The More the Merrier

Playing the piano is usually a pretty solitary pursuit. But there’s a large body of literature for piano four hands.

In the 1700’s and 1800’s, this literature was for two people playing one instrument. It was perfect for men and women courting each other in “polite” society. They could sit close together, and often, their hands would touch.

Playing two at one piano involves figuring out how to share space. The person playing the lower half of the keyboard gets to control the pedals by default (kind of like the person playing chess with the white pieces always gets the first move). Assuming you and your partner listen to each other and agree on how a piece is to be conceived, some very beautiful music can result.

Later in musical history, works began appearing for two pianos played together. This lent itself well to orchestral works, concertos, and other large-scale pieces that needed more range than two at one piano could provide.

In this configuration, each player has the run of their own instrument. But with both players having use of pedals, if you’re not careful, you can easily end up with muddy, blurry mush because both people are using too much damper and their instruments are ringing in sympathy with the notes being played by their partner.

Also, because you’re not so close together, staying in a tight ensemble can be a challenge. Lots of practice time goes into figuring out how to signal to one another when you want to slow down, speed up, pause for a breath.

You also have to match tone and dynamics more carefully. And, if the two instruments involved are out of tune with each other or have vastly different timbres, it can make for interesting results. And that’s assuming you can find a place that has two pianos!

Well, I’m currently working on the two-piano version of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”, in particular “Jupiter”. It’s a hair-raising piece: it starts out with layers of fast notes repeated in patterns, with each pianist adding a hand to the mix after a second or two. The effect is the sensation of spinning around at warp speed and getting dizzy (as a listener). As the player of the Piano 1 part, which has more of this spinning stuff than Piano 2, I spend the first minute or so of the piece counting franticly and trying not to screw up, because if I do, the whole thing falls apart!

Then, dropped in the middle of this swirling mass seemingly out of nowhere, is a majestic, lyrical section that only an English composer of a certain era could craft. I recently learned that the main theme of this section happens to be the national anthem of Jamaica! I just thought it was a cool-sounding Anglican hymn.

Anyway, I’m scheduled to play “Jupiter” with a partner for a noontime concert in someone’s home in April. We will begin rehearsing together later this month.

Holst explores seven planets in this cycle: Mars (bringer of war); Venus; Jupiter (bringer of jollity(; Mercury: Neptune: Uranus (the magician); and Saturn (bringer of old age). He wrote the two-piano score before doing the more-famous orchestral version, and I’ve wanted to play it for years. I’ve done parts of many of these pieces with students, but never one in its entirety with a colleague who plays at my level. So this is going to be fun.

I’m fortunate to have two pianos in my studio: a 1904 Chickering and a 2004 Kawai. They sound pretty good together, too, although the Kawai is a much fuller, stronger instrument.

I have no idea what the pianos will be like for our performance in April, and I’ve only heard my partner in solo work or accompanying other people on other instruments. But I like how she plays, and she works hard in preparing music for performances, so I think this will be a good match. It’s not like ice skating, where you have to be able to trust your partner to catch you after a throw. But it helps if you get along with and respect your partner.

I’m about a quarter of the way through memorizing “Jupiter”. Since I use Braille music, I can’t read and play at the same time, unless the piece is for only one hand, and even then, I’d rather memorize anyway since it leaves me free to concentrate fully on being expressive.

After a few days of playing alone, I put in the CD I have of this work with two players and play with the disc. If I can keep up with the disc and still be musical, then I know I’m prepared for rehearsals.

So I’m off to the piano now to practice making myself dizzy with notes and not losing count of how many times I have to do it before going on to Jamaica!

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2 Comments on “The More the Merrier”

  1. songdeva Says:

    I’m excited about this for you. I would love to hear it. Regardless, I hope you’ll keep us posted on progress. Esp. when you add your partner!

  2. halfnotes Says:

    Songdeva,

    Today, I played a Schubert sonata for a local music club meeting, and my partner played the first movement of a Haydn sonata. I remembered while listening to her why I had chosen her to play with me. She has rock-solid rhythm and obviously takes her playing seriously. She even memorized her music, not common in this music club. She told me that, if I played everything from memory at meetings, she thought other people should, too, and so, she memorized. My feeling is, even if I could read print music, I’d rather have music for public performance memorized so I could concentrate on music-making instead of note-reading.

    I’ll let you know how things go for us with the Holst. We’ll be getting together to rehearse for the first time later this month. I’m really looking forward to it!


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