The Piano Was the Key

October 20, 2016

You’ve been there – as a participant or observer. It was an indoor gathering of sorts at someone’s home. An otherwise abandoned piano suddenly attracted the attention of children, who slowly crowded around the keyboard and began to make sounds.  It seemed to delight them to no end.

Energetic index fingers became fascinated with a single key while whole hands, even fists, defied all the rules of harmony. Indeed each player derived a little excitement not only from individual discoveries, but also from being in the company of others engaged in uninhibited, spontaneous music-making.

That should have told them something. I wonder if any of those young people were aware back then or years later that there was a great deal of music written for more than one player at a time and that they could have fun playing that music or simply listening to it.

Those thoughts came to me recently when I was invited back for another appearance on the NPR program Here and Now. For the “DJ Session” segment of the program, one of the producers asked me to introduce something of interest to those who are not necessarily classical music listeners. You don’t have to be a classical music listener to have had an initial experience of sharing space with others at a keyboard. And I was sure that many people would be surprised to hear that for centuries music has been written or arranged for multiple players!           

I’m guessing that many pianists have fantasized about saying to a composer: “Hey, I only have two hands!“  Well, music written for 2 players at a single keyboard - or piano 4-hands, as it’s known -  doesn’t exactly provide a single player with 2 extra hands to perform the same pieces of music. And although young people may have discovered the joys of playing the same notes octaves apart at the keyboard, compositions or arrangements for two players at a single keyboard consist of 2 separate parts. That ends up making greater use of a single keyboard, yet both players may still complain to composers that individually, they only have 2 hands!

Think of it as chamber music for 2 players, though at one keyboard. Maybe it’s easier to imagine that with 2 players and two keyboards, which is the other type of music for piano duet or 2 players.

At one point in history, the piano was the radio, the record player, the CD player and the iPod before all of those music sources existed. Indeed there were piano arrangements or “reductions,” as they’re sometimes called, of entire symphonies so that people could play and enjoy them when they couldn’t get to a concert hall. There were versions of those works for 2 players as well.  Call those the audiophile versions of their time, since an arranger could bring out more of the symphonic work with 2 pianists having separate parts.

Brahms and Dvorak wrote their Hungarian and Slavonic Dances for piano 4-hands. It was indeed a fashionable form of music-making – a social medium of an earlier time. Stories are told of the attractiveness of players being forced by the arrangements to sometimes cross into the space of the other player. At the other extreme, I once saw the Paratore brothers, Anthony and Joseph, performing an encore at one keyboard, which required them to nearly leap over each other. Whether the interaction is subtle or bordering on slapstick, it can be lots of fun, not to mention musically exciting.

I wanted to at least make listeners aware of the multi-player genre of piano music. You can hear the discussion I had with Jeremy Hobson on the program Here and Now if you click here.

It made me hope that someone might listen more closely to music for 2 or more pianists. Even more exciting was the thought that it rekindled a fond and nearly forgotten memory of standing at a keyboard with other children while making music amid innocent laughter.  And I even wondered whether some of those children did go on to become performers because of such experiences in which the piano was the key.


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