Piano Duets: The World in Four Hands

Four Hands

February seems like a good month to explore what one member of the Bach family considered the pianistic equivalent of St. Valentine's Day, but more of that in a moment! From the late eighteenth century to the advent of the gramophone, it was the piano that ruled the domestic roost. On both sides of the Atlantic, there was hardly a middle class home without one (in America in the 1890s, there were more pianos than bathtubs in private ownership!). But as not all families could afford two instruments, the most common type of piano-based chamber music was the four-hand duet.

They were first popularised, at least on an international scale, by Mozart (who would play them with his sister). But their origins lay neither with Mozart, nor in the eighteenth century, nor indeed with the piano! The keyboard duet was born in England, in the aftermath of the Tudor era. The earliest surviving examples are by Thomas Tomkins (whose father was employed as a minor canon here at Gloucester Cathedral) and Nicholas Carleton. The keyboards in question belonged either to the virginals or the portative organ, and pre-dated Cristofori's great invention by more than a century.

Because of the close physical proximity of the players, the piano duet is the most intimate form of chamber music. WFE Bach (grandson of JS) was probably the most lascivious one-keyboard composer to date. He wrote a piece for his two most attractive female pupils, gratuitously inserting a part for himself. Seated between them, he sited his own part at the extremities of the keyboard and stretched his arms around their waists! Das Dreyblatt received what was probably its only public performance at a benefit concert at the Royal Festival Hall in the 1970s, costumes and all!

On the subject of costumes, one practical disadvantage was the fashion for hoop skirts. Since the majority of domestic pianists, then as now, were female, this posed a problem for composers and performers. Charles Burney (a pupil of Thomas Arne, and composer of the first published piano duets in 1777) went so far as to commission a special six octave piano! Few composers have been more morally solicitous: unlike the salacious Herr Bach, Burnley was most concerned about the potential embarrassment arising from 'the near approach of the hands of different people'.

Not surprisingly, the added density and colour afforded by four hands led composers to employ increasingly orchestral textures in their duet writing. In the days before the gramophone and the radio, it was through four-hand arrangements more than any other medium (including public concerts) that the burgeoning orchestral and operatic repertoire found its largest audience. For many, this was the only form in which they could hear the major orchestral works of the day. (Even Schubert never heard any of his symphonies or piano sonatas in a professional performance.)

From Parlour to Concert Hall

With the exception of Schubert and Brahms, none of the great composers devoted a significant portion of their output to the piano duet. Fortunately, we do have many fine compositions from the Classical and early Romantic period, from the likes of Diabelli, Hummel and Pleyel, to name but a few. Beethoven's four-hand works are surprisingly few, with the exception of the Große Fuge quartet, and it's with Schubert that piano duettists hit the jackpot. No one else begins to match his original output, and no other composer maintained such a consistently high standard of writing.

Schubert's great masterpiece was the Fantasia in F minor, a tragic drama unequalled by anything else in the duet repertoire. Less imposing, but equally masterly, are the Divertissement à l'Hongroise, the Andante Varié in B minor, the Variations in A flat and the passionate Allegro in A minor. In terms of sheer bulk though, Czerny made Schubert look positively stingy, contributing to the family parlours of two continents some forty sets of variations, thirty rondos and twenty fantasies, as well as nocturnes, marches, études and... well, you get the idea!

In the mid-to-late 1860s, Brahms produced his Hungarian Dances and Sixteen Waltzes. These are still popular, as is Bizet's Jeux d'enfants (1871), a charming set of twelve miniatures. I would also recommend Brahms' New Liebeslieder Waltzes and 10 Variations on a theme of Schumann. Very little four-hand music has brought players and listeners more delight than Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, and the Valses Bourgeoises by the virtually forgotten Lord Berners are also worth looking up. Oh yes, and Grieg's excellent and inexplicably neglected Valses-Caprices.

Maurice Ravel can be considered great on the strength of a single work, Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose), a bewitching feast of child-like imagination, poignancy, humour, wonder and fear. Claude Debussy's four-hand output was a little larger, and includes such gems as the Six Épigraphes antiques and Petite Suite. Gabriel Fauré's most notable contribution was the enticing Dolly Suite and, if you have a taste for anarchic Gallic humour, you'll enjoy Erik Satie's Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (consisting of seven pieces, all devoid of fruity traits so far as I can tell!).

Not all duets on one piano are for four hands, or even three. Nor do they all involve the keyboard! There came a time, around the third decade of the twentieth century, when it seemed to some composers that everything that could be done in the way of conventional piano playing had been done. Among them was Henry Cowell, whose use of tone-clusters (achieved using the fist, the palm of the hand and even the forearm) gained him fame and notoriety in equal measure. They weren't always stridently percussive, and he had a genuine desire to discover new sonorities.

Many of his pieces drew their inspiration from Irish mythology, not least his pioneering duet The Banshee. One player holds down the sustain pedal, while the other plays entirely on the strings inside the piano! The resulting sound is eerily like the wailing of the banshee, and anticipated the sound world of electronic music to come. Of course composers are still writing traditional duets today, and the extent of the four-hand repertoire never ceases to amaze me. It's too large to explore fully here, but I hope you've enjoyed my potted history of this fascinating genre.


Local readers may be interested to know that the inaugural Bristol International Piano Duo Festival begins on October 14th 2009. Held mainly at St. George's Bristol, which is renowned for its world-class acoustics, performances will include a huge array of music from Brahms to John McCabe and Haydn to Chick Corea.

Three international duos will be taking part: Joseph Tong & Waka Hasegawa (the Festival's Artistic Directors), Duo Tal and Groethuysen and the brilliant Micallef-Inanga Duo (who will join forces with the European Union Chamber Orchestra for a special concert featuring Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365).

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