5 tips for using the sostenuto pedal
By Melanie Spanswick
©Erica Worth. Taken at Steinway Hall, London
As a teacher, if you mention the sostenuto pedal, you tend to get a perplexed or puzzled look from a student. There are those who know what it is, and then there are others who know what it does, but precious few have ever used it. It’s true that it is seldom employed, but in some repertoire, it can be extremely effective.
The sostenuto pedal, which was patented by Albert Steinway in 1874, inhabits the middle pedal on grand pianos. This isn’t to be confused with the middle pedal on uprights, which, if it has a middle pedal, will usually be a ‘practice’ pedal; if kept depressed, the keyboard shifts, disengaging the hammers, for a very soft sound, suitable for practice purposes.
The sostenuto pedal provides a way of sustaining bass notes leaving the fingers free to play other material above. There are three caveats when using this pedal: the first is that the bass notes to be ‘sustained’ must be firmly depressed with the fingers immediately prior to depressing the pedal, so that they can be ‘caught’. The second is that the pedal must be held to the floor for the entirety of the passage to be sustained, and the third, it’s important to remember that the sostenuto pedal cannot be depressed at the same time as the sustaining pedal.
Here are a few practice suggestions and repertoire ideas:
1 Experiment by holding a bass note as a pedal note throughout a bar (or two bars): play an octave C in the bass, using the lowest notes on the keyboard, depress the middle pedal, and now play a series of chords above – they can all be C major triads, but ensure they are played further up the keyboard, that is, not too near the octave being held. Crescendo throughout the chord progression, each chord becoming more powerful, so that you’re accumulating sound as you move through the bar/s. The effect can be almost orchestral!
2 The sostenuto pedal could be considered a helpful way of holding various strands of music in contrapuntal textures. It’s possible to sustain bass lines, during which the hands and fingers are free to play other textures, or melodic material above, all whilst the bass line is held. To do this, ensure quick movement from the bass notes held by the pedal, so that it can catch the notes, before playing any other notes patterns.
3 For smaller hands, this pedal can be a godsend. Aim to catch the lowest note (or notes) in a large chord with the middle pedal, and, moving swiftly, allow the rest of the chord to follow, played in an arpeggiated fashion, with the lowest notes still ringing avoiding the smudging that sometimes results from using the sustaining pedal.
4 Similarly, awkward or large stretches might be alleviated by the use of the sostenuto pedal, again, catching the lowest notes, before quickly moving to the upper notes in a passage.
5 Some composers marked the use of the middle pedal into their scores, whilst for others, one feels it might be a natural extension to the sound they were trying to create. Composers whose music would benefit from use of the sostenuto pedal include; Busoni, Tausig, Rachmaninov, Grainger, Ravel, Debussy, Bartók, Prokofiev, Copland and Elliot Carter, to name just a few. Why not enjoy experimenting!
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