Rests in piano music can be confusing. Some rests we have to treat very literally – this means a noticeable silence – whereas others may simply mean don’t play anything on that beat. So how can we know which is which? It all comes down to understanding the composer’s message, and how to read a score.
Let’s look at an example from Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, op. 58. Towards the beginning of the last movement, Beethoven writes this pattern of notes, together with a pedal indication:
There is no mystery about this pedal marking – what Beethoven is after here is a block of harmony. He commands the player to trap the notes of the chord in one long pedal spanning two bars. It is very obvious that the rests in the LH are included in the score to satisfy the theoretical requirements that each beat must be accounted for either with notes or with their equivalent values in rests. The LH plays nothing on these beats, but the sound of the first three LH notes lives on.
Let’s look at a similar example from a later period in music, the middle section of the Nocturne by Grieg:
The LH broken harmonies must swim together in one long pedal, the rests merely indicate that the LH does nothing on those beats (other than perhaps travel to its next destination). It is incorrect to assume that these rests mean a literal silence.
Here is another example, the opening of Rachmaninov’s G minor Etude Tableau from the op. 33 set. Put the pedal down before you start (to maximise resonance from the very first note) and hold it through the 2 bars. Not only is it correct to pedal through these rests, in my opinion it would be a misreading not to. We will still be able to perceive the rest between each cloud of harmony by the way we phrase and time the endings. If a full pedal is too much for you then a half or even a quarter pedal will give you the best of both worlds – resonance together with a certain transparency in the sound. The resonance of the room, the resonance of the instrument, and the taste of the player are factors in such a decision.
We pianists need to remember that we might need to hold the pedal through different varieties of touch (staccato, leggiero, etc.) as well as certain rests that are marked in the score. This is because such touch varieties show up in our sound despite the presence of the pedal. You can try this out by playing an arpeggio firstly legato and then staccato with the pedal down. The ear perceives the difference in touch, despite the fact that the pedal blends the sounds together in both cases. If you are still not convinced, imagine playing staccato in a very resonant space like a cathedral. The building itself acts as a sort of pedal, and each sound will swim in the acoustic of the space after the next sound has been produced. This blending of sounds is one of the prime jobs of the right pedal. Therefore, when we see such articulation marks we can absolutely pedal through them. Check out this example from the first Chopin Nocturne, the con forza bar:
I’m going to leave you with one example where the rests need to be made very clear. Let’s return to Beethoven, and the opening of the Sonata in E, op. 109. The crotchets (stems up) in the RH sound alone, Beethoven filling in the harmony through the remainder of each beat. He has been careful to slur the LH semiquaver pair to show the eye that the second note needs to the phrased off, and released. In fact, his notation is incredibly precise. I prefer to work without pedal until I can spin this web of sound, then add a small touch – perhaps on the LH slurs.
In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts, practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.
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