Four-hand vs. Two-hand Pianos Compositions

Chamber Music LiteratureTerm Paper: Piano Ensembles Pianos are usually used as a solo instrument or accompanying other instruments. However, composers have written numerous compositions for two or more pianos in addition to four-hand piano compositions.

In addition, a few composers have written some substantial works about pianos collaborating with other instruments. Representative compositions include: Mozart’s two-piano and three-piano concertos, Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra and the sonata for two pianos and percussion. I would like to specifically focus on the differences between the four-hand piano and the two pianos compositions. When two pianists sit on a bench and share one keyboard, we call it piano-four-hand (piano duettists). When two pianists sit on different benches and perform on two different grand pianos, we call them “duo pianists”. When numerous pianos are used together to perform by different pianists, we call them “piano ensembles”. For example: the Ten-Piano Ensemble. I think that the compositions for the four hands have more limitations to develop both for the performers and composers. Because two pianists are sharing one keyboard, one is limited to play on either the high register or the low register of the piano. For the part written for the high register of the piano, we call it “Primo”. “Secondo” is the part written for the lower register of the piano. The pianist playing the primo part is usually in charge of the main melodies and the secondo part is usually in charge of the basic bass-line harmonies to give the listeners a clear sense of the harmonies.

Physically, it is more difficult to play four-hand than playing the two pianos in my opinion. First of all, two pianists need to sit closely although not necessarily on the same bench. Secondly, they need to share one keyboard which is usually designed for just one pianist. As a result, it is easy for their hands and bodies to be touched by the other pianist and it easily causes discomforts. Compositions for two pianos offer more opportunities for exploring the quality of the pianos and the two pianists share the responsibilities equally. Because the pianists do not share one keyboard, there is no register limitation for the composers for each pianist. It allows them to be able to write more virtuosic passages because of the register. Thus, the textures are more complex and the sounds are fuller and have much variety. The difficulties for the composers are how to write balanced parts for each pianist. Compared to four-hands, piano duos are also visually more effective. The pianists are facing one to each other and the pianos are placed across each other.

Performers can only see the other through their eyes. It will be more difficult to collaborate the other in this way. From the Baroque period, there have been many composers writing fantastic works for numerous pianos. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Poulenc, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, and Ravel all wrote duos or concertos for two (or more) keyboards and orchestra or composed duo piano arrangements of other works. In the twenty centuries, the representative composers are Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Milhaud.Playing four-hand or two pianos requires high level of collaboration and similarities in personalities and musical ideas; as a result, four-hand or two pianos are usually successfully performed by sisters, brothers, close friends and lovers. Below are a few famous Two-piano duos: Robert & Gaby Casadesus (husband, and wife); Argerich with friends: Stephen Kovacevich, and Nelson Freire; Sisters: the Pekinel sisters.The two main compositions I am going to focus on and make comparison are Mozart’s Variations in G major for four hand, k. 501 and Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, k. 448.

Mozart’s theme and variations in G major is a small-scale composition which contains only one theme, five variations and one fugue. This piece is said to originally written for two pianos. Generally speaking, the primo part takes charge throughout the whole composition. In the theme, First Variation, Second Variation, Third Variations, the primo part is in charge of the main melodies and the secondo part is basically accompanying the primo part. However, in the Fourth, Fifth Variation and the Fugue, the primo and secondo parts are playing more equal roles. The Fourth Variation and the fugue are the only parts in the composition that are in minor and they portrait a contrast mood than the rest. The Fifth variation is full of virtuosic passages and is humorous and witty. The musical ideas and structure of this composition expand gradually as the piece goes on. It reaches the highlight in the fugue .

Mozart’s D major sonata was written in 1781 for a performance by Mozart and J. v. Auernhammer. It is a predominantly antiphonal type of writing for two pianos. The atmosphere is full of energy and spirits. Compared to the theme and variations, k. 501, it has more substantial sonority. There are also more contrast thematic ideas in movements. Unlike the theme and variations which the primo part basically takes the charge, in this sonata, each piano plays more equal roles. Because there is no register limitation, more virtuosic passages are written in both pianos: for example: the scales and arpeggios are all over the place. For me, it sounds even like a Mozart piano concerto arranged for two pianos, except there is no cadenza in the first or third movement. The first movement is in a grand sonata form. The beginning of it is like an orchestra tutti. It is full of majesty and brilliance. The second piano starts the second theme which displays a different character-cute and humorous. The second movement, at first, the second piano is just playing the role of accompanying the first piano. Latter, the first and second pianos have sweet dialogues. The third movement is full of wit and humor. The first piano and second piano collaborate and alternate to sing out the main melodies.

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