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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist



July 19, 2019

Did Théodore Dubois have four legs?

evelyn @ 3:06 pm

A pianist uses fingers, wrists, arms to play the piano keys, and feet for the damper and una corda pedals. He or she wouldn’t dream of employing any other part of the anatomy, let alone any outside object.

But with the organ, anything goes.

I was put in mind of this by a casual remark from a friend who claimed to have seen an organist turning pages with his feet. It was a passing comment which I really should have followed up, as I can’t imagine such a thing to be physically possible.

But it made me think of other instances. I was looking at a score by one of the French masters – Dubois, possibly? – and remember asking my teacher if the composer had four legs, as the pedal part included four notes played simultaneously. It was gently pointed out to me that you can play two adjacent notes with one foot, and if this occurs with both feet at the same time, you will get the ‘four-legged’ score.

Then there is the object officially called a ‘key weight’. Sometimes a piece will have a passage over a long pedal note. If you don’t have a pedalboard, you can place an object in the bass of one of the manuals which will depress the key concerned for as long as you need it. Composers using this technique should make sure the player has a hand free at suitable moments for the placing and removing of the key weight. Otherwise, a friend is necessary.

And the object itself? It can be anything – pens or pencils, watch, spectacles – anything that does the job. Before the advent of smart phones, I had a mobile that was just the right size and weight. My current favourite is the spare key to my husband’s car. My own very full key-ring tends to flop over on to the next-door notes.

Things can be done with the hands as well. A large hand needn’t be confined to one manual, but can sometimes briefly play a note or two on the other at the same time. Similarly, small hands can be helped by the occasional foot on a pedal note, minus any 16-foot stops.

Perhaps the most imaginative episode of this nature happened with a piece I was studying which finished with a very quiet chord containing a high pedal F sharp coupled to the Great. Not all organs have this high F sharp in the pedal, and mine didn’t. So this essential note somehow had to be played on the Great, though both hands were busy on the Swell, and with my short thumbs there was no chance of reaching down to the Great to add in an F sharp. It looked as if one of the Swell hands would have to be released, with consequent thinning of texture.

Then I had the brainwave. On the very gentle final chord, with both hands on the Swell, I leant forward and played the F sharp on the Great – with my nose!

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