Published : 2023-04-27

Chopin’s Pedalling on Chopin’s Pianos – and Ours

James Parakilas


Pianos had been equipped with damper mechanisms for the better part of a century before Chopin came on the scene. Nevertheless, Chopin’s generation created a revolution in composing with the damper pedal. To some extent, that revolution can be described as a change in notational practice: composers before Chopin’s time rarely marked where the damper mechanism should be employed, except in cases where they wanted some extraordinary effect from it. Composers of Chopin’s generation, by contrast, called for it liberally – or in Chopin’s case, meticulously. That indicates a change in roles: instead of composers leaving the use of the damper pedal (as of other pedals) largely up to the performers, they now more or less dictated its use to those performers. It also indicates a change from the use of the damper pedal as a special effect within a generally unpedalled sound world to a sonorous landscape in which the damper pedal was used to create constant shifts in colour. (But certainly not to the modern practice whereby the damper pedal is employed so regularly – contrary to Chopin’s notation – that unpedalled sound becomes the special effect).
Although the damper mechanism itself did not change much once its controls migrated from a knee-lever to a pedal around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the piano changed drastically in other ways that influenced how Chopin incorporated damper pedaling into his compositional thought. The increased compass (roughly, from six octaves to six and a half), concentrated in the bass, increased the richness of sound of the whole instrument, as did other changes in material and design. But cross-stringing was not yet used in grand pianos, so that each octave of the compass still had a much more distinct colour than on later pianos. The instrument therefore offered composers both rich, blended sonorities combining notes across its compass and striking contrasts of colour between one part of that compass and another. What is most remarkable in Chopin’s notation for the damper pedal is how it harnesses both of those capacities of the instrument. There are hardly any works by Chopin in which he calls for the damper pedal either throughout or not at all. Almost always he draws the listener’s attention to the difference between pedalled and unpedalled sound, from one section to another, from one register to another, from one phrase to another, and – marvellously – between different parts of a single, continuous phrase. Often he pauses on a sonority or a harmony and asks us to relish its particular ring; in the opening of the E major Scherzo, he does this four times, the first two times sustaining unpedalled chords, and the third time sustaining the same chord as the first time, but differently spaced and pedalled, so that we can notice both the equivalence and the change. His notes and his pedaling are always made for each other, not in the sense that the notes are unplayable without the pedal (that is true at only a very few moments), but in the sense that the work is laid out as a sequence of pedalled and unpedalled sonorities. To play all the notes of a Chopin work while disregarding his pedal indications is in a real sense not to play the work at all. So too, his pedalling art and his pianos were made for each other, and the best way to explore the role of the damper pedal in any Chopin work is to test that work on pianos (or replicas of pianos) from the 1830s or 1840s. But then what? How do we apply the lessons learned to performance on pianos of our era? To assume that because pianos have changed, Chopin’s pedal indications no longer make sense would be to risk blurring or obliterating the extraordinary progression of sonorities that constitute a Chopin work. A better starting point is to study what effect, or what nest of effects, each indicated application or release of the damper pedal could produce and to see how to make that effect come across on our modern pianos. In the process, we may need to turn away from the experience of Chopin played on a concert Steinway or Bösendorfer in the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall or Carnegie Hall and learn to listen for the magic that can emerge from this music in more intimate settings. There is reason to believe that even a modern piano can provide what we’re seeking. After all, Chopin’s particular use of the damper pedal to produce mercurial transformations of sonority was idiosyncratic in his own era and little imitated by later piano composers, despite his incalculable influence in other respects. But a study of Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque shows a later composer who, writing in 1891 for pianos still like those of Chopin’s day in some respects, created a remarkably Chopinesque progression of contrasting sonorities (he himself joked: ‘I have counted about 113 sonorities’ in it) using a remarkably Chopinesque specification of pedalling.


Chopin, Fryderyk, nineteenth-century pianos, damper pedal, pedal indications, Chopin first editions




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Parakilas, J. (2023). Chopin’s Pedalling on Chopin’s Pianos – and Ours. Chopin Review, (3), 14–41.

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