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Waiting for Gounod - Thoughts on the piano-pédalier (Music@, 11/2011)

Discovering rare and forgotten music and presenting it to the public has always fascinated me. The emotion felt when giving the first performance in modern times of pieces written one or two centuries ago by great composers is priceless. And it is equally priceless to discover that a manuscript that has been overlooked or forgotten contains music of great depth, left in oblivion for reasons not relating to the composer's wish or the intrinsic values of the score. The curiosity to delve into still unexplored regions of the piano repertoire, together with a fair dose of luck, led me to discover, in addition to numerous manuscripts by Mendelssohn, also another singular work: the ‘Concerto in E flat major’ by Gounod (1889).

I learned of the work's existence from the book “Gounod” by Gérard Condé (Fayard, 2009). However, the same book classifies it as unpublished, stating that the manuscript is in the hands of an anonymous private collector who bought it in an auction in Paris in 1979. With the help of the Bru-Zane Foundation in Venice, I contacted Gérard Condé, who kindly sent me photocopies of the work. There are various reasons why this unpublished piece is interesting: not only is it a Concerto written with great craftsmanship by one of the main figures of French romantic music, but, more especially, it is the only Concerto to have been written for the ‘piano-pédalier’: an instrument that has been similarly forgotten, and is certainly worth being rediscovered and exploited.

Known also as the ‘Pedalflügel’ in Germany or ‘Pedalpiano’ in English speaking countries, the piano-pédalier is a piano fitted with a pedalboard like that of an organ, which is connected to a second set of strings. It is an instrument with ancient origins: as early as 1460 a clavichord with a pedalboard is mentioned in the encyclopedic treatise of Paulus Paulirinus. Also J. S. Bach wrote various pieces for the clavichord and the harpsichord with pedalboard, such as the ‘Sonate in trio’ BWV 525-530 “für zwei Claviere und Pedal”. Mozart is known to have possessed a piano-pédalier, on which he also improvised in public.

Mendelssohn and Schumann had a piano-pédalier in their home built by Ludwig Schöne in Leipzig. It was Schumann above all who believed in the potential of this instrument: he was convinced that it would be the natural evolution of the piano, and wrote some highly inspired music for the piano-pédalier, including the ‘Sechs kanonische Etüden für den Pedalflügel’ op. 56 and the ‘Vier Skizzen für den Pedalflügel’ op. 58. Here the line given to the pedalboard sheds a particular light on the harmonies, and almost seems to impersonate ‘Meister Raro’, the alter ego of Schumann who is the expression of poetic wisdom and sublime balance.

Why was Schumann so fond of the piano-pédalier? I believe the presence of a different voice, able to sustain the harmonies, but also, thanks to its different timbre, to dialogue dialectically with the piano keyboard, acted as a stimulus to his creativity. He had always, in fact, been attracted by particular sonic and compositional utopias, so the idea of having the piano play with two different and coexisting voices must certainly have excited him, to such an extent that he convinced Mendelssohn to institute a piano-pédalier professorship at the Leipzig Conservatory.

Despite all this, the piano-pédalier had no great fortune in Germany in the second half of the 19th century and remained above all a study instrument for organists, who could thus practise away from churches. However, in the same period it gained a certain amount of popularity in France, thanks to the interest of two important piano manufacturers, Erard and Pleyel, who also produced piano-pédaliers. Simultaneously, several French composers enriched its repertoire with numerous works: Charles Valentin Alkan wrote more than three hours of piano-pédalier music, including the ‘12 Études pour les pieds seulement pour orgue ou pédalier’ (some almost unperformable) and the ‘Bombardo-Carillon’ for pedal duet (four feet).

And Charles Gounod, impressed by the virtues of his “pedalpianist” friend Lucie Palicot, composed as many as four piece for piano-pédalier and orchestra: ‘Fantaisie sur l’Hymne Russe’ (1885), ‘Suite Concertante’ (1886), ‘Danse Romaine’ (1888) and, lastly, the above-mentioned ‘Concerto in E flat major’ (1889), clearly written to take full advantage of the gestural and timbral potentials of the instrument. In all four movements (Allegro moderato, Scherzo, Adagio ma non troppo, Allegretto pomposo) the soloist is the absolute protagonist. The pedals are almost never used merely for harmonic support, but assume a prominent role, exalting the potential of the musical dialectic and gestural expression peculiar to this instrument.

It was precisely my interest in this unpublished piece that led me to learn the technique of the pédalier. I soon realized that today there is no performing tradition for the piano-pédalier: there are no methods, nor treatises. And the technique of organ pedaling cannot be applied to the piano pedalboard, since the latter is connected to a set of strings with a hammer mechanism and thus requires a particular sensitivity of touch. I ascertained, therefore, that it was necessary to adapt the technique of weight transfer, used by nearly all concert pianists, also for the pedalboard: this was the only way to obtain a rich sonority, an appreciable legato and a better control of dynamics. It is also important to find the right balance between the movement of the legs and that of the heels, which correspond respectively to the arm and the wrist in piano technique.

A further problem is that of controlling the barycenter of the body: when the legs are “busy” on the pedals it isn't possible to rest on them to control the movements and rotations of the trunk. It is therefore necessary to find an alternative point of balance on the pelvis, reinforcing the lower abdominals and, when necessary, leaning on the hands - something possible even while playing - for the lateral movements. It is also fundamental to maintain a good tactile sensitivity with the pedalboard: so traditional shoes can't be worn. One possibility is to play bare-footed but this also has its disadvantages (not just aesthetic, but more importantly, to do with physical pain!). While waiting to identify the ideal footwear, for the moment I alternate between a pair of very thin leather shoes, those used for jazz dance, and a pair of hyper technological Vibram “Twentyfingers”, whose only disadvantage is that they are slightly noisy in the fast passages and not really in keeping with the classic rigor of concert dress.

Despite the masterpieces by Schumann and Gounod, the repertory for piano-pédalier is still very limited. Apart from the already mentioned Alkan, other composers who have left significant contributions include other Frenchmen such as Théodore Dubois and Théodore Salomé, and above all Franz Liszt, whose famous ‘Fantasia “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”’ was originally written for piano-pédalier, even though it is more commonly known in its version for organ. One therefore hopes that today's composers can enrich the repertoire for piano-pédalier. This is already happening: Cristian Carrara (1977) wrote an inspired ‘Magnificat’ (2011) for piano-pédalier and orchestra, which I will perform on numerous occasions alongside Gounod's Concerto. In Carrara's work the piano-pédalier plays Gregorian themes, which are interlaced within the dense and changing orchestral texture, giving rise to the peculiar timbral quality of the composition. Ennio Morricone took up my call to write for the piano-pédalier and in February 2011 wrote ‘Studio IV bis’ for the instrument – an adaptation of his preexisting Studio IV for piano, with the addition of a new voice for the pedalboard. This was immediately followed by Andrea Morricone, who wrote ‘Omaggio a J. S. B.’. The contemporary repertoire for piano-pédalier also includes some other pieces for Doppio Borgato written by Jean Gillou, Franco Oppo, Fabrizio Marchionni, Sergio Prodigo, Luciano Bellini, Giovanni Damiani and Giuseppe Lupis, whose ‘Variazioni su Ah! Vous Dirai-je, Maman’ (2011) explores wittily and with a touch of irony the grotesque and spectacular potentials of performing on the piano-pédalier.

The horizons are therefore vast and multifaceted. Who knows whether, after the temporary extinction of the piano-pédalier at the start of the 20th century, we might not now witness a new ‘pédalier-renaissance’?

Roberto Prosseda