Andras Schiff, Bach Prelude in C BWV 846, Elaine Comparone, Harpsichord Unlimited,, piano, playing Bach with pedal, playing Bach without pedal, playing the piano, The Well Tempered Clavier, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube video, you, yout tube,

Playing Bach on the piano: pedal or no pedal

I thought I was dazed silly on this topic, ready to bury it in a time capsule for generation Z Baroque scholars to quibble about while the polar ice caps have their ominous, final meltdown.

No such luck. A hot debate is brewing on Facebook, of all places, and the posts are surviving annoying POKES.

Bottom line:

What does it take to convert a pianist who always played the first Bach Prelude in C, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, WITH pedal. (Remember how it became the sonorous underpinning for the religioso “Ave Maria”) Should we therefore trade a rich bed of harmony for a bare bones framing?

Bach Prelude in C

I was a cynic, if not a blatant heathen, refusing to surrender my precious RIGHT pedal in the interests of PURITANICAL purity, even if Andras Schiff adjudicated my aesthetic decision about Prelude 1 on the Final Judgment Day! (Schiff’s Bach performances were notoriously sustain-less)

With stubborn resistance, I would stick to my pedal, holding it down as long as I needed to….

That is, until I had a consciousness-raising in the days following my recent trip to New York City.

Seymour Bernstein, celebrated pianist, author, scholar and composer, weighed in at the piano, while Elaine Comparone, world-renowned harpsichordist demonstrated at her music/love/repository.

Two side-by-side playings with commentary fed my intellect and spirit.

Seymour advocated a pedaling that was NOT at the beginning of the measure, in the usual legato bar-to-bar sequence, so commonly embraced, especially by those who were into the harp-like effect. His mid-measure pedal depression after the first E of the opening broken chord, with an echo effect driven by sub-groupings of notes, was inviting. In a unique way, it allowed a counter-voice in the bass/tenor to have a clear and defined outline, and for the first time, I heard a separation of voices reflected in a pleasing counterpoint.

The uppermost soprano line had also gained more prominence through this approach.

Finally, Seymour’s revolutionary impulses were registered in a decision to make the CLIMAX of the prelude the final secondary DOMINANT of the Sub-Dominant in measure 32 right before the Coda. He insisted that this very CODA would “lay an egg” otherwise. (Would I chuckle and go along with the menu?) I always considered the peak of this composition to be measure 29 at the PRIMARY DOMINANT juncture after which I tapered off to a relative whisper in a silky diminuendo. (using judicious pedaling so as not to muddle the notes)

Seymour chose to leave the coda entirely pure.. no pedal underfoot.

Juxtapose his interpretation with Elaine Comparone’s. But why should we compare what the harpsichord might say in its own unique language? Still, harpsichord-inspired ideas swam around my head for days in the wake of my NYC departure.


Harpichordists use finger pedaling at times to create desired sustain. And I watched Elaine hold down notes as she played the Prelude in C both at the harpsichord and then at the piano. Sandwiched in were performances that were improvised in a charming way to flesh out hidden appoggiature. A cascade of FOUR voices emerged to my astonishment!

The video provides more detail and explanation.

The upshot of this touchdown was my having second thoughts about my former pedaling choices that were framed in legato style, but had become modified by Seymour’s awakenings.

Where would I ultimately settle along the pedal/no pedal spectrum?

As I resumed my practicing and teaching schedule in California, I was wooed to the following performance rendered by Irena Koblar, a favorite of mine in the Scarlatti-playing universe. Naturally, I was more than curious about her feel for Bach, a Baroque contemporary:

While I loved her singing tone, I felt something was missing in the counterpoint. (She used legato pedaling through the Coda) and made the climax at the predictable PRIMARY DOMINANT measure, with a nice tapering to the end.

Last year, one of my student’s used the same legato pedaling in our annual Spring recital, producing a lovely reading. Naturally, at the time, the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree.

Into the present:

At the request and prodding of a FACEBOOK friend, Louise Hullinger, and having absorbed Elaine Comparone’s example at her Knabe grand piano following the harpsichord rendition, I decided to try Bach’s Prelude in C without pedal. It was the first time I ventured into a drier yet equally satisfying universe.

Enlightenment! I didn’t feel stripped of the piano’s soul. And I could follow voices, without undue attention to my foot pedaling activity.

While the final verdict isn’t in, I’m going to separate from my pedal companion in a civilized manner.

Who knows what the future might bring? It could invite a reconciliation or change of heart in the Baroque cosmos of performance practice.

For certain, the sustain will not be completely banished from my playing universe. I’ll continue to embrace it in the good company of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and their heirs who followed in the long line of musical masters.


Bach counterpoint, Bach Prelude in C BWV 846, Carey Beebe, Elaine Comparone, Harpsichord Unlimited,, Hubbard Harpsichords, J.S. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, The Queen's Chamber Band

A Visit with Elaine Comparone at her Harpsichord Palace in New York City

best harpsichords and chandelier

The colors are splendid in a royal procession of well-maintained harpsichords. THREE reside in Elaine Comparone’s West Side musical sanctuary. They are at the service of her Majesty, the Queen. (She leads a chamber group known as The Queen’s Chamber Band which is Harpsichord Unlimited’s featured attraction) The nonprofit organization keeps harpsichords in the limelight as living, breathing instruments with well publicized performances of Baroque to Contemporary music. (You Tube has a growing archive of Comparone’s solo and ensemble offerings)


A towering, acoustically favorable space fleshes out subtle differences in timbre among Comparone’s instrumental treasures. Count in the Hubbard and Dowd (with two manuals or keyboards) and a Hubbard kit driven 16th Century Flemish model with one keyboard, whose case shimmers under chandeliers. A gorgeous floral pattern is embedded in the soundboard area beneath the strings.

DSC05285Dowd 4


A guest at Elaine’s divine milieu, I spent precious hours conversing with her about the harpsichord, piano, Bach, performance practice, and whatever else spontaneously came to mind. It was an intellectual, musical and spiritual feast, captured on video and uploaded to the Internet for universal sharing.

In a basic introduction to the harpsichord, (Part one) Comparone played her custom-made two manual Hubbard, and carefully explained mechanical features, stringing, instrumental voicing and use of “stops” in samples from the Bach literature. The Little Prelude in F Major, BWV 927, attained feature status with a whimsical ending, energized by a “harp” stop. (the notes suddenly became detached and lost resonance) Elaine mentioned that such timbre-related changes or “muted” sounds were often applied to repeated sections of music.

While J.S. Bach’s Little Preludes initially sparked our discussion, the interchange soon shifted to the issue of pedaling the Well-tempered Clavier, Book One, Prelude 1 in C Major, BWV 846.

Comparone emphasized the composition’s poly-rhythmic, multi-voice dimension and convincingly argued against using the sustain pedal in an acoustic piano rendering. Instead, she recommended a form of “hand pedaling” that’s commonly used by harpsichordists. (holding notes down with the fingers)

Following her more traditional performance of WTC I, Prelude 1, Comparone played a no holds barred jazzy version with a delightful syncopation that tweaked my ears. A new world of counterpoint emerged, with appealing threads of voices.




An Addendum:

Carey Beebe Harpsichords, Sydney, Australia

Website link:

A little history behind the instruments we help you to build

“Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann invented the concept of the harpsichord “kit” in the early 1960s. Produced in his New York workshop, it was a rather simple affair without a bentside. Even though the keyboard more resembled that of a piano and its soundboard was made from plywood, the “Slantside”, as it was affectionately known, became one of the most popular harpsichord models ever. The wooden pieces for the case, along with some other commonly available parts, were not included, so the price was set at a most economical $150. Little by little, the first Zuckermann “kit” became more elaborate and complete.

“In 1969, Wolfgang wrote The Modern Harpsichord, in which he described all the harpsichord makers of his time, together with their philosophies and details of their production. He soon became the close friend of his editor and publisher David Jacques Way of October House, to whom he in fact sold Zuckermann Harpsichords Inc. in 1970.

“David J. Way set about enthusiastically and rapidly modifying Wolfgang’s original kit, with the aim of making the design more traditionally based and aesthetically pleasing. A workshop was established in the picturesque fishing village of Stonington Connecticut (between Boston and New York) in 1972. The decade to 1980 saw the arrival of many models inspired by original instruments, commencing with the Flemish Single. The French Double followed, then a Virginal, Italian and Clavichord appeared. The Flemish keyboard range was enlarged and a second keyboard added. The English Bentside Spinet and the Fortepiano were next. During this time, original materials were also researched, and the Stonington workshop was the first in the world to establish the general use of solid wood, soft wire and historic-profiled tuning pins that we all take for granted on the finest instruments today.

“In 1973, Marc Ducornet, who had initally learnt his craft of harpsichord making from an English builder, became the French representative of David J. Way. Their relationship developed so much so, that in 1982, he entered into partnership with David Way to open the Montreuil (Paris) workshop for the manufacture of the Zuckermann “kits” in France. The output of this workshop initially paralleled the American production, and both shops continued to work closely and successfully together over the years.

Little by little, the atelier in Montreuil thrived and before David Way died suddenly in February 1994, Marc Ducornet was supervising the conception and design of the instruments, as well as manufacturing fully 70% of the parts for USA and Europe.

“To avoid the possible closure of the American workshop at David Way’s death, Marc Ducornet, with the agreement of David’s wife Katherine, decided to keep it running to perpetuate David in our memories. Accordingly, Marc Ducornet offered Richard Auber—one of his early American apprentices who knew David and already lived nearby the Stonington shop—the position of heading the US operation.

“After five years of continued cooperation, it became apparent on both sides of the North Atlantic that it was time for change. For this to be best accomplished it was agreed that it would probably be impractical for two workshops on separate continents to continue working so closely together. In March 1999 therefore, Marc Ducornet decided to peacefully conclude his lengthy association with the American workshop so he could concentrate on the creation of numerous new instrument designs in France.

“To distinguish the differences with the original United States-based models which evolved over more than two decades, Marc Ducornet, together with his Agents, decided it was high time to come even closer to the historic principles of construction and materials—wooden jacks would be standard, for example—and to benefit from the excellent manufacturing facilities available at Montreuil and twenty-five years of experience to make the instruments even more professional. Wolfgang Zuckermann, who has been living in the south of France for many years, has come out of harpsichord retirement to eagerly join his friend Marc Ducornet in the “new” enterprise.

“The output of the newly-produced instruments from France will be known very simply under the name “THE PARIS WORKSHOP”, and will be available direct through a worldwide network of knowledgeable and helpful Agents.

Elaine Comparone:


“Frank Hubbard Harpsichords, Inc. offers custom-built instruments (like my two big ones) as well as various kits, of which the yellow harpsichord is an example. In the old days, builders decorated not only the soundboards (under the strings) but the lids as well. You can find pictures of such instruments and examples in museums.

“The kits fed the “do-it-yourself” hunger of many people who liked to work with their hands in those days and thought building an instrument would be an exciting and rewarding task.


“As to your question of my version of the C Major, I’m charmed that you find it humorous. That may be because my interpretation is redolent of my love of jazz and my rejection of romantic interpretations of Baroque music, and specifically Bach. The appoggiatura idea comes from the repetition of that second voice in the right hand , that you correctly recognized as one of three, the third being the second two notes of the repeated chordal figure.

“Actually, the chord can be further broken down into two more “voices”—if we’re talking counterpoint—that move throughout the piece. Now, try playing the piece and eliminating those top two notes-voices of the chord throughout the whole piece. You’ll get an idea of what I initially heard and recognized as a melody—though not a melody in the 19th century meaning!

“My idea came from my awareness that in those days appoggiature were an integral part of the improvising vocabulary of the period—perhaps the most important element! One can create dissonance with an appoggiatura that inevitably adds to the flavor, expressivity and interest of a musical line and its harmonic surroundings. The early composers didn’t always write everything down. Bach did, though, and a legend–perhaps true—has it that he complained when people altered his lines. It was assumed that people would ornament and embellish, especially if you were a performing composer (all the Bachs!!)

“Bach had reached the summit of a musical era ( popular historians as well as musicologists frequently describe him as musically “summing up” what had come before.) But he was simultaneously at the beginning of the decline of his musical era (Bach’s style was referred to as the “learned style”) with C.P.E. and others of his children cheerfully leading the vanguard. Of course, they did not perceive it as a musical “decline” but as a simplification of musical composition and an increased emphasis of emotional expression as a value (“stile galant” and “empfindsamkeit”) But the strong improvising tradition continued and its importance has lasted a long time. Even now, the French organist tradition requires that students learn how to improvise. (You’ve gotta do something when the service is dragging and you need to fill up space—that’s a simple explanation of course!)

“So back to the appoggiatura! That strong improvising tradition meant that musicians were inserting appoggiature everywhere they could. Who could resist? You can see how well the approach works in my little version. Music has always been a product of improvisation and inspiration. Most composers—at least of tonal music, and maybe atonal as well—improvise. Who knows? I just can’t vouch for them. Tonal music lends itself to it. But wait!! As I think of it, you can improvise atonally. I remember now that we did it in college as a joke and it was lots of fun! In his book (The Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), C.P.E. gives a lot of examples of possible free improvisations as well as examples of how to embellish aspects of a musical line. Those guys were amazing!!!

“P.S. As to your question about which instrument they used to play the Prelude in CM: Any instrument that was around!! It could be a harpsichord (which could come in various shapes, size, styles and number of manuals); a clavichord (supposedly CPE’s favorite); or an organ (if you could get someone to work the bellows.) People weren’t picky about which instrument in those days. This “free thought” extended to melody instruments as well. If you composed a trio sonata (a bass line and two trebles), you might expect the trebles to be two flutes or two violins, or a flute and a violin or a flute and an oboe. And your bass could be played by a keyboardist improvising chords from the bass line—because they didn’t write out the accompaniment–providing only figures to indicate chords. And that bass line might be doubled by a cello or viola da gamba or bassoon or another instrument to be identified.

“Pedal-harpsichord: pedals were like an organ’s pedal-board, not a piano’s damper pedal. Organists used pedal harpsichords to practice when it was too cold to play in church. (You’d have to heat the church and hire a bellows boy–so it was an economical substitute) Bach left “a set of pedals and two keyboards” in his will to Wilhelm Friedemann (eldest son.) I don’t think they work well as performing instruments.”


Hubbard Harpsichords:

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J.S. Bach Fugue/Piano Lesson in Progress, (BWV 847 in C minor) plus Aiden Cat begs for affection, feeling left out (Videos)

Claudia, 11, continued practicing Bach’s Fugue in C minor, (Well-Tempered Clavier) following a break for the Baroque Festival. We had intensified study of the Prelude in preparation for this event.

For today’s lesson, our work encompassed the Fugue opening through measure 20.

The manuscript below incorporates the theoretical mapping of Jose Rodriguez Alvira


Aiden got into the act following Claudia’s lesson as he felt forlorn and out in the cold. A preceding Skype to Pennsylvania kept him out of the fray, encapsulated in a warm bedroom within easy reach of his food bowl. But that was not enough.

He wanted to make up for lost time with a shower of affection from me. And he deservingly received it…