In the days before the piano was invented, harpsichordists did not have any sort of sustaining device and so created resonance using the technique of overholding (or finger pedalling). On a harpsichord (just like on a piano) holding onto a key with a finger ensures the damper associated with that key remains in the up position, allowing the string to resonate. Sometimes composers wrote finger pedalling out, other times they assumed the player would just do it anyway. Here is an example of the former, scrupulously notated by François Couperin in his Les Barricades Mystérieuses.
A universal tendency I have noticed among piano students is the missed opportunity for resonance in a piece that requires pedal from the start. What is the point of putting the pedal down only after you have played the first chord, when putting it down beforehand opens up the instrument for maximum resonance immediately the hammers hit the strings?
Take the opening of the Grieg Concerto. If the pedal is down before you play the opening chord, then the whole instrument resonates at the start of the sound. Try it for yourself – play the chord without the pedal and you will get a very dry result, since only four dampers will be raised (the RH notes in that particular chord are too high even to need dampers). If you pedal just after the chord, you will miss the full resonance. Instead of an explosive accent, you get a sort of hairpin crescendo. With the pedal down before, all the dampers are raised and the whole instrument can resonate.
I have recently published a video walkthrough on the Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor on the Online Academy, here is a short clip from it where I illustrate the beneficial effects of the pedal-down-before-you-play approach.
It’s something of a paradox that the best pedalling happens when the ear and the right foot are in perfect accord with each other, the foot responding to the ear’s beck and call without any thought whatever. However, it is all too easy to get used to the sound-enhancing luxury the pedal offers us and soon, as I have written about before, we find we are covering over all sorts of little errors in a glorious haze of resonance. In order to get to the point where we can become unconscious about pedalling, it is a good idea to think about what we are doing with our right foot in our practice, and deliberately practise from time to time without any (or with only those pedals necessary for connections).
The person sitting at the piano in this next clip is not really the performer, but the whole performance would be ruined if they did not do their job properly. You can bet this “pianist” has his whole attention on making absolutely sure his right foot stays fully down in the pedal for the entire duration of this piece, Henry Cowell‘s The Banshee – or the performance would immediately be ruined!
If you enjoyed this blog post then you might also be interested in my Online Academy series The Art of Pedalling which provides a comprehensive treatise on the subject of pedalling.