There is a debate in classical music (yes, those exist) that has been the topic of many a heated cocktail party conversation. Should one use the pedal when playing Bach?
This is one of those issues on which you simply have to take a side. All claims of neutrality will be seen as sympathising with the enemy, which will either make you a blasphemous heretic or a bigoted conservative.
Take me for example. My mother was my main piano teacher for most of my childhood, and any use of the pedals (all three of them!) was strictly forbidden. My protests of ‘but it sounds better!’ were brushed aside. “Bach didn’t write for an instrument with pedals!”
And it’s true – the harpsichord that Bach wrote for was, for all intents and purposes, more like a string instrument than a keyboard instrument. Depressing a key on the harpsichord leads to a corresponding string being plucked. This mechanism produces a tone not unlike that of a classical guitar. Harpsichords have limited dynamic range and are unable to produce sustaining notes. Enthusiasts will also tell you – always leading in with a nonchalant yet hurried ‘by-the-way-did-you-know’ – that Baroque harpsichords are tuned to a different frequency.
The modern piano, in contrast, operates on a percussive principle– pressing a key causes a padded hammer to strike a number of strings, the vibrations of which are then transmitted to a soundboard. A bigger difference is the presence of two or three pedals – una corda, sosteneuto and the sustain pedal (from left to right). The una corda pedal shifts the entire keyboard to the right, making the hammer strike fewer strings, which creates a softer sound. The sustain pedal– the most controversial pedal when it comes to Bach – raises the dampers that stop the strings from vibrating, thus producing a sustaining effect. The sostenuto pedal is less common.
Such luxuries weren’t available for a Baroque instrument, and purists make it a point to denounce any pedal-laced performance as inauthentic. After almost a decade of flipping sides, I am finally coming off the fence.
The question of authenticity is not about how close a performance is to the ‘original’. It is about capturing the Zeit, the spirit of the original, and whether it reflects contemporary aesthetic standards.
At the offset, the purist aim of reproducing an ‘original’ performance is a lost cause. The modern piano is simply too different from the Baroque harpsichord for this to be a possiblity.
I ask you, why should we not take advantage of what is available to us? What if we asked the opposite question? Would Bach have used the pedal if he was around today? The answer, I claim, is in the affirmative.
First, Baroque music, contrary to popular opinion, is anything but rigid. Look at a harpsichord score of that period, and you will find surprisingly few notes on the score– much of what is played is up to improvisation. Listen to a good harpsichordist, and you can feel them flexing their way through the path marked by those few precious clusters. Sweeping figurations and coy ornaments convey palpitating energy as effectively as a raspy smoke-laced vibrato.
The spirit of Bach’s music doesn’t rule out using pedals, and in fact, one is tempted to imagine Bach being overjoyed at the broadened musical palette he has. That being said, would Bach, as a product of our times, use the pedal?
The answer has to do with our conceptions of ‘authenticity’. We have moved beyond its Reformation-era definition of a direct connection to the thing-in-question (God, in their case). Instead, authenticity is about creating a space in which an authentic experience can be imagined – in many ways a more Catholic definition.
Instagram or Picasa filters take details away from a stock photo. The most common filters (LOMO/pinhole/B&W) all appropriate the aesthetics of an irretrievable but romanticised era, taken out of context like a lone Terracotta warrior in a museum. It allows our imagination to transcend, no strings attached (imagine having to live with all the problems, including no internet, of the B&W era), into a sterilised space where an authentic experience greets us.
The same principle lies behind the decor of trendy restaurants/underground craft breweries. A popular Vietnamese restaurant in Berlin claiming to deliver a ‘Saigon street food experience’ is decked with flimsy wooden tables and cheap plastic chairs that range from menstrual pink to cheap-hair-dye-blue. A hotspot for ironic beards and slim cut suits alike, (and justifiably so, Their Vietnamese burger– a banh mi patty sandwiched between a fluffy bao and accompanied with fresh coriander, mango, garlic mayonnaise and fried tofu– made me go there a wallet-thinning 11 times) and allows us to imagine ourselves in a Saigon street corner, minus the flies, sputtering rickshaws and the inevitable stomach complications.
Similarly, the exposed wiring in many a craft brewery has a pornographic oops-you-just-caught-me-undressing quality, a wink that allows our imagination to transport us into a Prohibition-era underground bar, without the threat of impending arrest.
My point being, if a dab here and there allows us to imagine ourselves in a salon somewhere in 17th century Europe, engaging in shamefully bourgeoisie post-dinner entertainment, then why not? Many famous pianists are known precisely for their ‘unorthodox’ interpretations of Baroque music.
Listen to a good recording of Glenn Gould (who fulfils the stooped trope of the eccentric artist – repressed homosexual, an obsession with keeping warm, frail health, and, to the annoyance of many producers, incessant humming during playing) and you will realise just how romantic his playing is. He spins a delicate melodic line within the complex polyphonic tapestry of, say, the Goldberg Variations – listen closely and you will hear delicate-yet-complex dabs (quarter, third and half depressions!) of both the una corda and the sustain pedal. This creates the contrast, the magic, behind the lyrical aria and the more fiery variations (e.g. V).
Horowitz (again, rumoured repressed homosexual) used the same technique to almost singlehandedly revive Scarlatti’s (a Bach contemporary) works in the piano repertoire. His Scarlatti recordings and live performances turn Scarlatti’s seemingly naive melodies into electrifying prose. Listen to his performance of the L23 Sonata during his landmark 1986 Moscow concert, and one is struck by how he manages to sustain a bass note – almost like a gentle church-bell – and still maintain a bird-call like clarity in upper ornaments.
Such performances, I’m sure, would have been approved by Bach. They convey sparks of spontaneity that is often missing in performances of Baroque music. One is tempted to imagine him running up to the piano to try it out himself. Bach, should he have existed in our era of Instagram-aesthetics, would have embraced the pedal.
So the next time you see me play Bach, pay attention to my feet, nymph-like, defiantly dabbing away at the pedals. Yes. All of them.