Bach & Bannister

Prelude & Fugue in G (BWV 550)    J.S.Bach (1685-1750) [BIG ORGAN]

"Of the Father's Love Begotten"


One of the unique features of the organ is a keyboard played by the feet to supply the bass. The pipe organ goes back to Roman days (in a primitive form) but a keyboard for the feet was a much later development. Along the eons there were various intermediary forms of pedal keyboards (e.g. only an octave, the pedal keys so short that only the toes could play them), but by the 18th century attention turned to a full-fledged keyboard for the feet — particularly in northern Germany which was Bach's (pedal-)stomping ground.

The prelude for this morning features a challenging pedal part, including an extended solo near the beginning. Predecessors of Bach as well as his contemporaries also featured pedal solos, but Bach took them to a whole new level. He composed this morning's prelude & fugue when he was in his 20's — I'd say the pedal part is about 6 or 7 on the OPDRS ('Organ Pedal Difficulty Richter Scale', where 10 is 'impossible'). As his organ career unfolded, and his technique developed further, so did the difficulty of his pedal parts: he started out writing pedal parts roughly equal in difficulty to those of his contemporaries, but in time he went far, far beyond that. Eventually, it was said of him that "he can play parts with his feet that others can't play with their hands." Meanwhile, what was cutting edge playing technique in 1720 is now expected of professional players.

I am reminded of Roger Bannister (b.1929) — the first to run a mile under four-minutes (in recorded Western history). The question of whether a human could run a mile in under four minutes was rather hotly debated in his day, many scientists and medical professionals presenting convincing arguments based on human physiological capabilities (as understood at the time) that a 'mile under four minutes' was humanly impossible. Numerous other runners in Bannister's time tried and failed to beat the '4 minute mile' barrier, which supported the theory that it was impossible. (At the same time it was argued that based on wing size and total body weight, it is aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly.)

But bumblebees in general and Roger Bannister in particular paid no attention to their supposed scientific limits, and simply did what God created them to do in spite of what folks said. And the rest is history. As soon as Bannister broke the 'four minute mile' in 1952, in short order a number of other runners broke the four minute mile themselves. What was necessary was a visionary, a 'prophet', to show what was possible.

P.S. This morning's fugue is an exuberant piece in four parts, but near the end at the climax, Bach can't help himself and introduces a FIFTH part. (The International Fugue Commission is still divided on this travesty of proper fugue writing!)