The Romantic period can also be dubbed the Era of the Sustaining Pedal. Almost every piece by a Romantic composer depends at one point or another, and sometimes throughout, on the use of the sustaining pedal.
The basic reason for this change from Classic period music was the gradually increasing sonority of the piano itself. With greatly enriched harmonics of the new instruments, close-position chords in the bass, whether broken or unbroken, no longer sounded tolerable. Composers therefore opened out the chords, playing their notes successively instead of simultaneously, and used the pedal to sustain what could not be stretched by a single hand.
This was really only a development of an existing device: Broken chords had long been used to provide both rhythmic interest and a sustaining effect in keyboard music. What was new was the epiphany that the pedal now permitted spacings which were not only beyond the reach of a single hand, but also noticeably suited to the fleeting tones of the piano. New and beautiful keyboard textures evolved, whose immense potentialities were developed continuously up to the time of Debussy and beyond.
Two basic types of chords evolved to accompany pedaling. In the first, the chord is spread out in single notes. In the second, the chord is divided into smaller chords, or a combination of smaller chords and single notes. Pianists should be on the lookout for such architecture, and their combinations, because while they depend entirely on the right hand pedal for their effect, they are not always marked by the composer in the score. When there are no marks, the best way to determine the pedaling is to reduce the open-textured chords to their closed position. The pedaling will then usually coincide with the changes in harmony. Additionally, harmonic factors should be taken into consideration so as not to create an over-thick sound and lose the true bass.
Another reason for modifying the harmonic pedaling is the complexity of the right hand part. The lesser sustaining power of the treble as compared with the bass will generally take care of this. But at times the sound must be thinned out by means of a kind of half-pedaling that leaves the more resonant bass notes still party audible, and in extreme cases the bass should be abandoned altogether and left to the listener’s ear so the music is not muddied.
One example is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, where the entire first movement is played senzi sordini (without dampers); i.e. with the right hand pedal held down unchanged from beginning to end. On the modern piano, the results are hopelessly muddied. But with a third pedal, we can approximate the effects Beethoven intended fairly closely by depressing the lowest notes in the piece with the middle pedal kept down by the left foot throughout the movement. The right hand pedal is used in a normal manner, and changed as harmony dictates. This allows the undampened lowest strings to act as sympathetic resonators, so that they vibrate continuously and produce a faint but perceptible haze of sound from beginning to end, through which the singing of the right hand can sound, as Beethoven himself reported, “like a voice from a vault.” (Read more about piano history and the evolution of pianos.)
Various pedaling techniques can include these:
- Depress the pedal immediately after a note has been struck, and released simultaneously with the attack on a note, with the result that the second note is joined to the first in a perfect legato, and without the slightest trace of fuzz or carry-over in sound from one to the other.
- An earlier method, now used less often, is known as rhythmic-pedaling. The pedal is depressed simultaneously with the attack, and released just before a note is struck. The legato may be slightly less perfect, but the notes have a sort of boom due to the sympathetic vibration of the other undampened strings. This can be extremely beautiful in a slow cantabile.
- A third type of pedaling can only be used after a silence. In it, the pedal is depressed before the note is struck, with results very similar to those achieved by rhythmic-pedaling.
Composers sometimes use staccato marks in combination with pedal signs. At first this may seem to be a contradiction in terms. What is meant is not that the pianist should attempt an impossible shortening of the notes, but that they should be played with the same touch and attack as used for a staccato. This produces a slightly different tone from playing the same notes legato and with pedal.
Pedal marks in Romantic music should be interpreted with discretion rather than followed blindly. The pianist should try to divine what effect the composer was aiming at and create that affect as closely as possible with the modern piano.