Una Corda is the direction to the pianist to apply the left-hand or soft pedal. The function of the soft pedal was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the piano had evolved to have three strings on most of the notes. When the una corda pedal was applied, the action of the piano would shift so that only one string was struck – hence the words “una corda”, or “one string”.
On a modern grand piano the strings are placed too closely to permit a true una corda effect: the left-hand pedal shifts the whole action, including the keyboard slightly to the right, so that hammers which normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them. The resulting sound is softer and also has a duller quality due to the two strings being struck making contact with a part of the hammer felt which is not often hit and which is therefore slightly softer in density, creating a different quality of sound. On an upright piano, the mechanism is arranged so that when the left-hand pedal is applied, the resting position of the hammers is moved closer to the strings so that they have a shorter distance to travel and therefore the strings are struck with less force, creating less sound.
While the una corda pedal can be used to achieved wonderfully soft, muted and veiled effects in piano music, it is not simply a “quiet pedal”, any more than the right-hand, sustaining pedal is the “loud pedal”, and just as there are “degrees” of sustaining pedal, depending on the repertoire, so the una corda can be depressed in a variety of ways to create multi-faceted musical colours and sonorities. As with all pedalling, an acute ear, practise, discretion and experimentation will lead to greater confidence and expertise, resulting in truly wonderful effects.
Here is Beethoven giving very specific directions in the use of the una corda pedal: he stipulates lifting the left pedal so gently that only bit by bit are all the strings sounding again – only two initially and ultimately all three again:
An urtext edition of a work of classical music is a printed version intended to reproduce the original intention of the composer as exactly as possible, without any added or changed material. (Wikipedia)
The source materials for Urtext editions include the composer’s autograph (the manuscript produced in the composer’s hand), hand copies made by the composer’s students and assistants, the first published edition and other early editions. Urtext editions differ from facsimile editions, which present a photographic reproduction of one of the original sources for a work of music, and interpretive editions, which offer the editor’s personal opinion on how to perform the work.
Urtext scores came into being as a reaction against the many (and often incorrect) editorial liberties which were taken when editing and publishing music. Phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and sometimes even the notes themselves were altered as the editor saw fit, and so long as it made musical sense, this kind of editing was considered acceptable. Editors guilty of this kind of tampering include Busoni (in Bach) and von Bülow, amongst many others. These days, the urtext score is a must-have for the serious student, teacher or performer, offering as it does a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful record of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.
I still have my old ABRSM editions of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions and “the 48”. Heavily annotated by the ABRSM’s editors, the manuscript is distorted with the kind of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation markings which would probably horrify Bach. In an urtext score, particularly a Baroque urtext score, the absence of performance directions offers the performer choice, versatility and expression.
Urtext editions, in particular those produced by established music publishers such as Henle, Wiener and Barenreiter, tend to be high-quality publications, with detailed and insightful prefaces and notes, descriptions of sources (usually in German, English and French), useful fingerings, and aesthetically-pleasing design values: durable bindings, heavy cream paper, and clear music engraving optimised for efficient page turns. With the increasing popularity of digital downloads, resources such as Piano Street and IMSLP also offer urtext editions in their catalogues.