The four-hand piano literature (i.e. music for four hands at one piano) is not to be confused with its cousin, music for two pianos, which is an entirely different genre with a distinct set of playing requirements. Piano four hands is, of course, more economical – it requires only one piano! It is both intimate and grand, and for seasoned pianists playing piano four hands for the first time, the genre can present technical challenges of a completely unique order than those found in the solo realm.
First, two people who are used to owning an entire piece of piano real estate are asked to share the 88 keys (and not only share them, but to get comfortable enough to work all the keys to the service of the composer!). The “secondo” pianist (the one playing on the bottom half of the keyboard) has his/her physical orientation turned completely upside down. Contrary to solo playing, the left hand of a “secondo” pianist is more important because it supplies the vital bass support for the other three voices (or hands) above it. The right hand, typically the diva in solo piano literature with all the melodies and pyrotechnics, is required to play the role of the subtle inner voice, where different colors, shades, and moods are created. (Robert Schumann said that real music lies in the inner voices of a composition!)
The “primo” pianist (the person playing the top half of the keyboard) has challenges of his/her own as well. Accustomed to playing a strong supporting role in solo piano, the left hand has to learn to function with the right hand of the “secondo” player in order to create magical colors. The right hand of the “primo” player carries the melody at the highest register of the piano; but instead of having one hand to support it, as in solo music, it has to contend with three. Creating the right balance so the melody can sing effortlessly above all the intricacies of the other three hands is the most exciting challenge of playing piano four hands.
In addition, there’s also the matter of the pedal – which of the four feet will work the pedals? What will it feel like to have someone else pedal for you? (Contrary to most anatomy reports, a pianist’s foot and fingers are indeed connected!) And remember, all of these new challenges are taking place while two pianists are sitting elbow-to-elbow with each other.
Music for piano four hands has been available and popular in Europe almost as long as music for solo piano. All the composers of the First Viennese School in late 18th century Vienna (like Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven) wrote music for this genre, both on a teaching level and for the concert platform. Schubert was known to have written many little pieces for his students, many of whom were daughters of royalty. He would play the “primo” right hand and arranged for his left hand to play the “secondo” bass part!
While music for two pianos has made its way to the concert stage more frequently here in America, the four hand piano has not. This absence might be due to the technical challenges required to do the composer justice on the concert platform, which necessitates a long association with one’s partner, much like a well-seasoned string quartet and the intuitive rapport between each of the four players. Or perhaps the piano four hand might seem too intimate a genre for our very large concert halls?
Also, I speculate the genre itself may have been overshadowed by the phenomenon of arrangements, which was introduced to American households in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period when the piano was as common as the kitchen sink in a home and when music was made daily by a family. Music publishers scurried to get symphonies, operas, and string quartets arranged for piano in a duet form so people could bring home and recreate the Mozart opera or Beethoven string quartet they had just heard in the concert halls. This was always in a duet arrangement form – which required considerable skill on the part of amateur pianists – and was as popular in its day as the iPod and iTunes are today.
Whatever the reason, works for piano four hands by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Dvořák, Hindemith, Debussy, Ravel, and others are masterpieces in their own right. During my coaching on Schubert’s four hand literature with Alfred Brendel years ago, he told me he considered the “Grand Duo” in C major for piano four hands to be Schubert’s best piano sonata! There is much great four hand literature to discover and experience, and I will make a list of some of my favorites to perform and listen to on our website. For those of you hearing it for the first time today, I’d be interested in your reactions. You may find that the piano sounds larger than it does when played by a solo pianist. If you do, you are correct, since more of the piano is utilized than when played by simply two hands and two feet!