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The Pedal Piano and the Schumanns

In 1845, Robert Schumann wrote what are undoubtedly some of the most beautiful and enduring pieces of music for the pedal piano, his Six Etudes in Canon Form, Op. 56; Four Sketches, Op. 58; and Six Fugues on the Name B-A-C-H, Op. 60 (for organ or pedal piano). Schumann was an enthusiastic student of counterpoint, and his interest in the pedal piano was a result of his contrapuntal studies.

The history and mechanism of the pedal piano 

The pedal piano consists of a foot-pedal mechanism (pedalboard) combined with a regular keyboard. A pedalboard is most often attached to an organ, but can also be used with a clavichord, harpsichord, carillon, or piano. It is designed to play the low bass line of a composition, sometimes in octaves. The music for an instrument with pedalboard is written on three staves, the upper two being played by the right and left hands and the third by the feet, as in organ playing.

The history of the pedalboard goes back to the fifteenth century. The New Grove Dictionary states in a section on musical instruments that there is a reference to a clavichord with pedals in the 1460 encyclopedic treatise by the scholar Paulus Paulirinus (1413-1471).1 Grove also cites the existence of a fifteenth-century drawing of a two-and-a-half-octave clavichord with a twelve-note pedalboard.2 These instruments were used by organists of the day, especially at home, to avoid practicing in an unheated church with an assistant operating the bellows. 

In the early 1700s, J.S. Bach is known to have owned a clavichord with two manuals and a pedalboard. There has been speculation that he also owned a pedal harpsichord, and he is believed to have written his six trio sonatas and the Passacaglia in C Minor for that instrument.3 

Pedal Piano by Joseph Broadmann, Vienna 1815

A harpsichord at Sondershausen, long believed to be the kind which belonged to J.S. Bach, was reproduced in 1996 by Nicolas Macheret.4 This reproduction has a pedalboard attachment based on a detailed description written by Jakob Adlung in 1758, and this type of pedalboard, an independent box that was placed under an existing harpsichord, seems to have been the most popular version used in the era. It is unclear whether or not this instrument is a true copy of one that existed in Bach's time. 

Nicholas Macheret's reproduction of a pedal harpsichord, possibly Bach's

The earliest pedal pianos appeared in the eighteenth century. They utilized three main types of pedalboards:

1. Separate hammers that play in octaves on existing piano strings;

2. A separate set of strings and soundboard built into a regular piano; or

3. A completely independent unit (usually with twenty-nine pedals) placed under a grand piano.

On March 12, 1785, Mozart's father Leopold wrote that Wolfgang had "a big pedal-fortepiano made which stands under the grand piano, and is three spans longer and surprising heavy."5 The instrument was made especially for him by Anton Walter of Vienna, and, in letters to his father, Wolfgang mentions using this instrument in public improvisations. Mozart scholars have suggested that large spans in the Concerto in D Minor and the unfinished Fugue in G Minor might indicate that these works were intended for performance on the pedal piano.6 

In the nineteenth century, in addition to Schumann, composers including Alkan, Gounod, Saint-Saens, and Liszt, wrote substantial works for the pedal piano (some of which were to be performed with orchestra). Alkan was so enamored with the instrument that, around 1880, he had Erard deliver a pedal piano with thirty-two pedals. In addition, he left money in his will to fund a pedal piano course at the Paris Conservatory. Further, although Schumann's friend Mendelssohn did not himself compose for the pedal piano, as director of the Leipzig Conservatory he was sufficiently interested in the instrument to establish a special pedal piano class.

In the twentieth century, several accounts state that the instrument was virtually dead by the end of the 1800s and was no longer being manufactured. Pedal instruments are, in fact, alive and well. Modern pedal harpsichords were built in America by John Challis (1907-74) and by German-born Eric Herz. Today pedal clavichords and harpsichords are being built by Robert Morley in London.

A huge, impressive pedal piano is currently available from the Italian firm of Borgato.7 The instrument, called the Doppio Borgato (Double Borgato), consists of a full-sized concert grand piano with a second thirty-seven-note grand beneath it. The total length is over thirteen feet and the combined weight almost one-and-a half tons. The treble notes have four strings per pitch, and the lid of the pedalboard is split. 

The Borgato pedal piano

Robert Schumann and the pedal piano 

In Robert Schumann, Herald of a New "Poetic Age," John Daverio says that between January and November of 1845, Schumann devoted himself for a third time in his career to a serious study of counterpoint. His study with Heinrich Dorn in 1831-32 consisted largely of writing exercises and sketches. His study then led Schumann to draft a history of fugue between 1836 and 1838. (Clara wrote in her diary, "He himself is in the midst of a fugue passion.") Daverio continues: "Now he wrote, for the first time, compositions in strict contrapuntal forms intended not as pedagogical exercises, but as substantial concert pieces in their own right."8 

According to Robert's journal, Clara joined him in his study of counterpoint on January 23, 1845. Schumann's admiration for Bach and his absorption with his counterpoint study led him to rent a pedal attachment for his home piano. 

On April 24, 1845, a pedal attachment rented from Otto Kade, a music director and musicologist, arrived at the Schumann household. On this date, Clara wrote that they "received a rental pedal to put under the grand piano, something that brought us much pleasure."9 

While initially acquired for the convenience of having a pedal piano available for practicing and testing his own contrapuntal effects, the instrument's presence also directed Schumann toward writing pieces specifically for the pedal piano. Robert wrote to his publisher C.F. Whistling that the pedal piano might "with time bring a new momentum to piano music....Absolutely wonderful effects can be brought about with it."10 He paid rent on the pedalboard for May, June, and July of 1845. During the following months he received payment from Whistling for Opp. 56 and 60 as well as payment from another publisher, Kistner, for Op. 58: the pedalboard had immediately influenced Robert's composition. 

The Six Etudes in Canon Form, Op. 56, are not simply finger exercises like Hanon's or Czerny's. Instead, they are, like the Chopin etudes, works of art that make wonderful music while working the muscles. The Four Sketches, Op. 58, are four little pieces written expressly for the joy of playing the instrument. Although not specifically contrapuntal, they contain moments of imitation. According to Eric Jensen, Schumann's Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op . 60, are impressive examples of the "most sustained, chromatic music he had yet composed."11

"The best fugue" said Schumann, "is always that which the public takes for a Strauss waltz."12 One can imagine the composer applied this philosophy to his Op. 56 canons: "With Op. 56," says Jensen, "the listener is so captivated by the melodic charm that the canonic inventiveness becomes almost imperceptible."13 

Clara Schumann and the pedal piano pieces 

Clara Schumann transcribed many of her husband's important works. Among her piano transcriptions were her four- hand arrangement of the piano quintet, thirty songs transcribed for piano solo, and the pieces for pedal piano. Years later, in her diary entry for January 11, 1895, Clara wrote: "Today I began to arrange some of Robert's pedal-pieces in the way I have always played them."14 At the urging of her daughter Eugenie, she selected seven of the pieces for publication, four from Op. 56 and three from Op. 58.

In the correspondence between Clara and Johannes Brahms, August through December, 1895, many words are exchanged concerning the final version of the pedal piano studies and sketches. 15 Eugenie had sold them to Novello of London, and Clara enlisted Brahms's help in preparing them for publication. The exchange of manuscripts and proofs between Clara and Brahms continued until the end of the year, and the works finally appeared in print in 1896. Clara was Robert's best advertisement for his compositions. She introduced his works and performed them all over Europe, Russia, and England, and she frequently performed the studies for pedal piano. They were met with acclaim and were arranged and published in several editions, even during her lifetime. 

Arrangements and performances 

The B-minor study seems to have been particularly popular. A solo arrangement of the piece was published by Louis Meyer of Philadelphia in 1866, and a different solo version by Rafael Joseffy was published by Schirmer in 1887. Further, a 1979 Wilfried Kassebaum edition of a new arrangement for solo piano is currently available. This arrangement contains both opuses.

Today the Opp. 56, 58, and 60 are more likely to be performed on the organ than on the pedal piano. New editions of the pieces are coming out with registration suggestions for organ performance. All three opus numbers are recorded by Rudolf Innig on Schumann: Complete Organ Works, even though only Op. 60 was originally designated for that instrument. 16 

More significantly, Jörg Demus has recorded a boxed set of Schumann's complete piano works and has included the Op. 56 (in volume 11 of the set) and Op. 58 (in volume 6).17 Although Demus performs the works in their original form, the instrument used is not identified on the CD. This is unfortunate, since it is well known that Demus collects antique instruments. It is unclear whether he uses an instrument with pedals or has a second pianist play the pedal line (in Clara's edition of Schumann's complete piano works, she notes that these pieces can be performed by two players). 

Perhaps the most beautiful of the seven pieces is the Op. 56, No. 4, in A-flat major. It is truly remarkable that Schumann could write such an exquisite melodic line while staying within the restrictions of canonic construction. On her recording Clara Schumann and her Family,18 pianist Ira Maria Witoschynskyj chose the Clara Schumann arrangement of the A-flat major to illustrate the intimate symbiotic relationship between Clara and Robert. 

Clara's original edition of the A-flat study
Clara's manuscript of her solo version
Novello's 1896 printed copy of Clara's solo arrangement

The first Carnegie Hall performance of any of the Op. 56 pieces was April 11, 1916, when Percy Grainger performed the third study. The first Carnegie Hall complete performance of the six studies was December 8, 1939, with Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin playing Debussy's two-piano arrangement. More recent performances include pianists Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman playing the same arrangement of Op. 56 at the University of California, Berkeley (March 26, 2005), and a Peter Sykes organ recital of all three opus numbers at Boston University School of Music (April 3, 2006).

For pianists interested in ensemble playing, the Debussy arrangement of Op. 56 for two pianos is available from Durand and International, and a four-hand arrangement by Georges Bizet can be found in a few libraries. A new edition of the Bizet arrangement is available from Alfred Music Publishing. The author's edition of the complete Clara Schumann solo arrangements of the Opp. 56 and 58 is published by Musica Obscura. 


1. Edwin M. Ripin, "Pedal Clavichord," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, cd. Stanley Sadie (Macmillan Publishers, paperback 1995), 14:327.

2. Ibid.

3. Ripin, "Pedal Harpsichord," New Grove, 14:327.

4. Yves Rechsteiner, "Pedal Harpsichord," Organ Loft, trans. William Vine: www.harpsi- (accessed 9 March, 2010).

5. Marcia Davenport, Mozart. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960),228.

6. Ripin, "Pedal Pianoforte," New Grove, 14:328.

7. (accessed 9 March, 2010).

8. John Daverio, Robert Schumann, Herald of a "New Poetic Age' (Oxford University Press, 1997),306.

9. Robert Schumann, Tageblicher, ed. Gerd Nauhaus. Band III Haushaltbücher,
Teil I, 1837-1847 (StroemfeldlRoter Stern), 750.

10. Schumann, 387. 

11. Eric Frederick Jensen, Srhumalln (Oxford University Press, 2001), 284.

12. Jensen, 287.

13. Ibid.

14. Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, Revised ed. (Cornell University Press, 2001), 331.

15. "Bethold Litzmann, ed. Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, 1853-1896 (London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1927), Il: 279-82.

16. Robert Schumann, Complete Organ Works (Rudolflnnig), Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG 317 0619-2.

17. Robert Schumann: The Complete Piano Works (Jorg Demus), Nuova Era, vol. 6 CD7316 and vol. 11 CD7321.

18. Clara Schumann and Her Family (Ira Maria Witoschynskyj), Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG 6040729-2. 

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