The use of pedal in Beethoven's violin sonatas

14-10-2016

Beethoven at piano
Beethoven at piano

The use of pedal is and has always been a matter of taste. But in this article I would like to show you my ideas on this topic.

In the last couple of years I have had the luck to spend most of my time with the music of Mozart and Beethoven. I have found, for myself, some basic principles regarding the use of pedal, which I would like to share.

Beethoven and Mozart lived in an age where it was not very common to write pedal-marks. It was a known fact in those times how to use the pedal. With the 19th century romanticism much has changed and the use of pedal being one of them. It is known from studies that Beethoven was the first to use the pedal extensively. He thought that Mozart played very choppy and with very few legato. In the 10 violin sonatas Beethoven writes pedal markings in 5 of them. Does that mean that we cannot use any pedal in the other sonatas? The answer to that question, I think, is that one can/should use the pedal in those pieces as he writes them in the other violin sonatas. 


When you hear that pedal is being used it means that it is over-pedaled.


This statement, for me, is the fundament of pedaling in the era of the classical composers. I do have to admit that there are exceptions, especially in the music of Beethoven (The first movement of the 'Moonlight' sonata and the aria sections of the first movement of the 'Tempest' Sonata are probably the most famous ones). But when one uses the pedal in such a way that nobody can hear it, it makes the places like this stand out in a very profound way.

In the book 'Beethoven on Beethoven', Newman wrote a list with the occasions when Beethoven used the pedal:

  • Sustaining of the bass-note
  • Improving the legato
  • Creating a collective or composite sound
  • Implementing dynamic contrasts
  • Interconnecting sections or movements
  • Blurring the sound through harmonic clashes
  • Contributing to the thematic structure

(Newman, 1991)

(Newman, 1991)

  • Sustaining of the bass-note

Probably the most basic feature, in the music of Beethoven. Keeping the bass-note doesn't only have to be done with the pedal but it can also be held by keeping the note to keep clarity in for example: rapid sixteen passages.

  • Improving the legato

Especially in the slow movements this is an important feature. Often, Beethoven writes many more lines and more legato in the slow movements. Because of keeping all the lines legato, the use of Pedal is a very important feature.

  • Creating a collective or composite sound

This counts especially for the chamber music that Beethoven wrote. The use of Pedal can change the overtones because of the notes that the other instrument(s) play, making it possible to create a more composite sound. Again, should be used especially in the slow movements.

  • Implementing dynamic contrasts

This is a wonderful feature. Sometimes when Beethoven writes a crescendo. Just the use of pedal is enough to create a bigger sound without making the crescendo.

One place to do this is for example:


Beethoven sonata no.7 op.30 no.2 example 1
Beethoven sonata no.7 op.30 no.2 example 1

                                               Beethoven sonata no.7 op.30 no.2 measure 86


To create a bigger effect in the 16th notes one can add a bit of pedal in the last beat.

Beethoven sonata no.3 op.12 no.3 example 2
Beethoven sonata no.3 op.12 no.3 example 2

                               Beethoven Sonata no.3, first movement measure 67


  • Interconnecting sections or movements

Happens on only one occasion in the 10 sonatas. The second and third movement of the 10th sonata has a 'attacca' with the transition being connected by the pedal. In general this is not favored.

  • Blurring the sound through harmonic clashes

One has to be sure to use these reasons with the utmost care. In general, especially in chamber music, clarity is preferred over blurring. Blurring can be considered, in my opinion, only when it is the original Beethoven markings (make sure that the score you use is an 'Urtext' where you are sure that all the marks are from the manuscript (copy) or first editions).

The instruments of those times were very different than modern standard grand-pianos. Blurring in those times had a very different effect and was less obvious than at the present time.

  • Contributing to the thematic structure

A piece of music is needs contrasts. The contrasts are not only made with dynamics but also, maybe even more effective, with articulation. Use the pedal in the more melodic parts to obtain the contrasts and to built the structure of the piece. 


Listen here to our recording of the first violin sonata of Beethoven