• Features

Pedalpiano recital: Schumann, Boëly, Gounod, Alkan (DVD Continuo Records, 2014)


Called the Pedalflügel in Germany or the piano-pédalier in France and Italy, the pedal piano is a piano that includes a pedal-board like that of an organ, which is either connected to the lower strings of the same instrument or to the keys of a second piano placed under the main one. This instrument has ancient origins and as long ago as 1463 the Liber viginti artium, an encyclopedia of the arts and sciences compiled by Paulus Paulirinus, mentions a clavichord with a pedal-board. Bach’s Six Trio Sonatas for Two Keyboards and Pedal (für zwei Claviere und Pedal) BWV 525-530 were probably composed for a clavichord and a harpsichord with pedals. It is well known that Mozart owned a pedal piano built by Anton Walter, which he used for improvising in public, and on which probably performed the premiere of his Piano Concerto K 466.


Schumann was particularly interested in the potential of this instrument and he was convinced that it was destined to be the natural evolution of the piano. He wrote some very inspired music for the pedal piano, such as his Sechs kanonische Etüden für den Pedalflügel Op. 56 and Vier Skizzen für den Pedalflügel Op. 58. In this piece the melodic line played on the pedal-board gives a special radiance to the harmonies, and it almost seems to incarnate ‘Maestro Raro’, Schumann's alter ego, whom the composer saw as the ideal expression of poetic wisdom and sublime balance. Why did Schumann love the pedal piano so much? I think that what stimulated his creativity was the presence of an additional voice, which could sustain the harmonies as well as establishing a special dialogue with the piano keyboard, due to its different timbre. Besides he was always attracted to particular utopias of sound and composition and so he must have been enthusiastic about the idea of ​​playing the pianoforte with two different and coexisting voices, so much so that he persuaded Mendelssohn to form a class devoted to the pedal piano at the Conservatory of Leipzig.


Nevertheless, the pedal piano did not achieve fame and fortune in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century, where it was relegated to the role of a practice instrument for organists, so that they could study without having to go into a church. However, in this period the pedal piano attained some degree of popularity in France, thanks to the attention of two leading piano manufacturers, Erard and Pleyel, who produced several models of both upright and grand types. One of the first French composers to write for the pedal piano was Alexandre Pierre François Boëly (1785-1858), and he composed the Twelve pieces op. 18 (1856) for pedal piano, that are normally performed on the organ nowadays. The Fantaisie et Fugue op. 18 no. 6, the central piece of the series, is characterized by a bright and lively quality, much more typical of the piano than of the organ, in which the pedals add the sturdiness of the low register to the clear polyphony, contributing a sort of third dimension to the perception of the melodic lines. The improvisational character of the Fantaisie contrasts with the severe structure of the Fugue, at the end of which the quadruplets of semiquavers of the Fantaisie reappear and overlie the main theme of the Fugue.


Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was equally interested in the pedal piano and he composed four pieces for pedal piano and orchestra: Fantaisie sur l’hymne national russe (1885), Suite concertante (1886), Danse roumaine (1888), and a Concerto in E flat major (1889), which was clearly written to make the most of the expressive and timbral potential of the pedal-board. The orchestral version of his Marche funèbre d’une marionnette was famously used as the theme tune for the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. Gounod originally composed it in 1872 for solo piano, sarcastically dedicating it to a music critic whom he considered to be a mindless marionette. The peculiar compositional style, with frequent forays into the low register, led me (in 2011) to commission a transcription for pedal piano from the composer Giuseppe Lupis, which is the version featured in this DVD.


Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was undoubtedly the most innovative and prolific composer of pieces for the pedal piano. His contemporaries tell us that he was also a sensational virtuoso on this instrument, to which he devoted himself with assiduous enthusiasm during the last thirty years of his life. In this period his compositional style, which had hitherto been extremely virtuosic and polyphonically complex, became more essential, sparing and abstract. He abandoned the dazzling colors typical of his acrobatic piano pieces and gave precedence to the limpid transparency of counterpoint, experimenting with unusual harmonic solutions and timbres. Alkan composed more than three hours of music for the pedal piano, including the mystic Benedictus op. 54 and the utopian 12 Études pour les pieds seulement, of which here you can listen to no. 1. This set of compositions was in a sense the “pedal-pianoistic” reply to Paganini’s twenty-four Capricci per violino solo. The 11 Grands Préludes op. 66 for pedal piano give us a taste of Alkan’s ability to exploit the full timbral and expressive potentialities of the instrument, including its melodic and lyrical qualities (especially in Prélude no. 3), as well as its more exquisitely virtuosic possibilities, as in the acrobatic coda of Prélude no. 4.


Playing the pedal piano means reconsidering and completely modifying one’s technical training and preparation as a pianist. The physical effort for the performer of constantly moving his legs deprives him of a fixed center of gravity and forces him to change his approach to the keyboard, relinquishing his usual position of both feet resting on the ground and finding a more precarious equilibrium by using the abdominal muscles. In fact, up to the present day no real technical tradition for performing on the pedal piano has as yet been developed. There are no methods or treatises, and the technique for playing the pedal organ cannot be applied to the pedal piano, since the pedal-board of the latter is connected to a second soundboard with a set of mechanical hammers, which requires a particular sensitivity of touch in the feet. I have therefore learned that it is necessary to adapt the technique of weight transfer, used by almost all concert pianists, also to the pedals, since only in this way is it possible to obtain a richly sonorous resonance, a clearly appreciable legato and a better control of the dynamics.


The instrument used in this recital is the Pinchi Pedalpiano System, designed and built by the organ-maker Claudio Pinchi in 2012. It consists of a pedal-board with 61 wooden “fingers”, which makes it possible to obtain a pedal piano by combining two normal grand pianos, one placed below the other (in this case the two splendid F278 and F228 Fazioli pianoforte models). The Pinchi Pedalpiano System has three independent registers (16’, 8’ and 4’) and an extension of five octaves. The possibility to combine different registers allows one to vary the timbre of each note, thanks to the doubling of the octave and the fifteenth. This innovative pedal-board works with any grand piano, and will hopefully lead to an international renaissance of the pedal piano, which until now has been hampered by the logistical problems of building and moving the instrument (in fact Mozart's father complained about the difficulties of transporting the pedal piano that Wolfgang played at his concerts in the last years of his life). After all, the possibility of an “enhanced” pianoforte certainly stimulated Wolfgang Amadeus’s creativity, and Robert Schumann saw the pedal piano as “the pianoforte of the future”. Who knows whether the pedal piano, an instrument widely considered as obsolete as long as a century ago, might not be the means of achieving a whole new conception of the pianoforte as an instrument that is still up to date and that can be ever more relevant and significant in the future?


Roberto Prosseda