The subject of pedal in the music of Bach always arouses keen debate. Ought pianists to steer clear of it and control everything by the fingers, or is it possible to use a bit of pedal?

If I play Bach on a small piano in a furnished drawing room with a thick carpet, I might well need touches of pedal to help my sound. If I play the same work on a concert grand in a large church with a lot of acoustic reverberation, the building itself would add a certain amount of resonance without my having to do anything. There would be a lustrous halo around my sound, and I might not need to touch the pedal at all. If the acoustical resonance was excessive, I would probably find myself slowing down the tempo and sharpening up my articulation a bit too, to preserve clarity. Nothing is cast in stone, we always need to adapt depending on our surroundings.

Some pianists (who should know better) state that the harpsichord does not have dampers. Of course it does, or finger pedalling would not be possible (more about this in a moment). It is true that none of Bach’s keyboard instruments had a sustaining device, but piano sound without pedal tends to be dry and boring. Short shallow dabs of pedal can add welcome colour and resonance, but of course this has to be done well or we risk ruining the music.

This helpful video gives a basic overview of the harpsichord action.

Finger Pedalling

Foreign to many pianists, the technique of holding onto notes beyond their written duration is an integral part of harpsichord and fortepiano technique. Before you lurch for your pedal, consider whether you can add resonance by hand. I have written about this subject before; I can also direct you to this video I made for Pianist Magazine.

The Sustaining Pedal

When I played for the András Schiff in the early 1980’s he did not complain about my use of pedal in Bach, so I suppose I must have been doing it unobtrusively enough for it not to bother him. Later, Schiff went through a period of not using the pedal in his own playing, which worked extremely well for him. I see he has come back to using it again. I think there is an important point to make here. Schiff is one of our greatest pianists and musicians, playing (magnificently) the very best pianos in the very best concert halls in the world. Most of us would find it extremely difficult to engage an audience if we avoided the pedal. The maestro wrote a short essay on the subject in May, 2012, published on the Vancouver Recital Society’s blog. It makes fascinating reading. In case you missed his monumental performance of the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, from last year’s Proms, here it is for posterity.

Murray Perahia became obsessed with Bach’s music when an injury put his career on hold for a while. “It took me many years to find my voice in Bach,” he admits. It is crucial “not to imitate a harpsichord, to play freely and yet not romantically, because that’s not part of the spirit of the music. If tonal colouring can enlighten the music, it should be used so that the listener gets what’s underneath the notes when he’s listening to a piece. You can use a certain amount of pedalling – not overdone – because that’s part of the piano.” In this video of a live performance of the fourth French Suite, we can clearly see his foot connecting with the pedal (wait for the subtitles to disappear) and on the repeat we get a good view of the dampers in action.

Celebrated Bach pianist, Angela Hewitt, has reached a similar conclusion:

The secret is to figure it out with the fingers first – is to do all the articulation, all legato, whatever you want to do, do it all with the fingers first and then bring in the pedal if there’s something you really can’t join and want to have joined. That’s the secret, I think, to use it only when required. How beautiful it can sound without pedal in the B flat minor. It’s very difficult to do and takes great, great control. 

In a drier hall, I would use a little bit more pedal, but never to blur a passage. For instance, at the end of Book One, the big B minor fugue, I might use it on every sixteenth note. I would pedal each note to give it a bit more resonance.

Angela Hewitt

I notice a general tendency among students when they play Bach, a certain reluctance to play the music expressively and to take ownership of it. It is as though they are scared to do it wrongly, so they present it somewhat drily, devoid of dynamics, colour, inspiration – and love. Rather than embracing the music and making it their own, it is as though the music existed under a glass case in some hallowed museum. You can look but you can’t touch!

There are those who believe that Bach should not be played with such dynamic variation because this was not possible on the harpsichord. However, several of Bach’s keyboard concertos were transcribed for violin and for oboe; the composer himself transcribed these compositions so they could be played not just on the harpsichord but also on instruments capable of adjusting dynamics and lyrical phrasing. That should make it obvious that he would be happy if his keyboard music were played on a keyboard capable of more lyrical and dynamic expression as well. It’s incredibly shortsighted and unimaginative to believe that this is not the case – and Bach himself was hardly shortsighted and unimaginative!

Mark Ainley

When it comes to pedal my advice is to use it sparingly and lightly (pedalling shallowly so that the dampers barely leave the strings). If we avoid using pedal to make legato connections, and take care not to blur the ornaments, discreet pedalling will add some welcome resonance and improve our sound. I do most of my practising of Bach’s music deliberately without pedal and then avail myself of it in performance.

The trick is to think of the pedal like seasoning in cooking – vital in bringing out and blending the flavours of the food. However, we wouldn’t want to take our first mouthful and exclaim: “Ah, salt!”.

Resources

Some years ago I wrote a series of four fairly detailed blog posts under the umbrella title The Baroque Urtext Score. They cover various aspects of style and performance practice that I hope are helpful for the pianist who may be confused as to what’s possible, and what’s permissible.

The Baroque Urtext Score: A User’s Guide (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score: Dynamics (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score: Articulation (click here)

The Baroque Urtext Score: Tempo and Rhythm (click here)

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