Shai Wosner and Orion Weiss Program Notes
For many of us today, the sight of two pianists-not to mention two pianos-on one stage is an unfamiliar one. Our usual image of “piano chamber music” necessitates the presence of other instruments: a solo voice, a string quartet, a wind ensemble. But tonight’s program showcases a genre of chamber music that was once equally as popular as those more familiar ensembles, but has since fallen out of favor: music for piano four hands, and its more magnificent cousin, music for two pianos.
Music for keyboard four hands first became common in the eighteenth century, when it was primarily used in pedagogical contexts. But it was in the nineteenth century that this genre reached its pinnacle through its association with salon culture. In the first half of the 1800s, many chamber genres-such as string quartets, art song, and small wind ensembles-gained popularity through domestic performances. These exclusive gatherings in bourgeois living rooms would showcase amateur and professional musicians alike for the enjoyment of influential society members in an intimate space.
Piano duets were performed often in such spaces-in fact, it may surprise many of today’s audiences to know that piano duets were as popular as art song during this period, if not more so. Performing these pieces presents unique challenges, quite unlike other chamber ensemble playing. Each player loses a measure of control, because they are dependent on another player’s use of the instrument. The difficulty arises, then, in making the result sound like one unified instrument, rather than two agents.
For Franz Schubert, a leading composer of art song and other salon genres in the 1810s and 20s, the piano duo therefore offered a versatile palette for his compositional artistry. Schubert’s chamber works range in difficulty from the deceptively simple to the virtuosically complex, due in large part to his extensive knowledge of salon performers and their variable abilities. His Piano Sonata in C Major for Four Hands, D. 812-the nickname “The Grand Duo” was added by Schubert’s publisher after his death-is an example of the latter, written for two of his piano students. However, its symphonic style, expansive structure, and incredible difficulty caused critics of the day to doubt its origins as a piano duo. Both Robert Schumann and Donald Francis Tovey insisted that Schubert must have had an orchestra in mind; Tovey went as far as to speculate that this piece was a lost Schubert symphony.
While there is little evidence to substantiate Schumann and Tovey’s claims, the “Grand Duo” is majestic in scope and intricate in detail. The first movement opens with a quiet melody in octaves, but quickly shifts in intensity, characteristic of Schubert’s emotional complexity. A brief development section is followed by a resounding climax, with a coda that almost convulses between agitated anxiety and dreamy remembrance.
The second movement is perhaps the best known of the four, as its repeated opening figure pays homage to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. The three main sections of the movement are characterized by notably distinct motives, such as the springy staccato theme that begins the second section. After a reprise of material, the music from the first section takes an ominous turn, morphing into a coda made violent by its chromaticism and a sense of disruption.
The final two movements continue to be an exercise in contrasts. The third movement, the Scherzo, has a typically bouncy character, with an almost creepy middle trio section. By contrast, the final movement is inspired by a Hungarian dance, with moments of humor and charisma intertwined with fiercely passionate passages.
Schubert’s work represents one part of the piano duo genre: four-hand piano works for a single instrument. Johannes Brahms’ Sonata in F Minor for Two Pianos confronts the somewhat more glorious side of the piano duo genre, with each performer playing on their own instrument. However, this work did not start its life in this form, as the first version of the work was written for string quintet (two violins, viola, and two cellos). After feedback from fellow composers that the instrumentation was a poor fit for the music, Brahms re-wrote the piece not once, but twice: one version became the two-piano sonata performed this evening, while the second became his celebrated (and much better known) Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34.
Brahms’ sonata follows an almost identical structure to Schubert’s Grand Duo, no doubt due to the direct influence that Schubert had on Brahms as a composer. And, like Schubert’s piece, Brahms’ work is characterized by intense fluctuations in mood and style, with intricate and forceful figurations alternating with lyrical melodies. The first movement opens with a unison main idea in octaves, followed by a series of rapid sixteenth-note patterns in one piano and resolute chords in the second piano. Brahms uses the two pianos in this way throughout the Sonata, allowing melodies, rhythmic figurations and complex technical passages to weave between the players. After the first section, a second, more lyrical theme appears, undergirded by a steady stream of triplets. As the movement develops through distinct emotional states and passes through daringly contrasting keys, these triplets return in many guises: sometimes in the bass, sometimes in repeated pitches in the accompaniment, sometimes in the melody line. Near the end of the movement, the bass triplets seep into an otherwise placid melodic duet, leading to a rousing variation of the opening material.
Unlike the pianistic flourishes of the first movement, the second movement betrays the piece’s original identity as a string piece. The slow and syncopated rhythms of the opening accompanimental pattern above the melody, in particular, are characteristic of Brahms’ string writing. The third movement, a Scherzo, takes these syncopations as its main rhythmic material, especially in the first section. The trio section offers a brief respite from this frenzy through a series of longing melodies. But, the return of the Scherzo material keeps listeners on their toes as it flows directly into the Finale, which opens with a suspended chromatic introduction. The Finale’s main theme is dancelike and agile, with returns of the quick triplet figurations from the opening movement. The movement reaches its climax through a presto coda, gathering intensity through its final dramatic chords.
Both Schubert and Brahms’ works are preceded by brief, ethereal works by American composer and Pulitzer Prize winner, David Lang. Like Schubert, Lang writes music of deceptively simple means, his works aiming to approach “the truth” through textures that are sparse, and yet full of meaning. “Gravity,” played before the Schubert, begins with a falling gesture that echoes the opening of the Grand Duo. The piece illustrates the eternal and inescapable pull of gravity through these falling gestures, repeated in an almost minimalist style. “After Gravity,” which precedes the Brahms, takes the opposite approach to this force of nature. In Lang’s words, “I wanted to make something floating, something weightless. I worked hard to build a kind of structure that would keep the music from landing anywhere, or at least put the landing off as long as I could.”
So why has this engaging and complex repertoire of piano duo music lost its popularity? Some scholars suggest it might be the intimacy of the players required, which made Victorian-era musicians squirm at the thought of touching another player’s hands. Others suggest that the ensemble suffered from a case of repertorial inauthenticity: piano duos were often used to play transcriptions of orchestral works, meaning that the repertoire written for the ensemble was overshadowed by copies of “greater” works. Whatever the reason, it is our treat to be able to hear the vibrancy and grandeur of this repertoire today.
-Marissa Glynias Moore, Ph.D.