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This passage from Ethelbert Nevin's Narcissus for piano has the instruction "il basso una corda".enter image description here

I think this is the 1891 Schirmer edition; the passage shown is bars 16-18.

What does the instruction mean? I don't recall seeing it anywhere else. Did some pianos of the time have an una corda mechanism that could be applied to the lower notes alone?

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Apparently in the early to mid 19th century some pianos came equipped with una corda pedals that operated on only the treble notes, only on the bass notes, or both. Broadwood pianos had this feature; I was not able to find if other makers offered it.

Beethoven references this split una corda in the 4th Piano Concerto and at least one of his piano sonatas. The Wikipedia article on Piano Pedals says "Beethoven's Broadwood grand, presented as a gift to him from the Broadwood company in 1817, had an una corda pedal and a split damper pedal — one half was the damper for the treble strings, the other was for the bass strings." (Wikipedia "Piano Pedals" section "Beethoven and pedals", referencing Crombie, D. (1995). Piano: A Photographic History of the World's Most Celebrated Instrument, San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 19).

Hope this helps.

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  • Thanks for the answer! I'm still confused though. "Damper pedal" normally refers to the sustain pedal, rather than the una corda; so that particular quote doesn't seem to refer to a split una corda. I looked at the Beethoven 4th piano concerto - in the middle movement I see una corda followed by "due poi tre corde" and then again "due poi una corda".... this seems to indicate two levels of the effect but not that it's split between treble and bass. Is that what you had in mind, or something else? Which of the piano sonatas did you have in mind? – James Martin Jun 11 '20 at 13:50
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@JamesMartin, I fully agree with you, damper pedal doesn't seem like the correct terminology. I'll readily admit I'm not expert and only looked this up because it sounded interesting. In the literature there is a difference between damper (raising the dampers and suspending the sound) and dampening (interposition of cloth or leather between hammers and strings to soften the tone) pedals, and some Beethoven pianos apparently had both kinds of pedals. However, as far as I can tell only the damper pedal on the Broadwood had split right/left action. (See the book "Beethoven on Beethoven: Playing His Piano Music His Way" by William Newman for more details.)

The University of Pittsburgh houses Nevin's papers and memorabilia. Perhaps someone there has some insight into what exactly his piano was like? (I didn't see a piano listed in the collection but it does appear in a picture.) I couldn't find any on line references to performing his music other than that it was very popular in his day. Sorry I can't help, but now you've got me hooked and like you I'm hoping for someone to step up with an answer. Thanks for the great question.

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