MUSIC: How Beautiful And Astounding Are The Feet by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

How Beautiful And Astounding Are The Feet by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

Many years ago I was president of the Denver Bach Society, a group that sponsored several concerts each year featuring the music of J. S. Bach.  In addition to full-scale performances of the Mass in B Minor and many of Bach’s cantatas, orchestral, and keyboard works, we gave a special presentation for grade-school children.  Twelve hundred children filled the Episcopal cathedral not only to hear Bach’s music but to see the master musician himself interviewed by a member of the Denver Brass.  We were fortunate to have a radio announcer from one of the local classical stations whose countenance was the very likeness of the 1746 Bach portrait by Gottlob Haussmann that peers from the cover of so many musical scores, biographies, albums, and disks.  Our good-natured announcer would don a wig, knickers, and a great smocking coat with brass buttons, and Bach would appear before us to the delight and applause of the children.

We did two performances so that twenty-four hundred school children plus their teachers could attend the event each year.  There was not an empty seat in the cathedral.  The students loved the music, the interview, and the high spirits of the event.  At the end of the concert, I and other members of the board would stand on the cathedral steps and shake hands with as many of the children as we could while they returned to their school buses.  Many of them blurted out their excitement: “This was neat.”  “I liked meeting Mr. Bach.”  “Thank you.”  “Awesome.”

However, what stands out  most in my memory is the year we had enough money to rent a video screen so that all the children had clear sight lines to the organist who otherwise was hidden from view.  For the first time, the students could observe him as clearly as they had the other instrumentalists.  There were shots of his hands on the keyboard and shots of his feet on the pedals.  After that presentation, as the students stopped to shake my hand on the cathedral steps, the single most common exclamation was, “Wow!  I never knew someone could play an instrument with their feet.  Amazing!”  Again and again, children remarked about this with a sense of astonishment and wonder.  They simply could not get over the fact that someone could find the right notes with their feet while their hands were on the keyboard.  The older ones who told me they played an instrument themselves often asked how the organist kept that many notes straight at one time.

I received a gift from those children.  I had grown up in churches that had excellent organists, and I had myself often played my flute to the accompaniment of the organ.  I was used to watching organists perform with their feet as well as their hands.  Although I too had been impressed when I first saw an organist playing close up, over the years it became one of the those phenomena I took for granted, because familiarity with any human accomplishment tends to dull one’s initial amazement.  But ever since those children came out of the cathedral I have had a renewed sense of wonder at what organists do with their feet.  As I listen to organ professors and their students play the instrument at school, the voices of those astonished children echo in my memory: “Wow! I never knew someone could play an instrument with their feet.”  In that moment of renewed appreciation for the artistry of organists, I find myself making up a variation on a favorite Bible verse of preachers: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15)  Only now I find myself saying, “How beautiful are the feet of those who play the pedals!”  Good news flows into great music, and great music flows from the hands and feet of organists.  How beautiful and astounding are the feet of those who play the organ.

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