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On the Use of the Damper Pedal.


Probably no portion of that patient and long-suffering instrument, the piano, is so persistently maltreated as the pedal. This abuse is not confined to amateurs, for even among concert pianists of the first rank the artistic use of the pedal is frequently a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. The cause of this is not far to seek. Piano teaching begins at the wrong end; instead of commencing with ear training, the fingers are at once appealed to, and there are finger gymnastics; as the pupil advances there are more gymnastics; later, still more gymnastics, with the result that the ear and musical nature are entirely uncultivated, and the student graduates with very respectable attainments for a blacksmith or typewriter perhaps, but utterly incapable of artistic soulful playing. One need only question any first-class artist or teacher, to be convinced that this is not a pessimistic view of the situation. A beautiful and artistic use of the pedal depends almost entirely upon keenly sensitizing the ear. A distinguished American composer once remarked, jokingly, to the writer, that he contemplated writing a set of pedal studies for the training of the feet; but even he did not seem to realize that it is not foot but ear training that is wanted. That eminent American teacher, Dr. Wm. Mason, has written an admirable study (Vol. 4, “Touch and Technic”) that contains in a nutshell the whole secret of artistic pedaling.

What is this secret? While in an article like the present an exhaustive treatment of the subject is not possible, yet the writer would make a few suggestions which, if followed, will do much toward answering the question. There are three fixed, invariable rules for the use of the pedal. The first is to listen; the second, listen; the third, listen! Beethoven’s dictum here applies, that whatever sounds good is good. Bearing these three rules in mind, let us examine a few of the ways in which the pedal may be employed. It may be used, first, to sustain a single tone of the bass. A good example of this is found in the Chopin Nocturne in E flat, in which the pedal is pressed on the first tone of each group of three, and released on the chord that immediately follows.

Second, to sustain the tones of a melody while the hands are employed in passage work above or below the theme. Gottschalk’s “Last Hope” is a familiar example of this, the Chopin Étude, Op. 25, No. 1, another.

Third, to sustain an organ point, as the low F sharp in the Bach Saint-Saëns Gavotte in B Minor.

The invention of the third, or sostenuto, pedal has rendered it possible to do this perfectly without any of the blur that necessarily accompanies the use of the damper pedal. In using the third pedal it must be pressed down after the note to be sustained has been struck.

Fourth, the pedal is used to give brilliancy, fullness, and resonance to chords played with the elastic touch. There results from this combination of pedal and touch a tone obtainable in no other way. Schumann’s “Novelette” in F, is a good example of this method of pedaling.

But by far its most important use is for the connection of the tones of a melody that cannot be played legato with the fingers. A skillful handling of the pedal in this way wonderfully increases the sonority and singing power of the piano, even when the legato connection can be preserved without its aid. One has only to listen to Paderewski, who is a master of the art of pedaling, to realize the beautiful tone effects that can be produced by its aid. Before trying to use the pedal in this way it must be thoroughly understood that purity of tone depends upon damping the string at precisely the proper moment. In other words, in playing a succession of tones, C, D, E, the damper must fall on the C string at the exact moment that the D is struck, and on the D the instant the E is struck. That this is not such an easy matter to accomplish will be vividly realized by a few attempts to bring exactly together

the up and down clicks of that admirable instrument, the Virgil Practice Clavier. Here the clicks show the instant the damper falls on the string, and afford an infallible guide to absolute perfection in tone connection. To acquire the principle of tone connection by means of the pedal, it is best to begin with the following exercise: Take the scale of C and strike the first tone with the second finger. Now, after the key has been struck,press (sic) down the pedal and remove the hand from the keyboard, while the pedal sustains the tone; at the instant that D is struck release the pedal so that C ceases to vibrate. Hold the D firmly pressed down for an instant, then put down the pedal and remove the hand as before. Continue this through the scale. The student must listen carefully; there must not be the slightest overlapping of the tones, which will be the case if the pedal is put down too soon, or the slightest separation, which will happen if the pedal comes down too late. When single tones can be perfectly connected in this way, apply the same principle to chords, after that to the connection of melodies. The following are good examples:—

Schumann’s “Romance” in F sharp.
Liszt’s “Liebestraueme” No. 3.
Schubert’s “Momens Musicale,” Op. 94, No. 2.

Many teachers instruct their pupils to raise the pedal at each change of harmony. This is a very good rule as far as it goes, but the property that a vibrating string has of giving out overtones (an explanation of which may be found in any work on Sound) often renders it unadvisable to retain the pedal, though the harmony remains the same. For instance, take the C sharp arpeggio of Rubinstein’s “Kamennoi Ostrow,” and hold the pedal throughout; then play it again, raising and lowering the pedal two or three times very quickly, and notice the gain in clearness which results as the overtones are cut off by the dampers.

In some compositions greater clearness results if the dampers are only raised the smallest appreciable distance from the strings; this is especially the case where the melody is in repeated notes, like Gottschalk’s “Tremolo;” great skill is here required, and the effect must be heard to be appreciated.

The student, if he have a sensitive ear, will be able to discover many novel pedal effects. For instance, press down the pedal on the D sharp in measure 34 of Schubert’s “Momens Musicales,” Op. 94, No. 2; play the first D sharp forte, and each succeeding one more softly down to the finest pianissimo. The hammer should press the last tones out of the string, which can be accomplished if the key is allowed to rise about half way with finger still in contact with it. This is a lovely pedal effect, but one very difficult to describe. A novel effect may be produced in the second cadenza of Liszt’s “Liebestraueme,” No. 3, by sustaining the entire left- hand arpeggio with the pedal while the descending passage is being played; care must be taken to release the pedal as the middle of the keyboard is approached, as at that point the vibration of the strings is of longer duration, and a blur might result. Another charming effect may be produced in measures 1 and 2 and 38 and 39 of Rubinstein’s “Kamennoi Ostrow” thus: put down both pedals, then, commencing pp, make a very marked crescendo to the end of the first measure and an equally- marked diminuendo from that point to the end of the second measure; the last few notes should hardly be struck at all, but the vibration of the strings allowed to die away.

If measures 38 and 39 be played ad libitum the effect will be much enhanced.

In conclusion it may be said that the pedal should never be employed except with a view of producing some definite effect; it should never be allowed to obscure the clearness of the melody, and should be so skillfully handled that the hearer is hardly conscious that it is being used.

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