Further to last week’s post on pedalling through rests, a reader wrote to me asking why Rachmaninov added the rests at the beginning of the G minor Etude Tableau if he wanted these bars to be pedalled through:

op 33 Rach

Why not just write the notes like this, to avoid any confusion?

Rachmaninov 1

In the first example (Rachmaninov’s), the phrase mark over each group of notes implies that these notes be parcelled up somehow. Even though this is one long G minor harmony, the first two bars are made up of four separate pulsings of this harmony. Our every instinct, when met with such a phrase mark, is to taper our sound off slightly. I don’t know about you, but I would be inclined to include the most minuscule of diminuendos through the last three semiquavers of each phrase (the effect is like an exhaling of breath), and start the next group of notes the tiniest bit late (the rest is the place where we breathe in again).

In the second example (mine), the effect would be quite different. Instead of four separate floating puffs of harmony, we would tend to make a mini crescendo to the last note of each group so that the B flats in bar 1 receive the weight of two semiquavers (the B flat itself and then the weight of the tied note). We would then be adding a syncopation into the mix. Furthermore, we would feel these two bars as one long phrase, possibly even with a slight forward momentum implied by the seamlessly connected note patterns. The presence of the rests and how we shape the notes would be quite different if we did it the second way.

I hope this underscores how touch, phrasing and timing affect the musical result quite independently of the pedal. The presence of a long pedal in the first (original) example in no way covers over these articulations and musical intentions.

Chopin’s Pedal Markings

Virtually all of Chopin’s pedal markings indicate “Ped” when the foot must go down, the release shown with an asterisk. The placement of the asterisk directs us to lift the pedal before the next harmony and then reapply it on the beat, rather than changing the pedal as we play the next harmony. Nowadays, we don’t tend to use the former type of pedalling – known as rhythmic or direct pedalling – as it is marked by Chopin (and other composers, usually from the Classical Period), preferring a legato or syncopated pedal instead.

Chopin Fantasie

We need to remember that legato pedalling did not come into standard usage until later in the the nineteenth century. The earlier pianos had less efficient damping systems than our modern instrument. These required the dampers to be lowered onto the strings slightly early, to give the dampers a chance to do their job and for the resonance to die away. Then, the player reapplied the pedal together with the new harmony (adding resonance and emphasising the downbeat). For more on this most interesting subject, I suggest reading Sandra P. Rosenblum’s excellent article in Performance Practice Review, Pedaling the Piano: A Brief Survey from the Eighteenth Century to the Present.

Here is Janina Fialkowska showing us the workings of an 1848 Pleyel grand piano of the type Chopin would have known, and then playing the Waltz in C sharp minor, op. 64 no. 2.

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