Pedalling Problems and Possibilities – Practising the Piano

I often find I have quibbles with pedal markings printed in the score. Chief among them is that these markings do not – nor can they ever expect to – indicate depth of the pedal depression (from a mere fraction to full throttle) nor factor in the resonance of the particular instrument in the particular space.

Some composers write in their pedalling, usually with the antiquated “Ped” sign (to show where the pedal goes down) followed by “*” (where it should come up). Not only are these markings imprecise, they belong to a period where direct pedal was the norm (in other words, pedal down with the hands and up with the hands), as opposed to syncopated, or legato pedalling (where the pedal change happens as the hands go down). Players of historic pianos report that the dampers were much less efficient than they are on today’s instruments, making an early pedal lift essential for the dampers to do their job. So these direct pedals may well have worked nicely on earlier pianos but are we to stick with them religiously today? Very few pianists do.

What are we to make of these two pedal marks in Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (bars 6 and 7 in this example)? To me it’s very obvious. These are examples of special pedal – longer pedals where he wants the bass note caught up in the harmony – as opposed to ordinary pedal elsewhere, which he didn’t need to mark. It would be ludicrous to assume that, just because he does not write any other pedal marks in this prelude that we should play without it.

“Pedalling cannot be written down. It varies from one instrument to another, from one room, or one hall, to another.” Claude Debussy

Rachmaninov, on the other hand, hardly ever notated pedalling – expecting performers to come up with their own recipe. Let’s look at this extract from the famous Prelude in G minor, op 23 no 5, which often makes an appearance in my studio. If we can first get away from the idea that staccato marks necessarily preclude pedal (touch shows up in our sound despite what we do with our feet), then how would you pedal the first four bars of this example?

I have always done it in one long pedal for each bar. Excessive? Not if you want fabulous resonance. I was heartened to discover this is exactly how Emil Gilels pedalled it in this clip (you can actually see his foot working if you look – from 0:45).

And yet Rachmaninov himself makes a clear break after the third beat.

So which is correct? Both, of course!

Since his music came out of copyright, some new editions of Rachmaninov’s music have appeared. There is very much to admire in Murray Baylor’s helpful and detailed edition of selected works from Alfred Masterworks – the programme notes, fingerings and especially his suggestions for hand redistribution in some of the preludes. Mr. Baylor had the impossible task of adding pedal marks which I confess I find a bit squeamish when it comes to resonance sometimes. In the excellent preface, he states “The pedalling given here should serve the student during the learning process and should be a point of departure for later, more subtle use of the damper pedal.” As long as the player is aware that editorial fingerings and pedallings in any publication are suggestions only, then this edition will be a very useful addition to your shelves.

(Published with permission)

For the Alfred Masterworks edition of Rachmaninov’s Selected Works, click here

For the Alfred Masterworks edition of this prelude, click here

Blog posts

I have written fairly extensively on the pedal. Here are some earlier posts from my blog.

For my article and video demonstration on the use of pedal in baroque music, including finger pedalling (or overholding) follow this link

For my article on the subtleties of the pedal, follow this link

For my article and video demonstration on fractional pedalling, follow this link 

I am happy to share with you my video demonstration on fractional pedal, from my extensive series on the sustaining pedal in the Online Academy


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