Four hand piano: how the fashion for piano four hands started and why it was popular for its romantic possibilities

Julian Haylock explores the harmonious history of piano four hands, in which two players share up-close-and-personal moments on one keyboard

Four hand piano: When did the fashion for piano four hands start?

Long before the 18th century, when composers first began writing music for two players sat at the same piano, fellow students and amateur keyboardists had been helping each other out, filling in challenging passages where two hands were stretched to their physical limits.

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One might, therefore, have expected early attempts at piano duet composition to have revelled in the enhanced virtuoso opportunities available to four hands working simultaneously at one instrument, or harness the potential for richer sonorities and textures.

Yet the initial impulse to compose for piano four hands was not so much the medium’s creative potential, but rather the wonderful opportunity it presented for enjoying a proximity with one’s playing partner at a time when such things were otherwise frowned upon.   

Who were the first to start playing piano four hands?

Who were the first to start playing piano four hands?

The first major composer to show a special interest in the medium was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His inspiration came from playing duets with his sister Nannerl while on tour, and in London with Johann Christian Bach, with whom at the age of eight he studied for several months in 1764. Dating from around this time is the possibly spurious duet Sonata in C K19d, featuring an exuberant rondo finale in which the secondo player (situated on the left and traditionally male) plays one episode with their right hand over the left of the primo (female) player. Assuming it was his work, Mozart’s childhood imagination clearly knew no bounds.

In 1777, Charles Burney (better known as a music historian) composed a set of four duet sonatas, which are generally considered the first to appear in print. Also around this time, JC Bach composed three enchanting duet sonatas and Muzio Clementi produced two sets of three (from Op. 3 and Op. 14). Yet it was Mozart’s later music for piano duet that put the fledgeling genre on the musical map, including two teenage sonatas Kk358 and 381 – full of Italianate sunshine brilliance – but most notably the sonatas Kk497 and 521, the latter of which was dedicated to two gifted young sisters, Babette and Nanette Natorp, for whom Mozart specifically tailored this exquisite gem.

Neither Haydn nor Beethoven composed anything of significance for this most convivial of genres – the former due possibly to his social isolation based at the Esterházy Palace in Hungary, the latter perhaps because of his personal sense of isolation due to the cruel onslaught of deafness. Yet in Schubert, original music for four hands found its greatest champion – indeed the very first work listed in Otto Erich Deutsch’s groundbreaking catalogue of the Austrian composer’s music is a Fantasy in G for piano duet, composed in 1810, when Schubert was still in his early teens.

Schubert produced over 30 opuses for piano duet, spanning his entire (if short) creative life. These range from collections of dances, marches and ländler, to overtures, rondos and sets of variations. Yet for sheer scale of vision, two works stand out: the Divertissement à la hongroise D818, inspired by his pupil, 18-year-old Countess Caroline Esterházy, but dedicated (perhaps to prevent gossip) to the married singer Katharina von Lászny; and most especially the later Fantasy in F minor D940, dedicated to Countess Caroline, who was by now a more acceptable 22 years of age. The Fantasy, one of Schubert’s most searingly intense creations, is the first bona fide masterpiece for piano duet, and remains an unequalled summit of the genre.

As Romantic music gathered steam – expressively, temporally, harmonically and sonically – the relative intimacy of the piano duet struggled to find a natural voice. Neither Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin nor Liszt produced anything of great consequence for four hands, and while Nationalism inspired occasional sets of dances and character pieces in Russia, central and Slavic Europe and the Nordic countries (most notably Grieg), only two works really achieved truly classic status: Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances… and even these achieved musical immortality in their orchestral guises. 

When did four hand piano become popular with the public?

The flip side to the relative dearth of original music for piano four hands during the mid-19th century was the increasing demand for arrangements of orchestral scores. This was the golden era of educated families embracing the piano as the ideal salon instrument, and it was through the piano that many people got to know the orchestral and chamber repertoires. This is where four hands really came into their own, unravelling the contrapuntal, harmonic and textural complexities of multi-instrumental music with a clarity and precision that often surpassed the originals.

By the end of the 19th century, solo piano and duet versions of the latest symphonic masterpieces consistently outsold the original scores. Many composers, most notably Brahms, made their own arrangements, while others relied on expert transcribers or pupils. Some arrangements were doggedly literal, others were more impressionistic, employing specifically pianistic devices and rhetoric to help convey the expressive flavour of the originals.

How French composers embraced four hand piano

Yet there was one country whose natural tendency towards the piquant, the subtly alluring and charmingly understated, combined with a sparkling finesse, made it the natural home for the piano duet: France. It was Georges Bizet who led the way in 1871 with his 12-movement Jeux d’enfants (‘Children’s Games’ – he selected five highlights for the popular orchestral suite). As one unforgettable miniature follows another, one can only marvel at the fertility of Bizet’s invention, from the fizzing perpetuum mobile ofLa toupie’ (The Spinning Top) and light-as-air insouciance ofLes bulles de savon’ (Soap Bubbles) to the Schumannesque, fireside warmth of ‘Petit mari, petite femme’ (Little Husband, Little Wife).

Chabrier’s Souvenirs de Munich (an 1887 quadrille on favourite themes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde!) and Satie’s Trois morceaux en forme de poire (‘Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear’, 1903), Aperçus désagréables (‘Unpleasant Glimpses’, 1908-12) and En habit de cheval (‘In Riding Gear’, 1911) are all notable for their Gallic wit (at least in the titles), but it was Debussy who scored the next four-hand bullseye with his four-movement Petite Suite (1886-9). Although hardly groundbreaking in the manner of, say, En blanc et noir (1915) for two pianos, the Petite Suite possesses a melodic charm and harmonic opulence à la Massenet that are disarmingly captivating.

Another classic of the French piano duet repertoire is Fauré’s Dolly, a six-movement suite compiled between 1893 and 1896. Unusually for this most elegant and refined of French composers, Fauré gave each movement a generic or evocative title, opening with the most beguiling of all berceuses and concluding with the Chabrier-esqueLe pas espagnol’. Enchantment beams from every page and the reason is not hard to fathom – it was written for Régina-Hélène Bardac, the petite daughter of Fauré’s long-term mistress Emma Bardac (who would go on to marry Debussy in 1908).

It was Fauré’s most distinguished pupil, Maurice Ravel, who produced the last popular classic of the piano duet genre: Ma mère l’oye (‘Mother Goose’, 1908-10), a suite of five pieces orchestrated and expanded in 1911 to create a half-hour ballet score. As with Debussy’s Petite Suite and Fauré’s Dolly, Ravel distils his creative essence into a sequence of enchanting miniatures that brim with charm and affection.

Although several French composers of note (including Françaix and Milhaud) subsequently turned their hand to writing pieces for four hands, only Poulenc’s Sonata of 1918 – a quite different kind of ‘adult’ work, that yet possesses a unique charm all its own – can boast a regular place in the performing repertoire.

What about Russia?

Of all the countries one might have expected to produce a substantial quantity of high-quality original piano duet music during the Romantic era, perhaps Russia is the most notable omission. Apart from an atypical early Sonata in C by Musorgsky, the Kuchka (‘The Five’) nationalists showed no interest in the genre (not even the multi-generic Glazunov), nor Scriabin, Tchaikovsky and the Muscovite school, nor the three great pinnacles of the post-Romantic generation: Stravinsky (save for two small sets of Pièces faciles), Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Occasionally, a set of salonesque miniatures might emerge, such as Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux, Op. 11 (1894) and Arensky’s 12 Pieces, Op. 66 (1908), but these were very much exceptions to the general rule. It would seem that Russians were temperamentally so instinctively drawn to the all-encompassing heroics of solo virtuosity that sharing the musical spoils felt like pyrotechnical dilution.   

Why has four hand piano declined in popularity? 

Unsurprisingly, the magical essence, warm conviviality and childhood innocence that had become such an integral part of the piano duet repertoire proved virtually impossible to replicate following the horrors of the First World War. As a result, the last hundred years can be best characterised as a series of musical flashpoints for four-hand music, often from unexpected sources. For example, the original version of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite (1926) was for piano duet rather the version for string orchestra we invariably hear today. Yet perhaps the greatest surprise is that the humble piano duet has attracted the attention of several cutting-edge composers, including Berio (Touch and Canzonetta, both 1991) , Kurtág (Játékok [‘Games’], Books IV and VIII, 1979/2010) and Schnittke (Sonatina, 1995).

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And bringing us bang up to date is the prolific Argentinean composer-pianist Juan María Solare (born 1966), whose latest in an outstanding series of works for piano four hands is the invigorating ‘furious tango’ Derrapando (2020). That the entwined legs associated with this most sensuous of dance forms should somehow be represented by two pairs of hands criss-crossing on a single keyboard seems somehow appropriate – and entirely in keeping with the very genesis of piano four hands itself, one might say.