Many teachers, performers and adjudicators of exam and competition students insist that because the sustain pedal did not exist on the instruments for which Bach wrote, it therefore should neither need to be used, nor be used when playing his works on the modern pianoforte.
This kind of reasoning, to be consistent, could lead one to conclude that performers on the modern day pianoforte have no place playing the music of J.S. Bach on it because none of his keyboard works were written for the newly invented gravicembalo col piano e forte (the first of the keyboards that could change the volume by varying the touch).
Musicians must settle this question for themselves, but assuming that the player does want to play the works on a modern pianoforte, the question of how to approach the use of pedal arises. The question for performers on the modern piano is how to use the pedal in a way that honours the spirit of Bach’s music.
In my experience, there are a few misconceptions at the heart of this debate:
First, that pianists would use the pedal in the same way as they would in nineteenth century music
Second, that harpsichords, clavichords and older keyboards are not resonant and that the sound is dry
Third, that the construction of the piano is basically the same as the older keyboards
Fourth, that physical legato lines are both possible and ideal in the music of J.S. Bach
In the first case, nineteenth century pedalling is primarily is used to create massed sonorities such as in this example:
Example: Liszt Orage, bars 20 to 27
The pedal also makes multilayered left hand harmonic textures possible where there is no possibility of physical connection over such wide distances and further where there three distinct textural layers – the bass voice, the melody voice and the inner voices – and yet the pianist only has two hands to accomplish such a texture.
Example 2: Chopin Scherzo No 2, bars 197 to 206
Example 3: Chopin Scherzo No 2, bars 544 to 554
The pedal can also be used to facilitate a legato sound where physical legato is impossible either because the note is repeated, because there is no way of spanning the distances, or because a physical legato connection is impossible such as in this example:
Example 4: Chopin Scherzo No 2, bars 3 to 9
"The use of the pedal in these ways has no place in Baroque music, since Baroque music neither has this texture nor figuration in the accompaniment, nor the expectation of legato – particularly when it is impossible to physically connect the two notes."
Further, polyphonic textures require that each line is clearly articulated in the texture and cannot be blended together in the way it is done in homophonic textures.
The second point refers to the assumption that pianists and teachers make when they think that the harpsichord has no resonance and that notes die practically as soon as they are played. This is not actually true and indeed the opposite can be argued: the modern pianoforte without the pedal or the individual damper lifted is entirely without resonance. All but the upper most strings inside the instrument are “stopped” from vibrating by damper felts, unless they are raised through the depression of a key or by raising the dampers using the right pedal.
When you play a harpsichord, there is not such a hard dampening of the strings and harmonically sympathetic strings are freer to vibrate in a way that is not possible on the pianoforte without the dampers being raised. In my own experience, the sound of a harpsichord is not a “dry” sound at all, but rather resonant and rich. Harpsichordists can also use a range of touches including over-legato, to further enhance the resonance of the instrument.
Little wonder then that the great pianist and early music scholar Roslyn Tureck insisted her students play the music of J.S. Bach on all sorts of keyboard instruments in order that they would be able to personally grasp the sound worlds and possibilities of these instruments. There is much to be learnt from playing each of Bach's works on different keyboards, as indeed was the style of the time.
The third point raises certain differences between the keyboard instruments. Modern pianos have a much greater key depth and weight and the distances are wider than on the period instruments. For instance, a tenth on a harpsichord is not as wide as a tenth on the modern pianoforte.
These factors all call for a rethinking of what can be quite easy on a harpsichord being quite difficult on a piano and sometimes needing the aid of the pedal, if only to connect two notes that would otherwise be connectable on the harpsichord.
The last problem is more intractable in my experience. Pianists spend so much time creating a legato sound, especially through the physical connection of one note to the next. It is an essential part of our modern training.
"Editorial fingering has similarly evolved so that the overriding imperative is to design a fingering that will facilitate a perfectly physical legato, no matter what the period of music."
What we can see in many scores is that fingering, no matter how complex, stretchy or