Interesting History of Four-Hand Piano Playing

03/16/2015 10:42 am

In 19th-century Europe – long before LPs, CDs or the internet – when you were learning to play the piano, there were just two ways to listen to, say, the latest Chopin Concerto: you were either lucky enough to hear it performed at the local concert hall, or you played it at home yourself.

Not with a full orchestra, of course, but in a piano transcription, an arrangement that arranged violins, cellos and winds into a single keyboard score. And, to try and really capture the range of a whole orchestra, amateurs played “four-handed,” with two pianists sitting side-by-side.

piano four hands
These close-contact duets took off among the nascent middle class. Historian Edward Cone dubbed the players “four-handed monsters,” both for the style’s raging popularity and for its scandalous stigma.

“Piano four hands represented a safe space in which touching and nearness were permitted or even desired – something that was unusual at the time,” said Adrian Daub, associate professor of German studies at Stanford.

Daub takes Cone’s descriptor as the title of his new book exploring this largely forgotten phenomenon, Four-Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and Nineteenth-Century Culture.

Four-hand playing “bridged the divide between serious musicians and total amateurs,” Daub said.

“This was a welcome vehicle for the greatest composers of the 19th century and at the same time it was the much-maligned party game – the equivalent of Twister – for the ‘philistine’ bourgeois.”

Drawing from novels, memoirs and letters, Daub’s survey reveals, for instance, how 19th-century anxieties surrounding creativity, industrialization, sex, virtue and politics were exercised through the act of four-hand piano playing.

Daub’s previous research projects, one on Richard Wagner and sexuality, and another on the metaphysics of marriage in the 19th century, put him in a unique position to examine the phenomenon of four-hand playing and how “the dangers and the utopian promises it seemed to make … tell us much about the 19th century.”

As Daub put it, “it’s almost incredible how much people were able to read into what to modern eyes seems a pretty harmless pursuit.” Whether this was a fear of moral dissoluteness or a “promise of a better way of engaging with the other sex or other people more generally,” four-hand playing “was asked to do a lot, far more than comparable modes of performance.”

Pieces for Four-Hand Piano

There are many great four-hand piano pieces that you can learn. Some may be harder than others but there are plenty of easier pieces to get you started. Notable works for piano four hands include 16 Waltzes, Op 39 by Brahms and the Dolly Suite by Fauré. Schubert was also a prolific composer of works for piano four hands, one of the greatest being the Fantasia in F Minor.

The main thing is to get started and have fun. Find a piano partner and pic a part and take a trip to what true entertainment feels like.

Here is a great link to a list of famous four-hand piano pieces.

Romantic Undertones

As pianos became increasingly affordable over the course of the century, more and more middle-class families made the instrument a centerpiece of domestic life. While solo piano playing never went out of style, the increased musical range and social interaction offered by four-hand playing caught on.

“Four-hand arrangements became the standard vehicle for the private, or semi-private, consumption of music of all kinds,” said Daub. “Symphonies, operas, chamber music, dance music and so on, from trivial waltzes to apocalyptic Mahler symphonies.”

“The collaboration of four hands across the whole range of the modern piano allowed two players to reproduce virtually any repertoire within the privacy of the home,” said Stanford music Professor Thomas Grey.

Well-versed in both music and literature, Daub amassed a staggering number of allusions to four-hand playing from 19th-century sources. He also collected references from four-hand practitioners and mined digital databases.

From William Thackeray to Charles Dickens to Thomas Mann, four-hand playing makes appearances in famous novels of the period.

Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote on – and composed – four-hand pieces, saying that they “may be taken as a divining rod for a good marriage.”

Cumulatively, Daub said, these “short, often banal episodes are transformed into fleeting glimpses of a larger phenomenon, which in itself was too quotidian and ubiquitous to merit discussion in its own day.”

4-hand-piano

In large part, Daub said, the popularity of the activity was driven by the romantic undertones of four-hand playing.

Daub quotes the composer Robert Schumann, for instance, who reported, “a four-hand piece allows us reveries together with our beloved, provided she plays the piano.”

“Togetherness on the keyboard was to become a symbol for togetherness in marriage,” Daub said.