Pedaling in early Feldman

In looking at Feldman’s piano music from the 1950s (the Intermissions, Extensions 3, the 1950s Piano pieces, etc.) one thing I’ve noticed is that there are almost no pedal markings. There are one or two in the Intermissions 3 and 4 (1951); he indicates pedals down throughout Intermission 5 (1952); and he indicates “little or no pedal” in the Three pieces for piano (1954). Otherwise he says nothing at all about the use of the pedals. I would add that there are absolutely no phrase markings in any of these pieces, either.

Playing this music, then, the question arises of how much pedal to use. I started on the dry side, taking Feldman’s lack of notation literally to mean no pedal at all, or just what was necessary to manage some of the passages. Then I listened to Feldman’s own recordings of Extensions 3 and Piano (three hands) (1957). He clearly uses pedal—quite a lot in some places. So I began thinking more about it, and experimented with pedaling bits of this music.

I listened to Aki Takahashi’s recording of the first two Intermissions and Extensions 3 to hear how she did it. Aki worked closely with Feldman and should be considered an authoritative source for understanding how to play his piano music. Aki does some amazingly delicate things with the pedaling in these pieces. There’s a very subtle half-pedal going on there that sustains the note in two phases: first a short sustaining of the full tone, then a longer sustain of the reverberation of that tone.

I e-mailed Aki about how she did it, and got this very helpful response:

I didn’t find any pedal mark in my score of the piece at all. So, I think it means that I decided how to use the pedal by judging with my ears, listening to each sound carefully. These early pieces of Feldman on the disc were selected by Feldman for my concert program and we certainly had sessions for each piece. And he certainly heard my playing of these pieces in the concerts. What I remember about these early pieces is that he was particularly fond of Extensions 3 and coached me in detail including the use of pedal:  basically half pedal all the time except some parts (like repetitive notes) for full pedal and sometimes cut off the pedal or change the pedals. I probably applied his suggestions for Extensions 3 to other early pieces.

For me, the phrasing and rhythm are most important in determining the pedaling. As I noted above, there are no phrase markings in this music, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t hear connections in the music. I choose to bring those out in my playing, often with use of pedal. And the rhythmic notation in this music is very precise, so I have a rule: don’t let the pedal obscure the rhythm. For example, a very common sonority in these early Feldman works is the chord where some notes are short and hence only contribute to the attack. It makes no sense at all to pedal through this.

But then there are those long silences in this music: are they real silences, or are they space for decays sustained by the pedal? Feldman’s playing is mixed on this point, but he mostly lets the silences be fully silent. I listened to David Tudor’s recordings of some of this music, and found that he had much drier playing overall. I tend to the Tudor style, although his playing has an aggression and savage quality that I think needs softening (it suits things like Cage’s Music of changes much better). Perhaps what I like so much about Aki’s half-pedal is that it obscures & reveals those silences at the same time.

I replied to Aki about this.  She dug out her copy of the Feldman and Tudor recordings and compared them all herself:

I found differences in pedalings between his [Feldman’s] way and mine, which was suggested by himself! His pedaling is more precise to the notation: no pedal for the rest, and mine mostly keeping half pedal except certain parts. Also I found a big difference between Tudor’s playing and Morty’s, even for the same piece Intermission 5!  (I personally prefer Morty’s playing to David’s.)

I tend to agree with Aki’s preference, although as I responded to her, that’s one of the things about great music: there are so many ways to play it! And from a historical point of view, there are so many layers here: the way Feldman played and heard it as he composed it at the piano; the way he might have imagined Tudor playing it (certainly he had that sound in his head somewhere); the way Tudor actually played it; the way Feldman actually played it after the piece was finished; the way Feldman heard it later when he coached Aki; and what he knew Aki could bring to it. We can appreciate all the subtle interactions and flows here, even as we cannot hope to articulate them all.

After my correspondence with Aki, I happened to start reading Charles Rosen’s The romantic generation. This was a complete coincidence, as it has been on my reading list for a little while now. What do I read in the very first chapter but an analysis of pedaling in Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann! What really struck me were the places where Rosen describes the innovations of the Romantics in ways that sound quite Feldmanesque:

[On the 17th number of the Davidsbündlertänze:] We do not need to be told how to play the pedal in this passage. To sustain the bass, the dampers must remain raised throughout. On paper this seems impossibly daring, yet in performance the effect is miraculous: no composer could have written such a passage who had not discovered it for himself while improvising at the keyboard. The sonority of the piano has now become a primary element of musical composition, as important as pitch or duration. (pp. 26-27)

For Beethoven, music was still shape, realized and inflected by instrumental sonority: other realizations may be as absurd as arrangements of the Hammerklavier, for example, always are, but the musical conception takes precedence over its realization in sound. The sonority serves the music. For Schumann, however, as for Chopin and Liszt, the conception was worked out directly within the sonority as a sculptor works directly in clay or marble. The instrumental sound is shaped into music. (p. 30)

Feldman as Romantic:  ultimately, is the difference between Tudor’s playing and Feldman’s (or Takahashi’s) the age-old difference between a more restrained, precise pianism and a more luxurious romantic one, between Brendel, say, and Horowitz? I very much like the idea of connecting Feldman to the Russian pianistic tradition, but then I’m biased (I love Horowitz, Richter, etc.).

1 thought on “Pedaling in early Feldman”

  1. Thank you a lot!
    I am preparing the 6 intermissions for a competition and since no pedal markings are written, I play everything “dry”. I was wondering for a long time if I should add pedal or if I was playing the right way… This article helped me a lot. I still feel the first intermission is more interesting without pedal but the second one is beautiful if enhanced with discreet pedalling.

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