated truth.
Some of the really puristic Organ departments of colleges and universities may want to grab this organist/composer around the neck and shake him for saying so, but there seems to be nothing to gain by having the new organist practice the same pedal passages in a Bach fugue over and over again with a rigorous avoidance of the heels, trying to get it stylistically authentic if the only by-product after weeks and weeks of trying to get it work with the hands is frustration, fatigue, ruined enjoyment, and zero 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 and will not be tolerated -- or, what's far worse, conclude from this that the music must be beyond that student's capabilities and -- supreme disgrace -- feed that student that same fiction.
This is a good way to get new organists stalled in learning that Bach fugue they've always dreamed of playing -- AND IT WILL SINK THEM [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 sparingly, everything seems more balanced, the hands and feet seem to fall right into place, and practicing becomes easier.
If it comes to seeing new organists either play the pedals in a Bach fugue using the heels a little bit allowing them to sail right through the music or strictly forbid the use the heels and watch them sink beneath the waves, the choice seems obvious.
There's a difference between work and drudgery.
It's important, when we practice, to get somewhere with it.
It's also important to enjoy.
(con't in Part III).