Piano Duo as a Reflection of the General Music Evolution

Author Snežana Nikolajević

In spite of its long history, piano duo has become an important aspect of music creation only in the 20th century. A whole group of well known composers – to mention only Bartok, Britten, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Poulenc - cherished this genre earnestly and with great success, so that an increasing number of pianists have decided to devote themselves exclusively to this particular interpretation.

But, the fact is, that in the past, there was no significant composer’s opus which had works for the piano duo  in the focus. However, many composers have written pieces for this ensemble, but always in passing and occasionally, so that these works remained on the margins of their creations. In order to reveal some general routes in the development of the piano duo, it was necessary to arrange chronologically the works of lasting value and so to identify the similarities and differences among them, but, at the same time, to observe them in the context of the entire music evolution.. Only then, it is possible to discover that a piano duo in both of its variations -   one piano four hands and two pianos - was the field (domain) of interesting interweavings of diverse elements suffering various influences and changing its character through epochs.

When the works which had undergone a long - shall we say centuries filtering - are being carefully analyzed, we could note (see) that in compositions for piano duo some skillful  moments  outweigh the creative elements. Therefore, it is not surprising that a lot of work for the piano duo resulting (standing up) from the authors adaptation of their compositions which were written primarily for other ensembles, as well as that the original versions for piano duo, became their final forms in another shape.

The tendency of the piano duo to take over the characteristic elements of the most popular genres in the particular epochs brought   to the changes of features of piano duo music, so that it shows, in the various periods, the predominance of concerted, or chamber or solo elements.


A distinct and a conscious tendency to structuring is one of the essential characteristic of art music. In certain musical forms, from some periods of time and by some authors, this tendency becomes meaningful of mathematical rigour, even of mathematical games. Pythagorean idea of a deep, substantial connection between a  tone and a number, and, in such manner, between music and mathematics, received in the whole development of European artistic music its most strong confirmation and illustration - from coral to dodecaphonic, serial  and electronic music

With that immanent tendency to structuring and to emphasizing constructive  principles  can be substantially illuminate and comprehend  many forms of musical creation from the baroque and classical period (canon, fugue, sonata, variations) as well as many aspects of the composing process - repetition, transposition variation, imitation, thematic work, counterpoint and harmony structure. During the time  of two centuries, from the late 16th to the early 19th - these forms and features have not only reached its peak of perfection, but also the most compulsory measure (limitation) for music authors. Later, with the beginning of romanticism, some new ideas and ideals appeared – but always retaining a certain relationship to the structure. Therefore, it is appropriate to follow and describe the development of the piano duo linked with a more detailed examination of its essential characteristics - the tendency to structuring a sound material- and thus to come to wider musicological conclusions and  knowledge.


The first compositions for two pianos appeared in the Renaissance period - English composer Giles Farnaby composed the work For two virginals - and after that François Couperin composed several pieces for harpsichord   which were written in the three line systems, where the bass line is the same for both players. Only one piece by Couperin,  Allemande from the XIV Ordre, was written in four line systems.

From the Baroque period there were also sonatas by Italian composer Bernardo Pasquini, originally written only in two figured bass as basso continuo. Different  composers prepared these ten sonatas for contemporary performing. Johann Sebastian Bach prepared one Fugue from Die Kunst der Fuge for two pianos. Bach’s  sons Wilchelm Friedemann and Johann Christian composed two sonatas for two pianos – first completely in baroque style and second completely in early classical style. So, there were not a lot of compositions until the 18th century, but they expressed the general characteristics of the structure of the composition for two pianos. These specific characteristics could be noticed by applying a theory of phenomenological transposition, which was created by our famous mathematician Mihailo Petrović-Alas in the early twentieth century.

The similarity between the piano parts ensues from the structural transformation: the second part, in fact, has not been formed independently from the first part with some new material, but having been built from the material of the first piano part, had formed with it a new, complex structure. The homologue elements of the transposition are very different. The nucleus of the similarities could be only one single motive, a large section of the parts or even a whole part. The material from the nucleus of similarities can be transformed through simultaneous, successive or alternating transposition.

Mozart’s opus makes a significant turning point of the literature for the piano duo -  with several sonatas for piano four hands and one extraordinary very successful Sonata for two pianos. In Haydn's opus we can find no work for this ensemble, but in Beethoven’s opus, on the margin, there are two early pieces - Sonata and  Variations.


In romanticism, when the piano, as an instrument, experiences its blooming; piano compositions reveal all the new and unimaginable possibilities of this instrument, are completely defining both types of music for piano duo in its mutual polarization and diversity. Hausmusik becomes the sign of a good education, and the four hands playing on the piano -  its favorite form. A lot of pieces were composed to be used for these opportunies, but only a few number of these works have exceeded the moment and have settled their good position in the history of music – after all, the pieces by Franc Schubert : his Fantasy in f minor and the Sonate in B flat major are the compositions of great value.

Works for two pianos, however, reveal themselves as a field in which the most famous pianists of that time will be coming together, putting in the first place the virtuosity as one of the most important aspects of the music in romanticism.

The development of  the music for two pianos -  which was in the 19th century mostly composed by authors who have  remained significant in the history of music, primarily as pianists and piano teachers – were being focused in that direction. Mostly, they  themselves  were also  the performers of their work, so they created the first playing teams - among teachers and students (Clementi and Field, Chopin and Karl Mikuli), or between colleagues themselves (Cramer, Czerny, Kalkbrenner, Pixis, Thalberg). The most brilliant  representatives of pianistic virtuosity in the 19th century, have not only been often composing for two pianos, but also collaborating in their performing – emphasizing, in this way, the outward effects over the inner substance.

In his extensive monography about piano duo American musicologist Hans Moldenhauer among a very few romantic works for two pianos, which survived, in his opinion, a strong sharp selection of time, puting in the first place Chopin's Rondo op.73; for the German musicologist Adolf Ruthart that is Andante with variations Op.46 by Schumann, which is, as he says  "an extremely fine work with a lot of tune." It is interesting that both, Chopin and Schumann, each composed only one work for two pianos and that these works carry, at the same time,  the features of their poetics and general characteristics of compositions for two pianos that are primarily characteristic of their structure .


At the beginning of the 20th century a lot of famous authors were living and working in France: Camille Saint-Saëns, an eclectic, a classic by comprehending the form; Emannuel Chabrier, who was, considering his temperament, pleasant to the worshipers of the classical tradition as well as to the impressionists; Gabriel Fauré, who influenced many composers who neither understood nor felt the original impressionism by Claude Debussy. Within the opuses of all the mentioned composers, we have founded the pieces for  piano duo, having extremely personal qualities. In the focus of this book there are two composition by Debussy – En blanc and noir and Lindaraja  - for two pianos. Out of the group of Six Frenchmen, primariliy Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud composed a lot of pieces, very important  for the piano duo literature. Two sonatas – the one by Paul Hindemith and the second one by Bella Bartok (for two pianos and percussions, later arranged into the Concerto for two pianos and Orchestra) are the works which were very important for the whole development of music – not only of literature for piano duo literature. And, after that – pieces by Stravinsky, Britten in the first part of 20th century, as well as the pieces by Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen and Ligeti in the second part of the 20th  century, determined the paths of further music development.  The analysis of these works testifies their structural complexity, emotional value and diversity and also the depth of the content. Serbian composers gave also a nice contribution to the piano duo literature.


The book Piano Duo se a Reflextion of the General Music Evolution has got five parts. After the Foreword, the structure of piano duo is being considered in the section Transposition in the Structure of the Piano Duo.  The section From the Soloist-virtuousity up to the Symphonic Genre is dedicated to the compositions from the Romanticism; Synthesis of Experiences: Highlights contain the analyses of the pieces from the 20th century. The last part of the book  has been dedicated to the Problems and Experience of Interpretation whereas the piano duo was interesting for a lot of pianists just because of its specifics compared to the solo piano playing. At the end there is a List of Works and a Bibliography.