Today, we take for granted our ability to hear any music at any time. We live in the golden age of the couch potato; we have merely to flick our fingers (or thumbs!) and almost anything is available to us, much of it for free.
Ah. But in 1840, there was only one way to hear on demand orchestral, operatic, and chamber works, and that was to either play them in four-handed arrangements or listen to someone else play them four hands.
It was thanks to transcriptions that four-handed piano music truly went viral. By the mid-nineteenth century, the demand for new four-handed piano music was, like my 10-year-old son Daniel’s lust Legos, insatiable. Even as pianos were mass-produced and mass-marketed to an ever-wider demographic base, so the business of making and marketing piano transcriptions took on industrial proportions. For example, between just 1852 and 1859, seven different and competing four-handed transcriptions of Mozart’s symphonies were published.
Things got to the point that the public demand for four-handed transcriptions came to be considered by some as unhealthy: as an obsession, as even an addiction!
The Erotic Message
For those disposed to see the popularity of four-handed playing in terms of obsession and addiction, that obsession/addiction was in no small part due to the physical proximity of the players and the unavoidable physical contact that goes on while playing. Wide though an 88-key piano keyboard may be, most of the action in any piece of music will take place towards the middle. This means that the pianists will touch and nudge and bump each other constantly, and I’m not just talking about the touching and melding of hands and arms, but of buttocks, thighs, calves
For us – here, today – this is no big deal. But for those generally sexually repressed pianists and audience members of the nineteenth century, whose Victorian code of conduct demanded that no untoward contact take place between people of different sexes outside of marriage – and certainly never in public – a piano duet between members of the opposite sex was a scandal waiting to happen, musical foreplay in public: a degree of implicit eroticism and physical contact that under other circumstances would have been deemed utterly unacceptable among “decent people.”
The eroticism implied by the medium has always been part of its interest, something that even concert promoters have recognized and used for years. The Russian pianist Rosina Lhevinne performed piano duets with her husband Josef Lhevinne for nearly 40 years. She tells us that concert producers often asked them to use different last names:
“They thought it would ‘stimulate’ interest if the public were to speculate who he is to her and who she is to him!”
The Death of a Social Phenomenon
The piano duet as a middle-class social phenomenon was knocked into oblivion by a three-punch technological combination: the player piano, the phonograph and finally, to deliver the coup de gras, AM radio.
The numbers tell it all. In 1880, 322 new works for piano duet were registered. In 1890, 287. In 1900, 163. In 1913, 134. In 1925, only 27.
And thus four-handed piano music left the parlor and entered the concert hall, becoming in the process a vehicle not for the amateur but for the professional. That’s because what new works were composed or arranged for piano four-hands tended to reflect the decidedly non-popular compositional languages and the expanded virtuosity of the music of the twentieth century.