Chopin’s Works and the Musical Soul

Artur Rubinstein, the famed Polish pianist,  once remarked that the damper pedal on the piano gives  the instrument  its soul.  Although I feel that no one is an expert on the nature of the soul, we all are entitled to an opinion. As for me, I feel that the soul an an accumulation of all the thoughts, emotions and  feelings that a person during their lifetime; and possibly, if the theory of reincarnation is correct, all their other cumulative lifetimes.  In a similar way, the damper pedal can effect an accumulation of sound. I personally believe that the worst disservice one can do to music is to insist on as pure a blend of tone as possible.  As no one has a pure soul, not even a saint; then no singer or instrumentalist could or should attempt to sing or play with total purity. It just doesn’t happen in life and therefore should it not happen in music. Our music, at best, is a reflection of the human condition through sound.

As a pianist, that brings up the point: How should we approach the damper pedal on the piano?  Beethoven is reputed to have left the damper pedal down for the entire of the 1st movement of his Moonlight Sonata. The answer on the best use of the damper pedal  lies in the (1) sonority of the particular piano being played (2) one’s touch and (3) the nature of the composition. Artur Rubinstein once commented that he would give a year of his life to hear how Chopin played the piano. All of us are can only  make educated gueses as to how Chopin played.  I feel that the damper pedal was generously applied by Chopin: Often he uses one firm and repeated tone in the bass, played with beautiful sound, repeating it many times  with changing harmonies above. Musically, a low and repeated tone called a pedal point. In Chopin’s Prelude, Opus 28 No. 17, for example,  a low Ab pedal tone, three lines under the bass staff, in 6/8 time repeats and sounds for a duration of 26 measures. If this the section is played on an appropriate piano; while bringing out the bass, playing the melody with only a medium strong tone, and the chords in the middle with extreme delicacy, the damper pedal may be held down for the entire 26 bars- thereby giving the entire section the beautiful effect of soul. At some point in the future, when more resources are at more disposal, I will play this prelude in the manner I feel  it should be played as a feature on our website.  Finally, I ask my pianist  readers not to be afraid to experiment with touch, pianos and longer damper pedaling  when called for.

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