article 88: BWV 651: The Nightmare

When I was a kid in small-town Illinois I sometimes sat down at the organ in the First Methodist Church and tried to play the pedals. It never felt comfortable, even though modern American pedal boards are concave, elevated to the rear and radiate outward, to make the job ergonomically effortless. When I entered the Amsterdamsch Conservatorium (as it then was) in 1971 as a harpsichord major, I thought an organ minor would be a good idea. My teacher was silver-maned eminence named Simon C. Jansen. The first – and as it turned out, the only – piece he gave me was BWV 651, the first of the 18 “Leipzig” chorale preludes that Bach was redacting before he died. It is a grand Fantasia super Komm heiliger Geist, Herre Gott in Organo pleno Canto fermo in Pedale. The chorale must have been a favorite with the composer, because the next in line is an alio modo à 2 Clav. et Pedale on the same melody.

It was terrible pedagogy of meneer Jansen to throw this piece at a 19-year-old who had never played the pedals. He must have thought the part for the feet negligible, and for an experienced organist it is. But the sixteenth notes in the hands keep you pretty busy, and if you’ve never coordinated with your feet except when driving a car with a clutch, adding even a Canto fermo (the chorale in long notes) in an unknown space and an area out of sight is damned difficult. To make matters worse, European pedal boards are flat and the levers much shorter, as they have been from time immemorial. And after a long initial pedal point on F, the part in the fantasia suddenly ascends with three eighth notes to the first note of the chorale. Virtuoso stuff!

In my ancient, brown-rimmed, water-stained copy (Edition Breitkopf 6587 – and at the time I never would have dreamed I would become an editor for them thirty years later), every note of the pedal part is marked left foot, right foot, heel or toe. At the time there was a controversy raging about whether it was allowable, performance-practice-wise – autentiek, as we called it then – to use the heels. I’m so out of touch with the field that I don’t know what, if anything, was ever decided. At a Bruges competition in the 70’s a famous pro-heels scholar was scoffing to me about the purists. “Yes, and Arnold Schlick had four feet,” I remarked – a reference to the four pedal parts in his Ascendo ad Patrem, written for the coronation of Charles V. But Schlick used special clogs with extensions a third much for my witty remark.

I never mastered those eighth notes, and soon dropped my organ minor, pleading lack of time. But I kept exploring the immense literature for manuals when I could get on a good instrument. The great Christian Müller organ at the Waalse Kerk (where Gustav Leonhardt played Sunday services) and the reconstructed small organ in the Oude Kerk were available at modest hourly rates. Those endless masterpieces from all over Europe! – just not northern and central Germany, where obbligato pedal parts, partly under Schlick’s great influence, became pretty much de rigueur.

I even played the occasional organ concert, as for example, the five fugues by d’Anglebert on the only French Baroque organ in Amsterdam, in the chapel of the university hospital; a theme in D-minor, varied with each piece – Die Kunst der Fuge alla Francese. The chapel organist, a renowned performer and editor, was so impressed that he begged me to take up the instrument seriously. Much later I played two esoteric organ programs for Franco Scala’s Accademia Pianistica in Imola, and he said I had revealed to him “why the organ exists as a musical instrument.” So it seems I had at least the keyboards in my fingers.

But those pedals...aside from the fundamental difficulty, at 6’5” I was just too tall to “dangle” my legs, as my first harpsichord teacher, John S. Mueller (North Carolina School of the Arts, 1968-9, high school diploma “With a Major in Harpsichord”) put it. You can’t really call yourself an organist without having mastered them. Dr. Mueller said Mr. Leonhardt, who gave me occasional organ lessons at special request, “has a time with the pedals.” And indeed, my last teacher never recorded many of the big works by Bach or Buxtehude, exploring instead the manualiter literature as I did. He once told me, “The problem is that your left hand wants to play the bass.” I felt that was an astute observation, since I had the same sensation. He must have worked hard for the organ piece in Straub’s bizarre film “Kleine Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach”, about his participation in which Mr. Leonhardt was so proud.

But now for the nightmare promised in the title: last night I had a rare dream which I could remember upon waking. I was to perform my nemesis, BWV 651, at a concert in the Waalse Kerk. Le tout Amsterdam would be there, and I was practicing like mad. I still flubbed those first three eighth notes in the pedal every time, and at the last minute before the audience was to be admitted, I realized I had been putting the pedals an octave too low, in the contra octave.This was nonsense, because the pedals on the Müller don’t go below great C. But that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Then the scene shifted to the audience. I was sitting there with Naoko, waiting for my own concert to begin. More and more people were cramming into the tightly-spaced pews, until I thought we would suffocate. We finally got up and fled that place, like the narrator in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.”

This was, as far as I can recall, the first time I had a nightmare about a failed organ concert. My recurring nightmare has always been this: I am waiting in a darkened backstage with a view to a brightly-lit French harpsichord; I move to go on, but a hand reaches out from the blackness on the right and forces an oboe on me. I stand paralyzed, staring at the dreaded double reed. I couldn’t now play a C-major scale on the instrument that started me on the road to a career as a musician (Interlochen Arts Academy, 1967-8; oboe major taught by Don Jaeger, who had studied at the Amsterdamsch Conservatorium with a Fulbright).

April 27, 2023

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