Bespoke for Broadwood: music for the divided sustaining pedal

SwWBdwdDON copyFor the first thirty years or so of the nineteenth century, Broadwoods sawed their wooden sustaining pedals in two, the right-hand half raising the dampers from middle C up, and the left-hand half raising the dampers from middle B down. Mendelssohn and Sterndale Bennett were just two of many composers who took advantage of this potent device.

A member of the audience at a recent (October 2019) outing of this programme for Cambridge Early Music wrote: ‘Those who missed this concert can’t have any idea of the gorgeous sounds we heard from this gorgeous instrument, with subtle and magical variations of colour from the pedalling effects and the different registers. SO much more beautiful than the RFH Steinway I heard on Tuesday.’

SwWBdwdPedalscropped copy

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Sonata in E Op.6 (1826)
(1809-1847) Allegretto con espressione
Tempo di Minuetto
Recit. Adagio e senza tempo
Molto allegro e vivace

Mendelssohn Rondo capriccioso Op.14 (1824)

Sir William Sterndale Bennett Sonata: The Maid of Orleans Op. 46 (1873)
(1816-1875) (after Schiller)
In the Fields: Andante pastorale
In the Field: Allegro marziale
In Prison: Adagio patetico
The End: Moto di passione

Recent concerts have also featured Mendelssohn’s Six Preludes and Fugues Op. 35. Owen Norris has just recorded all the Songs without Words. Broadwood programmes can thus be very varied. Promoters are warmly invited to get in touch to discuss repertoire.

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A similar mechanism existed in Johannes Zumpe’s square pianos of the 1770s, where the dampers, similarly divided at middle C, were operated by two hand levers. This meant that you couldn’t change the pedal, as it were, until you had a hand free. The apparent shortcomings of the device stimulated the fertile mind of Johann Christian Bach, a business associate of Zumpe’s, to ingenious musical innovations, and the later incarnation of the idea in the grand pianoforte proved no less conducive to brilliant contrivance. No-one knows why the divided sustaining pedal disappeared. David Owen Norris has caused several modern instruments to incorporate it, and players and composers are always fascinated by it. Other composers who wrote passages specially designed for the divided pedal include Clementi and JB Cramer.

Mendelssohn’s early sonata, a conscious homage to the A major Sonata Op. 101 of Beethoven (in the Berlin premiere of whose Ninth Symphony Mendelssohn had just coached the chorus and led the second violins), finds many uses for the divided pedal. In the first movement, a staccato repeated dominant in the bass underpins a tricky three-part legato texture. No problem – depress the right-hand half. The Minuet prescribes sempre staccato e col pedale. Depress the left-hand half, and hey presto. In each case, Mendelssohn is careful to remember the point of division. Many pieces that cater for the divided pedal are in E precisely because its important dominant, B, marks the boundary of the bass: tonight’s first two pieces and Beethoven’s Op.109, for instance. The teenage Mendelssohn also revels in borrowing Beethoven’s idea of raising the soft pedal very gradually – poco a poco tutte le corde. At this date, the left pedal shifted the hammers so that they played two or even just one of the three strings that every note possessed – a true una corda. (The modern instrument can only shift the keyboard far enough to play two of the three strings, never far enough to play just one.) The point of the gradual, slow, raising of the pedal in the earlier instrument is not only the cumulative sound of one, then two, then three strings, but the fascinating subtleties of the edge of the hammer just beginning to brush the leading edge of each new string before striking it full on. Mendelssohn brings something very much his own into his mix of marvels – the slow movement is a fugue conducted entirely in operatic recitative, a prodigy never attempted before or since, and triumphantly attained.

Sterndale Bennett’s last piece for his beloved Broadwood is a compendium of everything he knew about playing the piano, a stylistic vade mecum for anyone who wonders how the nineteenth century liked to hear its music. Schiller’s play was very widely performed, and Sterndale Bennett’s commentary upon it is an interesting way of solving one of the perceived problems of programme music, namely, how can people know what it’s supposed to mean? The movement titles are supplemented for the pianist by bilingual quotations within the score. And yet, a musical Martian with no knowledge at all of Joan of Arc would be able to follow the purely musical design of the piece, which operates on many levels, one being the cunning realization that C flat is the same note as B. The sonata is notionally in A flat major, but much of the second and fourth movements are in the minor – with C flats. There are very few sonata movements in A flat minor, but one justification for these examples is the damper-division already commented upon with regard to the key of E – which happens to be the key of the slow movement, In Prison. A deep and subtle piece.

David Owen Norris’s Broadwood pianoforte displays all these devices to perfection.

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