Understanding The Sostenuto Pedal: Tips To Improve Piano Pedalling

Understanding The Sostenuto Pedal: Tips To Improve Piano Pedalling

Perhaps the most misunderstood of all of the piano pedals, the sostenuto pedal is an incredibly unique pedal found on some grand pianos that when used correctly can create some truly unique and exceptional effects for any pianist to have at their disposal. 

Not to be confused with the middle pedal on upright pianos, which, if it has a middle pedal, will usually be a ‘practice’ pedal that softens the notes on the piano by disengaging the hammers for a very soft sound that is suitable for practice purposes. Instead the sostenuto pedal does something completely different, providing a way of sustaining bass notes leaving the fingers free to play other material above.

That being said - certain high end upright pianos such as the C.Bechstein Concert 8 can also be fitted with sostenuto pedals.

Today we aim to explore the inner workings of this pedal, when to use it and attempt to explain the effects that it can produce when understood properly.

What Is The Sostenuto Pedal?

Unlike many components of modern pianos, the sostenuto pedal comes almost 150 years after Bartolomeo Cristofori’s original design. It is believed that the sostenuto pedal was first created in France by the Boisselot brothers in the 1840s. Fast forward to 1874, a patent was presented in the U.S.A. by Mr. Waldo Hanchett, William Steinway then claimed the patent and after some legal disputes, Steinway re-designed the pedal and forwarded a patent in 1875 for the sostenuto mechanism as we know it today.

The reason this pedal is so misunderstood amongst pianists is that it is rarely used, even amongst the most professional of pianists, few either need or require it in order to create the intended effects of their work, however in the right hands (or feet) the sostenuto can create some truly unique tones.

Pianos equipped with the sostenuto pedal allow for what some may call “selective sustain”. While the right pedal sustains all the notes on a piano, the sostenuto, in essence, holds down selective notes you wish to sustain. When it is depressed, the last note played continues to sound while all the other notes are damped. This is perhaps most commonly used in the bass end of the piano most of the time, allowing the pianist to overlay large bass tones with intricate pianissimo playing at the high end.

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When To Use The Sostenuto Pedal?

There are three key components to note when using this pedal that is why it is often an alien concept to even the most seasoned pianists who have not used them before.

The first is that the bass notes to be ‘sustained’ must be firmly depressed with the fingers immediately prior to depressing the pedal, so that they can be ‘caught’ by the dampers. The second is that the pedal must be held to the floor for the entirety of the passage to be sustained, and the third, it’s important to remember that the sostenuto pedal cannot be depressed at the same time as the sustaining pedal as the two essentially override one another.

For those who perhaps already have a sostenuto pedal but have never used it, one fun exercise to experiment with is to hold a bass note as a pedal note throughout a bar (or two bars) and play an octave C in the bass overlapped with chords. By then creating a crescendo throughout the chord progression the effect can be almost orchestral as the bass note still sustains whilst the higher chords litter over!

A few other, lesser known ways to make use of the sostenuto pedal are for those who have smaller hands! By catching the lowest note (or notes) in a large chord with the middle pedal, and then transitioning to the rest of the chord to follow, played in an arpeggiated fashion, with the lowest notes still ringing, you can create a far more powerful effect without the need for extensive stretching. The same effect can be done with awkward or large stretches.

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Pieces That Feature Or Can Make Use Of Sostenuto

Some composers have marked the use of the middle pedal into their scores, whilst for others one feels it might be a natural extension to the sound they were trying to create but didn’t have the technology at the time of writing.

Here are a few examples of pieces that do feature sostenuto playing:

Claude Debussy: Clair de Lune. Second page, Tempo rubato.

In this piece, the left hand needs to hold some low octaves, then jump up to play some chords above middle C. The dynamic marking in this section is pp and whilst skilled players will still be able to make the piece work with the damper pedal, a sostenuto makes it not only easier but sound infinitely more appealing.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in c♯ minor.

The sostenuto pedal is extensively used throughout the piece. Whilst other methods can be used to achieve the desired effect, on the last page without the sostenuto it can create a rather messy sound if not used effectively.

Learn more about Rachmaninoff’s works in our Rachmaninoff’s essentials guide here.

Maurice Ravel: Sonatine.

The last two bars of the second movement require the sostenuto pedal here. In fact, this is one piece that is exceptional for demonstrating the power of the sostenuto as the left-hand chord starts with a tied grace note just before the beat, just to give you a chance to catch it with the sostenuto pedal.

Again, the sostenuto can be applied to a number of other interesting and historical pieces but as the pedal wasn't even invented until 1844, it is far less likely to find and can be used as more of an experimentative tool to imagine what pieces may have sounded like should the composers have had the means at their disposal.

Want to learn more about pianos that feature the sostenuto pedal, or perhaps you are looking to upgrade your current piano to one that has one? Contact our experts or visit our showrooms today to learn more!

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