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I recently did some reading on the historical evolution of the piano. From my understanding, classical-era pianos did not have foot pedals. By classical-era I refer to the narrower meaning of Classical.

I had been playing classical music for years using pedals, especially the "loud" pedal. Do modern musicians playing classical music typically use foot pedals? Do the pedals completely bastardize the sound the composers intended?

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    You'd be surprised how many pieces were composed for harpsichord, as well.
    – user28
    Aug 4, 2011 at 2:35
  • Can you point to your sources? I haven't played classical music in a very long time, but I recall countless pieces that explicitly instructed the performer to rely on pedals. As to whether modern classical pianists do use them, a quick search for recent classical competitions on YouTube should help you answer that. Aug 4, 2011 at 8:55
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    I should add that I'm referring to the more specific meaning of classical, referring to composers like Haydn and Mozart, not the romance era where the musical notation actually contained pedal markings.
    – Jacob
    Aug 4, 2011 at 23:56
  • @AnthonyLabarre Many of the pedal indications on classical-era scores have been added by later editors. Recent scores try to get back to the Urtext, but old scores - which are still edited by Dover, for example -, are full of additions. Nov 6, 2022 at 21:20

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To answer your question: "Do the pedals completely bastardize the sound the composers intended?" is not as much as playing on the wrong instrument does. :-)

The piano Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries would have played would have been a Fortepiano. The modern piano as we know it (named Pianoforte), came a bit later. he Fortepiano is a much quieter instrument. (Consider it this way: a pianoforte can be heard over a full Romantic period orchestra, a fortepiano really can not.) [There also existed an even quieter instrument, the clavichord. It was mostly used for practice and very small, intimate recitals.]

Both the pianoforte and fortepiano use the same basic concept of striking a string, instead of the picked string of the harpsichord, thus allowing for varied dynamic range. [The harpsichord basically has only one volume level for each key. Changes in the overall volume in a harpsichord piece were often done by layer the number of notes.]

Having said all that, the wonderful thing about music is that it is open to interpretation and reinvention. When I listen to music, I listen more to hear what the artist brings to the music than I do to how perfect a reproduction of exactly was was written on exactly the right instruments.

In the end, it's up to you to decide what sounds best in your interpretation.

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  • Even later Beethoven-era pianos are already rather different from Mozart-era pianos, and the technological development during Beethoven's lifetime is reflected in his compositions.
    – phoog
    Nov 6, 2022 at 15:30
  • I have attended two concerts where some pieces were played on a clavichord. We were no more than 70 people, but I bet half of the people could not hear anything at all. This instrument has the lowest volume of all keyboard instruments, by far. It makes much less noise than even the quietest harpsichords I have ever heard. According to one of the players in these concerts, during the classical era this notably enabled people to use them in an urban appartment without bothering their neighbours, including in the middle of the night. Nov 6, 2022 at 21:14
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Here is an awesome 10-minute instructional video on Classical-period piano playing from Matthew Bengtson. It covers the use of the sustain pedal and many other aspects. He is using an actual fortepiano of a similar model to the ones that Mozart and Beethoven used.

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  • That is indeed awesome, and demonstrates the sound of the time. Thanks for the link.
    – Jacob
    Aug 10, 2011 at 22:15
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Classical-era pianos had pedals, or actually levers you would push up with your knees. Mozart undoubtedly used them. Beethoven wrote pedal instructions in the music.

Many pianists use the pedal when playing Bach on a modern piano. In for a penny, in for a pound I suppose.

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  • Interesting. I guess I had misread the history, but indeed, Wikipedia confirms it. I haven't seen pedal instructions in any Beethoven I've played, but maybe I haven't looked around enough.
    – Jacob
    Aug 5, 2011 at 4:38
  • Look at the Moonlight and Waldstein sonatas for example. The first movement of the Moonlight says: Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini. (This entire piece must be played most delicately and with no dampers.) Aug 6, 2011 at 1:13
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    @MarkLutton: just to be clear to anyone reading this, that means with the damper pedal depressed for the entire piece. Of course, the fortepiano's notes didn't sustain anywhere near as long as a modern piano, since the strings were under a lot less tension, so his pedal indications have to be taken with a grain of salt.
    – BobRodes
    Jul 3, 2014 at 6:16
  • @BobRodes: The piano of Beethoven's time had a pretty good sustain, not all that much shorter than a modern piano. You can play 3 of them at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. It appears that Beethoven liked the effect of all the notes sustaining. He compared it to the sound of a voice in a very reverberant vault. Jul 6, 2014 at 3:06
  • I spent some time playing a fortepiano while I was in school. At the time, I was working on the Tempest sonata, and the recitative passage in the first movement at the beginning of the recap is marked with the pedal down throughout. The passage sounds great that way on a fortepiano, but it gets very muddied on a modern grand if you don't dampen the strings a bit. So, my assessment is a practical one. Whether "not all that much shorter" or not, I've found that it's shorter enough to create this issue.
    – BobRodes
    Jul 11, 2014 at 2:03
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Typically I don't use any pedal for older Baroque pieces, since they usually were written for the harpsichord.
Of course, it all depends on how you interpret the piece. Some pieces should sound as much like a harpsichord as possible, but others sound much better utilizing the modern pedals.
As far as "bastardizing" the sound, it all depends on how much you use them.

For example: the sustain pedal. I definetly wouldn't use it on pieces such as Bach's 'Inventions', but Telemann's 'Suite In A Major' sound good with some sustain added.

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