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1 piano, 4 hands: an ode to adorable piano duets
By
Andrea Warner

Published

January 7, 2015

Genre

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Forget making a baby or surviving a plane crash or sharing a uterus with your twin; the most intimate experience you can have with another person might just be a piano duet.

Specifically, the one piano/four hands duet.

At least, it was the basis of my most innocent romantic experience. I was 20 years old and living at International House in New York City, a housing residence in an old converted mansion on the Upper West Side. I met this wonderful Parisian boy, Matthieu, and when I said his name it always sounded like I was sneezing. He was dreamy. I lit his cigarettes because I didn't smoke but I wanted to feel sophisticated. One night, he broke us into the music room in the basement of the building and he tried to teach me "Heart and Soul," sitting side by side, our shoulders touching and our fingers drifting closer together over the keys


There's just something magical about the piano four hands compositions, as these pieces were originally known, and there's also something rather sweet about pieces rearranged for one piano/four hands. And yet, the practice has sort of fallen out of fashion and is often seen as more gimmick or novelty than creative expression or intimate and technical exploration.

CBC Music's Piano Week seemed the perfect place to pay tribute to this quaint, nostalgic, fun and, yes, totally adorable form of duet. 

Franz Schubert

Famed composer Franz Schubert was just 31 when he died in 1828, but his genius was such that his output was prolific and his legacy lives on today. Schubert’s obsession with piano duets was unique; he composed almost as many pieces for duet as he did for solo piano, and to this day he’s the go-to guy for one piano/four hands compositions. From the beginning, his duets were tiny (or sprawling, intricate, complex) acts of love.

According to FranzPeterSchubert.com, the composer published his first duet in 1822, Variations on a French Song in D624, with the dedication "To Ludwig van Beehthoven, from his worshipper and admirer Franz Schubert."

Schubert’s most famous piano duet, the devastating and dizzying Fantasia in F minor, was dedicated to his pupil Karoline Esterhazy, whom he allegedly loved unrequitedly.

Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are something of a love letter to his homeland. Comprised of a series of 16 pieces originally written for piano four hands, it was published in two parts in 1878 and 1886. With a nod to Johannes Brahms's Hungarian Dances, the Slavonic Dances catapulted Dvořák into the spotlight as a composer of worth.

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel’s La valse, a tribute to the waltz, was originally intended as a tribute to Johann Strauss II. According to AllMusic.com, Ravel wrote it at the behest of Serge Diaghilev, who wanted La valse for the Ballets Russes. Ravel presented his finished piece in 1920 as a piano duet with Marcelle Meyer. Diaghilev called it a "masterpiece," but then delivered this crushing blow: "It is not a ballet, it is the portrait of a ballet."

Igor Stravinsky

Don't feel too badly for Diaghilev, though: he got a ballet seven years earlier from Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring, and the world received another great piano four hands piece. It practically bleeds chaos, a competitive fit of atonal exclamations and fingers stabbing at the keys in a thrilling, crashing nightmare. It’s perfect, given that Stravinsky himself described in his 1936 autobiography his inspiration for the piece as part of a "fleeting vision ... I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.”

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite is an early classic of the French composer’s, written just after finishing school, and is comprised of four movements. The first two offer up a nod to Debussy’s favourite poet, Paul Verlaine, and Verlaine's 1869 collection, Fêtes galantes. Spefically, the nod is to two of Verlaine's more subversive poems — one an "erotic" text and the other about a woman ignoring the unwelcome sexual advances of her pet monkey and her attendant — which indicates Debussy’s young mind was channeling his youthful fancies into his work.

Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser

Sure, for some people, this song is the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, but the 1938 Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser tune, "Heart and Soul,' is a 20th century classic around the world. After all, how else could a Frenchman and a Canadian meet randomly in America and make a beautiful memory out of beautiful music together?  

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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