I have just returned exhausted and annihilated from a concert, where I have been hearing the piano pounded. Two grand bravoura movements have been thundered off, with the pedal continually raised; and then were suddenly succeeded by a soft murmuring passage, during which the thirteen convulsed and quivering bass notes of the fortissimo were all the time resounding. It was only by the aid of the concert programme that my tortured ears could arrive at the conclusion that this confusion of tones was meant to represent two pieces by Döhler and Thalberg.
Cruel fate that invented the pedal! I mean the pedal which raises the dampers on the piano. A grand acquisition, indeed, for modern times! Good heavens! Our piano performers must have lost their sense of hearing! What is all this growling and buzzing? Alas, it is only the groaning of the wretched piano-forte, upon which one of the modern virtuosos, with a heavy beard and long hanging locks, whose hearing has deserted him, is blustering away on a bravoura piece, with the pedal incessantly raised,—with inward satisfaction and vain self-assertion! Truly time brings into use a great deal that is far from beautiful: does, then, this raging piano revolutionist think it beautiful to bring the pedal into use at every bar? Unhappy delusion.
But enough of this serious jesting. Hummel never used the pedal. He was an extremist; and, in his graceful, clear, elegant, neat, though not grand playing, often lost fine effects, which would have been produced by the correct and judicious use of the pedal; particularly on the instruments of Stein, Brodmann, Conrad Graff, and others then in use, which were usually lightly leathered, and had a thin, sharp tone. The use of the pedal, of course always allowing it to fall frequently with precision, was especially desirable in the upper treble, in cases where the changes of the harmony were not very frequent; for the tone of those instruments, although sweet and agreeable, had not much depth, and the action had but little strength and elasticity. But on our instruments, frequently too softly leathered, which have a full tone, and are so strong and penetrating, especially in the bass, it is enough to endanger one's sense of hearing to be subjected to such a senseless, incessant, ridiculous, deafening use of the pedal; frequently, moreover, combined with a hard, stiff touch, and an unsound, incorrect technique. A musical interpretation in any degree tolerable is out of the question. You cannot call that art, it cannot even be called manual labor: it is a freak of insanity!
A few words to the better sort of players. The foot-piece to the right on the piano-forte raises the dampers, and in that way makes the tones resound and sing, and takes from them the dryness, shortness, and want of fulness, which is always the objection to the piano-forte, especially to those of the earlier construction. This is certainly an advantage; the more the tone of the piano-forte resembles singing, the more beautiful it is. But, in order not to injure the distinctness and detract from the clear phrasing of the performance, a very skilful and prudent use of the pedal is necessary in rapid changes of harmony, particularly in the middle and lower portion of the instrument.
You all use the pedal too much and too often, especially on large, fine concert pianos of the new construction, which, with their heavy stringing, have in themselves a fuller, more vibrating tone; at least you do not let it fall frequently enough, and with precision. You must listen to what you are playing. You do not play for yourselves alone; frequently you play to hearers who are listening for the first time to the pieces you are performing. Try a few passages without pedal,—for instance, those in which the changes of the harmony succeed each other rapidly, even in the highest treble,—and see what repose, what serene enjoyment, what refreshment is afforded, what delicate shading is brought out. Or at first listen, and try to feel it in the playing of others; for your habit is so deeply rooted that you no longer know when and how often you use the pedal. Chopin, that highly gifted, elegant, sensitive composer and performer, may serve as a model for you here. His widely dispersed, artistic harmonies, with the boldest and most striking suspensions, for which the fundamental bass is essential, certainly require the frequent use of the pedal for fine harmonic effect. But, if you examine and observe the minute, critical directions in his compositions, you can obtain from him complete instruction for the nice and correct use of the pedal.
By way of episode to my sorrowful lecture on the pedal, we will take a walk through the streets some beautiful evening. What is it that we hear in almost every house? Unquestionably it is piano-playing; but what playing! It is generally nothing but a continual confusion of different chords, without close, without pause; slovenly passages, screened by the raised pedal; varied by an empty, stiff, weak touch, relying upon the pedal for weight. We will escape into the next street. Oh, horrors! what a thundering on this piano, which, by the way, is sadly out of tune! It is a grand—that is, a long, heavy—étude, with the most involved passages, and a peculiar style of composition, probably with the title "On the Ocean," or "In Hades," or "Fancies of the Insane;" pounded off with the pedal raised through the most marvellous changes of harmonies. Finally, the strings snap, the pedal creaks and moans; conclusion,—c, c sharp, d, d sharp resound together through a few exhausted bars, and at last die away in the warm, soft, delicious air. Universal applause from the open windows! But who is the frantic musician who is venting his rage or this piano? It is a Parisian or other travelling composer, lately arrived with letters of recommendation, who has just been giving a little rehearsal of what we may expect to hear shortly in a concert at the "Hôtel de Schmerz."