Continuing with my occasional Q&A series, a reader wrote in with the following query about Brahms’ Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7, currently on the ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus.

I am a teacher and I would be grateful if you could help me with a pedalling query regarding the above piece. It is a current Grade 8 List C option. In my experience, I have learnt that it is fine to pedal through rests in Romantic music. Evidence to support this appears in the introduction notes in another Brahms volume, Seven Fantasies Op.116 where the author says ‘pedalled passages often contain rests……though illogical, this convention is acceptable’ (Ferguson, 1985).

However, the current ABRSM Teaching Notes seem to suggest that the pedal should be lifted for the quaver rests eg. in bars 9 and 11 (Grade 8, 2017-2018, p.41). I have tried this, and at the increased speed of minim 60, I find this fussy and awkward, potentially spoiling the line.

Is it acceptable to pedal through and just do a quick change on the first note of the quaver groups for each change of harmony? I am also doing two light pedal changes in a row for the RH A quaver and C crotchet slur in bar 9 for example, to relieve any clashing of the G sharp to A semitone. I am lifting and stopping the LH in bars 10 and 12 for the rests in the bass clef.

Pedalling is a very personal thing, and very much open to experimentation – even when marked in the score by the composer. Conventional pedal markings cannot take into account depth of pedal depression, or vibrating the pedal to clarify the texture. Pedal markings even as late as Chopin are examples of direct pedalling (hand going down and coming up with the foot), as opposed to legato (or syncopated) pedalling. This is why modern-day pianists come to their own conclusions about Chopin’s pedalling, and why composers such as Debussy and Rachmaninov did not even attempt to write any specific pedal markings – indicating it only on the staves and leaving it up to the individual player.

When it comes to pedalling through rests there is no clear-cut answer. It is safe to assume in music of the Baroque and Classical periods that rests are probably going to be literal (except in pedal textures), and that in Romantic music we need to use our discretion. Remember that we might need to hold the pedal through different varieties of notated touch (staccato, leggiero, etc.) as well as certain rests that are marked in the score. Such touch varieties show up in our sound and are perceived through the pedal.

Keeping the idea that rests can still be felt through the pedal, it is obvious that Brahms intends breaks, or breathing places in the line – or he would have written something like this, calling for half-bar pedalling:

Instead, Brahms chops this phrase up into smaller units, indicated not only by the rests but just as much by the phrase marks. These phrase marks imply a stress at the start of each short phrase and a decay, or diminuendo, through to the end of it (even if this is just two notes) – thus overriding the hierarchy of strong and weak beats dictated by the time signature. So the first thing I would suggest is shaping the RH by removing any stresses or accents on the last notes of the phrases, even though they fall on the main beats, and placing a tenuto on the first notes of each phrase (these would be weak in the absence of the composer’s very specific markings).

I have just been sitting at the piano noodling with this passage and the first thing I wanted to do was to make the passage sound as good as possible without any pedal. In order to achieve this, I found myself holding onto as many of the LH notes under the slurs as was comfortable, a completely legitimate technique known as finger pedalling (or overholding). By controlling the LH dampers by hand (rather than foot) I found I could create most of the resonance and harmonic blending I required (but not all), and of course the RH rests were very clear. Specifically, it ought to be possible for most hand sizes to hang on to the first two or three notes of the LH groups in bar 9, etc., and then add some pedal after the rest. Notating this is extremely clumsy but here are a few scribbles that I think are worth trying out.

I admit this solution might not be for everyone, and possibly at the Grade 8 level a bit too complicated – but it worked for me!  You can always try this solution from Emil von Sauer’s edition, which also works well and is in my opinion far better than changing pedal at the quaver rests.

As a further note, I will be producing Online Academy resources featuring a more detailed analysis of the pedal in this work, a video walk-through and a downloadable score as part of my series of guides to the ABRSM syllabus.

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