How do you assess the talent of a Chopinist at the keyboard? Next time you go to a piano recital, don’t watch the hands; watch the feet. After all, Fryderyk Chopin would. In his words, “The correct employment of the pedal remains a study for life.”
Painstaking pedal notations are a hallmark of a Fryderyk Chopin score…and the source of endless debate among pianists. Chopin’s beloved Pleyel and Erard pianos had just two pedals: the sustain pedal on the right – that’s one that lets the strings ring – and the soft, quieting pedal on the left.
As for how to employ the pedals, Claude Debussy recalled the words of his teacher, a former Chopin student: “Chopin wanted his students to practice without the pedal, and to avoid its use altogether.” Why? It appears he was again reacting to the more bombastic styles of his contemporaries Franz Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg. Chopin criticized Thalberg, saying when he played softly, it was "with the pedal, instead of with the hand.”
But here’s where the arguments begin. With Chopin, it was apparently a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” He was celebrated for his masterful use of the pedals, particularly in quick succession. And despite the fact that he never put a single soft-pedal marking in his scores, it was one of Chopin’s favorite devices. “Chopin used the pedals with marvelous discretion," recalled Paris conservatory teacher Auguste Marmontel. "He would use the soft pedal alone for those light murmurings which seem to create a transparent vapour ‘round the arabesques that embellish the melody and envelop it like fine lace…a quality precious and indispensable.” - Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr & Benjamin K. Roe