Pedalling in the Music of J.S. Bach


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 unreasonable, is put into Baroque scores that allows for at least the possibility, should the performer want it to be so, for a totally physical legato without the aid of the pedal. In the absence of other possibilities, students and teachers follow these fingerings. Some go on to mistakenly believe that legato is both possible, necessary and/or stylistically correct.

The editors and pianists makes two errors here. The first is that the line must be legato in the first place. The second, that physical legato is the only way of connecting two or more notes.

Many students hold on to keys for dear life and contort their fingers and hands into painful shapes in order to execute a fingering that creates a physical legato, but is neither stylistically correct nor, in many cases, physically healthy.

Further, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a physical legato will create a smooth legato. Everyone has heard amateur pianists connecting notes, but the sound being “lumpy”.

To be fair, editors are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They don’t have much choice but to indicate possible legato fingerings in case the performer wants to create a legato line.

Indicating one possible fingering for a certain articulation would suggest one possible interpretation, but it again is not fitting with the Baroque style. Suggesting period fingering, which is by and large pretty obscure and only one possibility, is also not good editorial practice.

A range of articulations will be in good taste, and so a range of fingerings are also possible. Indicating one option is not good scholarship. But nor is slavish adherence to rules such as “never use the pedal” or “all notes must be physically connected”.

The fact is, long legato lines are not appropriate in Baroque music. Keyboard players were taught how to articulate a line of music. So even though there are few articulation marks in much Baroque music, it was expected that a performer would have the good taste through their education to know what articulation choices were in keeping with the composer’s intention and the work’s affect. Remember also that improvisation is significant in this period, and improvising and experimenting with different articulations is most certainly in keeping with the style.

All the keyboard treatises of this period agree that the performer must first decide on the articulation of the passage (based on their understanding of the affect of the work and what they want to communicate to the audience) and then create a system of fingering to allow this to articulation to happen.

I personally prefer the Bärenreiter or Henle editions that have no fingering on the scores. Step one is to choose an articulation and step two is to work out a fingering that will make that possible, but this isn't always appropriate for younger or less experienced players. And, to be fair, there are many well edited scores that provide young pianists with excellent ideas about articulation possibilities. Our role as educators is to further expand the possibilities and options in this respect.

Places to Use the Pedal in Baroque Music

The use of pedal, in discreet ways, can help create legato where it is physically impossible to do so, if the performer desires a legato sound.

The use of the pedal can also aid in creating resonance where the default on the pianoforte is for all strings to be stopped by the dampers unless that particular key is depressed.

The discreet use of pedal to help create resonance – for instance after a chord is struck (rather than before) – or to help create a legato line if that is the effect that is needed is a valuable too for the modern pianist. In the following example, depressing the right pedal after each chord has been rolled and raising it when there is any risk of blurring of the melodic or harmonic material leads to a much more sensuous Sarabande than one that was played without the pedal at all.

Example 5: J.S. Bach, Prelude in E-flat minor BWV 853, bars 5 – 8

Further, light touches of pedal might be used to accent slurs in bright energetic passages, to accent short ornaments or to create a metric accent where needed.

In this example, one possible articulation is to slur the octaves in the main theme and lightly depressing the right pedal can help to further enhance the effect of the two-note slur.

Example 6: J.S. Bach, Prelude from Suite in A minor BWV 807, bars 1 – 4

Where to go for More Information

For students and teachers who have no idea what to do with the articulation of Baroque lines, the best place to start is by listening to good recordings by early music scholars and harpsichordists. Such perfomers include Roslyn Tureck, Masaaki Suzuki, Gustav Leonhardt, Wanda Landowska and Christophe Rousset to name just a few. First what you might note in these recordings is how the sound of a harpsichord is indeed "live" and resonant and not dry. Second, have your score at the ready and make notes on the performers articulation. Listen also for agogic accents - or notes that are delayed or not quite sounded with the left hand.

Listening to the recordings of modern master pianists such as Murray Perahia, Jeremy Denk and Angela Hewitt is also an excellent way to learn how to perform these works on the modern pianoforte. These recordings will provide a very different insight into translating the works for performance on modern instruments. Articulation and pedalling choices in these and other great pianists are a great resource for helping you make your own choices. I like to offer several recordings to my students and ask them to notate what they hear, and then for them to decide what they will put into their own playing. Over the years these students learn how to articulate the lines and impress me with their own spontaneous articulations.

Another excellent resource on the topic can be found in the appendix of the Alfred Masterworks edition of the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1. Rarely is such excellent scholarship so readily accessible for teachers and students of Bach’s music. The appendix notates the different articulations of each fugue subject and the tempi of a number of important recordings.

A final thought: Chopin did famously say that the study of the pedal is a study for life. Each and every year that I teach and play this wonderful instrument makes me realise how true that is and how exciting it is that we can continue to explore these options over the course of our entire lives and in the music of all composers.

In any case, if you still want to know more, consider taking some lessons from an early music specialist, a harpsichordist or a pianist with extensive experience on the subject.

Anthony van den Broek is a pianist, teacher and pianoforte examiner for the Australian Music Examinations Board. He is sought after as a solo and collaborative pianist and has degrees in keyboard performance, licentiates in piano performance and diplomas in music theory and history.

Anthony is demand as a lecturer on piano pedagogy as well as aspects of performance practice of the music from the Baroque and Classical periods and plays the piano, harpsichord and the organ and is a Certified Instructor of the Taubman Approach for Piano.

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