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The Pedal

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1986 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

The Pedal division is not as old as the Great or Positive but it has a very curious and complex history.  The first scheme to provide a bass note without using the fingers was a simple hook or lever to latch down a low manual key for a drone bass.  The first actual 15th century pedals were a far cry from the pedalboards of today, and consisted of wood mushrooms or short stubs played with the toe.  (Heel and toe pedaling was several hundred years away.) These first pedals were nothing more than couplers to the Hauptwerk; no separate pedal ranks were available.  The pedal compass was very small, starting out with three or four stubs, gradually increasing to eight, an octave, etc., until 35 notes (from low F) were reached in some French Classic instruments.  Today, a compass of 30 or 32 notes is nearly universal.

The pedalboard was usually flat and straight until the middle of the 19th century, when the concave and radiating pedalboard was developed in England, eventually making its way to America,  where it became standardized in the period 1930-60.  The concave and radiating pedalboard was never popular in Europe, but a few instruments do have them as interchangeable replacements for flat pedalboards.  Again today, the pedalboard is a non-standard part of the pipe organ, and there is no way to predict what a new instrument will have.  There seems little possibility that a standard pedalboard will be adopted in America again- organists will have to be ready for whatever compass or style of construction.  This is a healthy but disconcerting reality of organ design and is no different from any other past period.  Even Bach had a bewildering array of pedalboards on the instruments he used.  Most had no low C' and many lacked a low D#.  Some went to a high F, but most ended at high D or E: some were missing treble sharps as well.  

Pedal tonal design has also ranged over extremes.  When separate pedal ranks appeared in the 15th and 16th centuries, the stoplists were unusual, some organs having only a few 8' ranks, others having only a single 32' or 16' and a scattering of other pitches.  This experimentation gave way to thoughtful, large scale design, and a half century before the birth of J.S.  Bach, complete pedal divisions the equal of the manuals both in size and tonal design were common.  A 20 rank pedal in a northern European organ of 1650 might have 32', 16', 16', 8', 8', 4', 2', 1', VI, 32', 16', 16', 8', 4', 2' as a stoplist, complete even by modern standards.  Such luxury was fading by Bach's middle age and the 2' reed was almost unknown for new instruments built during his time, but the musical needs which required such large and expensive divisions must have been widespread and well developed.  They prompted new musical ideas and supported a varied use of the pedals for polyphony, cantus firmus and homophonic bass requirements.  These needs narrowed over the centuries as the pedal became only a bass for the manuals; the upper pitches disappeared.  By the early 20th century, the pedal had lost all of its upperwork, and 16' stops predominated.  Even coupling to the pedal was less effective than in the 16th century, as the upperwork on the manuals disappeared.  In American organs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, only large instruments would have more than the usual pedal stops at 16' and 8'.  In the 1930s, such deficiencies were being corrected, and by the 1960s tonal design had resurrected both the pedal stops necessary for broad musical usage and the appropriate manual designs for good balance.  Lest we revel in our own competence at such things, neither Bach's favorite instrument at St.  Katharine's in Hamburg nor Franck's organ at Sainte-Clotilde have been preserved without change, and we are forever prevented from hearing what the two greatest organ composers heard in the instruments associated with them.  

One would think that a division dedicated to playing mostly one note at a time would be simple to design and would require only a few ranks of pipes.  It would also seem that to devote a major part of the expense to a division played by slow and clumsy feet rather than by facile and multiple fingers is a misplacement of priorities.  But no other instrument places such musically demanding requirements on the feet, and in no other instrument are such acts of coordination demanded nor such stunning musical effects available from a pair of feet.  

The organbuilder is also challenged to provide an appropriate arrangement of ranks for these feet to perform on, and the challenges are immense.  Large pipes do not like to speak as fast as small pipes, and they have a more pleasant sound if they are not goaded into speaking too quickly by the various voicing techniques available.  But large pipes are the essence of the pedal division, and they must have some coordination with the smaller pipes as well as with the manuals.  

Over the ages, the pedal division has been remarkably inconsistent from one country to another.  Northern Europe seems to be the home of its earliest development into full scale prominence.  The low countries, Germany and nearby neighbors carried the Pedal to astonishing heights by the late Renaissance, and those complete divisions remained a mainstay of the pipe organ in northern Europe.  

Italy, Spain.  England and America were late in bringing the Pedal to wide usage.  It certainly did exist in Italy and Spain from early times but was an insignificant division giving little other tan a slowly moving bass line or drone.  In England, the Pedal was nonexistent until the 18th century; it was not widespread until after 1900.  In 1844, Mendelssohn had to cancel a London recital because the organ had no pedals.  An interesting alternative in many English organs was the manual compass which extended to the G below the present low C, allowing the organist to play a bass line with dexterity.  Since America derived its first pipe organs from Spain in the Southwest and later from England in New England, it is not surprising that early American organs were deficient in the Pedal department.  

During the vast majority of the Pedal's history, the pipes were unenclosed, but in the 19th and 20th centuries this began to change when some ranks disappeared into expression boxes.  In some cases, all of the Pedal was enclosed, even 32' stops of immense size.  Today it is popular, but not universal, to have the Pedal unenclosed.  

The Pedal is the most difficult division to focus, since its pipes are large and spread over the entire organ.  A Brustwerk will have focus simply because it is an array of pipes occupying only a few cubic feet.  If one desires focus for the Pedal, then it must be small and carefully located as an entity.  

Tonal designs which have evolved for the Pedal are almost a separate study.  On the manuals, a certain cohesiveness of thought is possible.  One designs the Great; then the other divisions follow in order, and the scaling and voicing are all related on similar terms.  In the Pedal, the sounds are quite unlike those on the manuals, and a different outlook is necessary to prevent the Pedal from becoming just another manual division which happens to be played by the feet.  A simple example will illustrate the problem.  In a major organ piece, the hands may be playing five or more notes at once.  This will create a complex sound, especially if a full principal chorus is used.  The pedal principal chorus should be strong enough to be heard under this, but if so, it may be far too loud for operating in contrapuntal passages in which only one or two notes are passing above it on the manuals.  If a cantus is to be played in the Pedal, a modest 4' reed is satisfactory, but such a 4' reed will provide almost nothing in the full sound, since it will be swamped by the 16's and 8's.  If the cantus is to be played on a 2' or 4' flute in the Pedal, then these ranks will have to be of enormous size, with loud and powerful voicing, to be heard against the manuals.  All of these problems, and more, present themselves as opposites, and the organbuilder must compromise some abilities in order to provide for others.  One curious phenomenon I am unable to explain occurs in small pipe organs, where a carefully designed 16' stopped flute (Bourdon, Subbass, etc.) will be a perfect voice under any manual combination from soft to full.  Yet in large instruments with many 16's in the pedal, it is hard to find any which is "perfect" for the majority of manual combinations.  

One interesting characteristic of the period 1950-80 was the appeal of a balanced specification which had been promulgated as a method of rescuing organ design from early faults.  This balance was aimed at having the same number of stops in each division, and hundreds of pipe organs were built in this era with nearly identical numbers of ranks on each manual division and Pedal.  Such nonmusical requirements are now fading, and the builder is less constrained by these rules which developed from the organ reform movement.  It is no longer a sin to design a Pedal with fewer stops than a manual division if the proper stops are available, so that a coupler can supply the "missing" stops.  Such design does require care and skill to succeed, and is appropriate only for small and medium-sized instruments.  For large instruments, the Pedal seems to grow out of all proportion to the manuals, and there is a simple explanation for this.  As an organ design increases in size, the number of manuals might increase from two to five, but only one pedalboard is left to cover this rapidly increasing number of keyboards and ranks.  With an ever widening range of color, dynamics and musical needs to balance, the Pedal must increase almost exponentially compared to a given manual division in order to be a support for any manual or for any combination of coupled manuals. 

In the largest pipe organs.  the Pedal might reach almost twice the number of drawknobs as any manual division, and the physical space necessary to house the immense pipes might be as large as that of all the manual divisions combined.  Large pedal pipes are costly, consume great quantities of wind, and require large windchests and supports.  This means a great expense, and only the most careful design will avoid waste while maximizing musical success.  A large Pedal is costly but the musical debits of a short-changed one are always disappointing.  With the return of broadly based and flexible designs which encourage musicality and diversity of use, the Pedal is once again both a challenge and a reward for the organist.  Continued study and development will keep the Pedal as a tenable division in the wonderful world of the pipe organ. 

 

 

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