Can we just talk about how neat duets are for a minute?
Whether it’s a teacher/student duet for educational purposes, an arrangement of a Disney song, or a straight-up classical piece written specifically for one piano, four hands, playing duets is almost always fun and satisfying. There are so many fresh elements that you never experience in solo piano playing. I’ll break it down in bullet points:
- The awkwardness of sharing a bench with another person (unless you’re fancy and have two)
- The negotiation of who will play Primo or Secondo
- The negotiation of who will be in charge of the pedal
- The moments when you realize your hands are getting in each other’s way
- Having to actually listen to your duet partner and count and keep time
- Hearing thicker textures on a single piano
For a pianist, it’s the closest you can get to the interpersonal dynamics of chamber music without another instrument. Well, you could play two-piano repertoire. But duets are way more intimate. With the right pianist by your side, a duet sight-reading session can be exciting, surprising, and even romantic.
Another aspect I’ve always enjoyed is that duets tend to flatter the rich tenor range of the piano, in the octave from C3 to middle C. Schubert especially had a knack for setting beautiful melodies and little harmonic turns in this range, and it truly sounds different than a standard piano solo.
A few reflections on past duet experiences:
In college, a friend and I played the Schubert March in G minor, D. 819, No. 2. A fine piece with a really nice melody in the Trio. We also played a forgettable but fun Clementi piece (it might have been this one). We played the two-piano version of the coy, classy Waltz from Barber’s Souvenirs, but I wished we had tried the duet version for extra hijinks. Watch how Barber has the pianists “correct” each other’s chords at certain points. It’s great!
During a long-distance relationship with another pianist, I had the brilliant idea for us to learn the first two movements of Schubert’s masterful Grand Duo in C Major, D. 812 (my girlfriend was a better pianist so I let her take the Primo). The next time she came to visit, we played through the Schubert, putting the music together like halves of a locket. It was cute.
During the last couple years at the MTNA conference, there have been periods of decreased traffic on the exhibit floor during which my colleagues and I have sight-read through some duet arrangements on a piano in our booth. I remember looking through Disney Piano Duets and possibly Philip Keveren’s Star Wars Duets. What I can’t remember is if our earnest efforts led to more customer interest in the duet books.
My colleague from Willis Publications enlisted my help to play some intermediate-level duets to promote some new books. One of the pieces was called Cool Chartreuse.
At a party with musicians in the last year or so, I finally got an opportunity to try the duet version of that Waltz from Souvenirs. Unfortunately, beer took the edge off my playing. I’ll have to give it another go.
On New Year’s Day 2019, a family friend invited me over to play some duets. Obviously I accepted, and we played…more Schubert! It was a variation set I hadn’t heard before (Variations on a French Song, D. 624). I came away thinking that classical variations are an ideal genre for piano duets. There’s an element of familiarity in each section, and the repeats give you a second try on each one!
So that’s all I’ve got today. No in-depth exploration of repertoire. Just a little survey of one pianist’s life in duets. I would highly recommend trying out any of the pieces I mentioned. Life is short. Find a friend and play some duets.
P.S. Since I’ve mentioned a lot of Schubert, I’ll emphasize again that Schubert’s 4-hand piano music is some of the most substantial and rewarding to play in the whole repertoire. Both the aforementioned Grand Duo and the Fantasy in F minor, D. 940 are phenomenal.