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It is my understanding that Bach's keyboard works were written for the harpsichord, and thus no (damper) pedal is used while playing Bach on the harpsichord.

On the piano however, I have heard recordings of concert pianists using no pedal whatsoever and others who do seem to use the pedal (albeit rather conservatively). Is it orthodox to play Bach's keyboard works with a pedal or should I abstain from using it?

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    Possible duplicate of, or at least quite some overlap with: How accurate are the pedal indications of Bach - Busoni, solo piano works? – Caleb Hines Dec 23 '14 at 0:42
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    @CalebHines I don't believe it is a duplicate. Although I didn't state it, I am using the Bach-Gesellschaft edition (which has no pedal markings), and the question wasn't about pedal notation, but about the use of pedal in general. – Tyler Gaona Dec 23 '14 at 0:46
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    Granted. But the answers there do deal with the more general issues involved with using a pedal in Bach, and therefore, much of the information there may be of use to you. – Caleb Hines Dec 23 '14 at 0:50
  • This consideration does not only hold for harpsichord pieces; early pianofortes didn't come close to the dynamic range we have these days, so in general, pedal and dynamic markings in 'old' pieces should be regarded with caution. The Wikipedia page on pianos has a lovely sound comparison. – Sanchises Mar 27 '15 at 8:28
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orthodox: adherence to accepted norms

Is playing Bach like Glenn Gould orthodox or not? Some will swear by what he does with Bach and probably say yes, while others will cry out loud "Nooooooo"!

I think answering your question about using the pedal with Bach faces the same dilemma: since Bach isn't there to tell you what he would like to have heard when transcribing his harpsichord or organ pieces to the piano, it is a matter of interpretation deemed to change somewhat with the culture and your own sensibility. More importantly, what is deemed as an acceptable interpretation will vary with the piece, the instrument it was composed for, and what people have gotten to accept over time. A few examples:

  • Prelude 1: Many will play it with the pedal on, only changing it every couple of measures. Since all notes within that measure build on one simple harmony, it does not change the main intent of the piece. It doesn't muddy things out too much or prevent you from hearing a second or third voice that isn't there to start with. So you can say using the pedal two measures at a time for that piece is orthodox as in "accepted by a large part of the community today"

  • A fugue: Silences are as important as the notes themselves to define the melody in this form and using the pedal for too long will generally extend notes or link some voices together in a way that Bach clearly did not want. Press the pedal to help yourself linking one voice and disregard the complexity of the other voices and you will likely create an interpretation that doesn't respect the intent of the composer and isn't deemed orthodox. Use it parsimoniously to make some transitions clearer in one of the voices without muddying the rest and preserving the symmetry between the voices, and people will likely consider that you are making a good use of the piano to enhance the original work of Bach, making your interpretation "orthodox" by most standards.

  • To finish, I will take one of my favorite piece of Bach at the present time: a transcription or a prelude by Siloti interpreted by Gillels here. That piece is conventionally played twice, once letting the right hand lead the melody, the second time letting the chords resonate. It is absolutely delicious and both versions are completely different, something that wasn't Bach's original intent, that is only possible on a piano, and that is yet widely accepted today as "the" right (orthodox) interpretation of that piece.

So there you have it: I believe using the pedal for Bach can definitely be considered orthodox but there is a context to it.

  • A couple of comments: 1) with regards to WTC I Prelude 1, the notation used was a common shorthand for held arpeggiation, so the use of pedal is by no means at odds with historical practice - the notes would have been manually held longer in the right hand than notated on the keyboards of the day; and 2) Bach/Silotti ≠ Bach - there are considerable changes (in key, in SATB order of the voices, etc.) between Silotti's arrangement and the original in Wilhelm Friedemann's Klavierbüchlein. This wasn't necessary to make the work playable on the piano - the original is quite playable. (more...) – user16935 Mar 26 '15 at 4:25
  • That's not to say that what Silotti did is "out-of-bounds": I've done similar; Bach most assuredly did similar himself (and quite often). It's just not necessarily a good guide to Bach performance to use a free arrangement that was written very specifically for the piano. – user16935 Mar 26 '15 at 4:25
  • @Patrx2 Thanks for pointing out the use of held arpeggiation notation. I didn't know. Yes Bach/Silotti isn't a guide to Bach's performance itself but my intent in quoting that piece was to provide an example of an interpretation of Bach that may still be considered "orthodox" and still in touch with the soul of the original piece even though it deviated considerably from the original writing from Bach. – Lolo Mar 26 '15 at 20:29
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Well, the pedals suffer the same problem as the bellows of an accordion: they apply to all voices equally. So their use for effect gets in the way of polyphonic articulation. As an example, there does not seem to be a musical problem with using the sustain pedal in the Prelude #1 in the Well-Tempered Clavier, but you can't really make coherent use of it in the following Fugue #1.

Now both form one unit. The question is whether you want to be performing this unit in two different execution styles. In the end, that is an artistic choice.

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Based on the recordings and concerts I've heard over the years, in the modern era, it is very common and not at all ridiculed to use pedals lightly to enhance the melodic lines and help out the legato. There are some, like Simone Dinnerstein, who make heavy use of the pedal, but she has many fans in her own right, and she does have some really great interpretations of Bach.

My personal interpretation is that since you're playing Bach on the piano-- a very different instrument than the harpsichord-- you should concentrate on making it sound good on the piano. Realize that changing instruments requires adjustments as you face a different set of instrumental constraints. For example, the carillon is an instrument in which you cannot choose precisely how long the notes sustain; yet, amongst carillonneurs Bach is a perennial favorite and frankly incredibly awesome-sounding, despite not being able to be as "detached" as the harpsichord.

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I play Bach on both my harpsichord and my piano. They are very different instruments. Trying to copy the sound of a harpsichord with piano or vise-versa is folly. One must simply try to produce a musical interpretation with the tool at hand (pun intended). As we have no recordings of Bach playing anything, we are left with academic reasoning of scholars and our own common sense in the moment (in which we must consider the acoustic, the audience, the instrument, and all other variables) in order to arrive at a reasonable choice.

In practice, I use no pedal, some, or quite a bit on piano.....depending on these variables.

There is no definitive answer then.

(The same is true for temperament.....I use an unequal temperament at home on both piano and harpsichord.....but the last public performance with the harpsichord (as continuo with orchestra) the musicians struggled with period tuning, so I was forced to alter the instrument to equal temperament. Everyone was happier with the sharp thirds and homogenized quality key to key of et....so who am I to argue for historical accuracy in that setting?)

  • In using unequal temperament does that mean that in some keys, the pieces sound more in tune than others? – Tim Aug 23 '16 at 6:45
  • @Tim, yes. The comma is distributed unequally so as to favour the "near" keys (i.e., in around C major). That means that white-key tonalities will sound quite a bit purer than those with more black keys (and quite a bit purer than 12-TET), whereas each key will have a distinctive "colour". In the case of re-entrant tunings that distribute the comma so as to avoid wolf fifths, all keys will be usable and distinctive; non-re-entrant mean tone tunings do have wolf fifths in the keys that are distant from C, but they were designed for music that never modulated that far. – user16935 Aug 24 '16 at 22:19
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I have found that every time there was a harmonic change meaning every time you could possibly insert a chord over a group change the pedal good luck

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The first rule of Bach: Everyone thinks that the way that they learned to play it is the best way. Show 25 people 8 bars of bach and you could get 25 different answers on how to play it.

I think there's a certain amount of validity in learning to play it two ways - first, from a historically relevant context, and second, using whatever interpretation you feel is best (based on listening to different recordings, experimenting, and any existing standards established by modern musicians.) If you're learning from the perspective of "I need this for an audition piece", then find out who you're going to be auditioning for and listen to their recordings, noticing any patterns of choice that they may take. This applies to pedals, grace notes, and any other things that you may notice.

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