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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Four Hands at One Piano

I am always fascinated by the human need for music. Walk down most streets these days, or take any form of public transport, and chances are many - sometimes most - of the people you'll see will have earpieces in or headphones on, listening to music. This is not new. Having music on while we eat breakfast, or in the car, or as we fall asleep, while we work or do's a common human experience.

Of course this can go into the realm of muzak, where music is reduced to part of the furniture or an aural equivalent of the paint on the walls. Dining in a restaurant, shopping in a supermarket, walking down a corridor in a hotel, getting on and off a plane, even taking an is everywhere, sometimes in a bad way.

I don't want to go into the reasons why we humans need music so much - or at least find we can't live without it, which is not quite the same thing - but suffice to say that music plays a role in the recreation as well as the ritual of most human societies, and has done so since the beginnings of humanity. In the days before recording and mass media, the need for music as recreation - music to enjoy at home - was met in some degree by people learning to play an instrument and/or sing so that evenings could be spent in music-making. This social, educational and creative element of music-making in the home is today the exception rather than the rule. Nowadays we're more inclined to passively accept music made by others and listen to it repeatedly.

The rise of the middle class in European society in the 17th century led to an increased demand for entertainment outside that made available to noble courts or in church. A whole new market opened up for public theatres, for example, and the demand for music to play in leisure time - a new concept for any but the nobility - arose at the same time.

In the 18th century this was fulfilled in many ways, but one of the most prevalent was the creation of a whole new repertoire of music for four hands at one keyboard. Four-hand works exist from the 16th and 17th centuries which were intended for the harpsichord, virginal or clavichord, such as this Fancy for two to play by the English composer Thomas Tomkins, who died in 1656. [listen]

From the mid-18th century, though, four-hand keyboard music is almost totally associated with the piano, which itself was invented in the 18th century, and by the 1790s had almost completely replaced the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument in European music.

Music for piano four hands fulfilled a number of important functions. Firstly it was social, providing a pianist with the opportunity to play true ensemble music rather than a solo or an accompaniment. Secondly the breadth of range available to four hands as opposed to two meant that works originally composed for larger ensembles - chamber music, orchestral works, even operas - could be sold in arrangements for piano four hands and so help people become familiar with works they might only ever hear once or twice in their lifetimes, if at all. And thirdly, it provided composers with another medium - and market - for which to compose, and many of the biggest names in the business devoted their energies to not just arranging their larger works for piano four hands but also composing music especially for this medium.

This is the third movement of a sonata for piano four hands written by Mozart in 1786, not long after he'd completed The Marriage of Figaro. He wrote four sonatas, in addition to other shorter works, for piano four hands which are quite separate to his better-known sonata for two pianos, and thereby hangs an important distinction. Music for piano four hands is sometimes also called a piano duet or piano duo, and this implies that both players are sitting at the same keyboard. This in turn implies that the music is written in such a way as to make this possible, so the players are not trying to use the same part of the keyboard at the same time.

Anna Maria ("Nannerl") Mozart and her brother, Wolfgang Amadeus (detail from a family portrait)

Music for two pianos is rather different; both players have a full keyboard at their disposal. Music for piano four hands can be played on two keyboards, and sometimes is in the case of very complex arrangements. Stravinsky's arrangement of The Rite of Spring, often played on two pianos, was in fact designed for piano four hands. It's often played on two pianos so the players can more easily get around the complexities of the music.

Mozart's music for piano duet was almost certainly conceived for the domestic music-making market, and such works were written by most of the composers active in Vienna in the late 18th century. The young Beethoven wrote a sonata for piano duet in the late 1790s which was published as his opus 6. It certainly seems that this work too was intended for domestic consumption; it was written around the same time as his earliest piano sonatas and the contrast between the seriousness of the sonatas and the lightness of this four-hand work is startling. This is not to denigrate opus 6; it might be in only two short movements and in a lighter vein, but it bears the unmistakable energy of early Beethoven. [listen]

The 19th century was the golden age of the piano duet. An enormous amount of music for it was composed and arranged, and it's perhaps not surprising that, given his love of social music-making, Franz Schubert should have given so much attention to the medium. Schubert wrote a great deal of four-hand piano music: marches, dances, fantasias, sonatas, variations, even overtures and other works which may have been intended for orchestration but which never made it that far. The famous Marche militaire was originally written for piano duet [listen], but perhaps the one work which stands out is one of his last, the large-scale Fantasie in F minor, composed a few months before his death in 1828. [listen]

Abel: Franz Schubert (c. 1814)

Virtually every major composer in the 19th century - and every minor one as well - wrote music for piano duet. It was a huge market; pianos were regarded as essential items in even the most modest homes, and the ability to play at least passably was regarded as a social virtue, for women especially. For this reason, music for piano duet was usually only of moderate difficulty, and publishers were by and large unwilling to release demanding, virtuoso music for piano duet because such works simply didn't fit the domestic, amateur market. Fryderyk Chopin composed a handful of works for piano duet but all have been lost except for one, a set of variations written when he was 16 and still a student. [listen]

The domestic market notwithstanding, many composers did see the piano duet as a viable form of creative expression in its own right. Felix Mendelssohn wrote two major works for four hands at one piano, one of which was the Allegro Brillant, opus 92, which dates from 1841. [listen]

Magnus: Felix Mendelssohn (1846)

More substantial works for piano four hands were written by composers of later eras as well. Paul Hindemith wrote his sonata for piano four hands in 1938. This is the second of its three movements. [listen]

Francis Poulenc wrote works for two pianos in the 1950s but much earlier in his career, in 1918, he wrote a short, punchy sonata for piano four hands. It's in his trademark "rascal" style, very much poking its tongue out and trying to shock. [listen]

Francis Poulenc

Many composers seem to have revelled in the challenge of writing music which was of only moderate difficulty for the domestic market. Such music was highly saleable and publishers in the 19th century, especially, seemed to have had an unending thirst for these works, especially when composed by famous names. Between 1802 and 1819. Carl Maria von Weber composed three collections of music for piano duet which make only moderate demands on the players, and the first of these, his opus 3 was even titled as Six little easy pieces. The later collection of eight pieces, Weber's opus 60, is of a similar nature, but despite their "easy" status, the music is never less than elegant, engaging and well-crafted, perfect for the domestic market for which it was intended. This is the first movement of the opus 60 set. [listen]

Robert Schumann's Pictures from the East [listen], a set of six impromptus for piano duet, is another work in this vein, but easier four-hand piano works for domestic consumption continued to be written well into the 20th century. Erik Satie's seven movement set called Three Pieces in the form of a Pear appeared in 1903. [listen]

Erik Satie (1920)

Claude Debussy wrote a few works for piano duet in the last decade of the 19th century, but his Six Ancient Epigraphs date from near the end of his life. They were composed in 1914 and arranged almost simultaneously for solo piano, but the four-hand version is the original. [listen]

A logical step from providing music of moderate difficulty for domestic consumption is to use the piano duet form as a means of teaching. Four hand piano music for children has again been the domain of many French composers; Bizet's Children's Games, Fauré's Dolly Suite and Ravel's Mother Goose, while well-known in orchestral versions, all began life as four-hand piano music for children. [listen]

Maurice Ravel (1925)

The idea of writing four-hand music as a teaching tool, though, wasn't new in the 19th and 20th centuries. Joseph Haydn wrote a work he called a divertimento for keyboard four-hands around 1770. Its subtitle is Il maestro e lo scolare - The Teacher and the Student - and it consists of a series of variations and a minuet. In the variations, the student (the upper part) imitates the teacher (the lower part), a perfect example of leading, example. [listen]

I want next to share some of the music of Johannes Brahms in two very different guises. Both Brahms and Dvořák made important contributions to the four-hand piano repertoire in the form of nationalistic dances: Dvořák in his Slavonic Dances, and Brahms in the Hungarian Dances. All these pieces are much better known in their orchestral arrangements, but as with so much other music, the piano duet versions came first. Brahms wrote four books of Hungarian Dances in this form. The first dance in Book 1 is one of the best-known. [listen]

Johannes Brahms (1853)

But another important function of the piano duet was to make larger works such as chamber music and symphonies available to the public in arrangements to play at home. Max Reger arranged all six of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos for piano duet, and I confess that I love them. Talk about a guilty pleasure… [listen]

Virtually all the major symphonic works of the 18th and 19th centuries were arranged for piano four hands and in most cases people learned the music in this form, because orchestral performances were rare and expensive. Today we take for granted that we can hear Brahms's symphonies as often as we like in their orchestral versions. The composer probably only heard them a handful of times and the public even less. Brahms himself arranged his symphonies for piano duet and in most cases people heard and learned these works in this form. [listen]

The piano duet has been a constant thread running through European music for nearly three centuries and it has fulfilled a vital role in social music making, in education, and in the dissemination of large-scale works for most of that time. It's a form of music-making which can be looked down upon in some circles but it has enormous value in so many domains. And as always, there's a rich legacy of music to explore and perform.

I'll finish with Stravinsky's piano duet version of The Rite of Spring, which I mentioned earlier. It's often played on two pianos for convenience, but it was conceived for four hands on a single keyboard and designed for use in ballet rehearsals before the dancers worked with the orchestra. It's a phenomenal orchestral work, but in the piano four hands version it seems no less phenomenal. [listen]

Picasso: Igor Stravinsky (1920)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2015.

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