Bob and I went to a big book sale today and came home with lots of ‘four hand’ duets to be played by two people sitting at one piano. We spent a chunk of the afternoon going through volumes of Dvorak Slavonic Dances, Brahms Hungarian Dances, and eventually a mad set of duets by Erik Satie whose deadpan instructions made us laugh. Who else would write instructions like ‘Better’, ‘From the corner’, ‘With the same colour’, ‘Smile’, ‘Slow down, I beg you’, ‘Do not speak’, ‘Lightly but strongly’, or ‘Very’?
As Lewis Carroll might say, ‘He only does it to annoy/Because he knows it teases’.
As we played our duets, people passed by in the street. Most were listening to music on their phones. Some of them turned their heads and looked at us curiously but without enthusiasm (I think Satie’s style has affected mine). We became aware of how much like a 19th century illustration we must look.
Piano duets were hugely popular at the time Dvorak wrote his Slavonic Dances (originally for piano duet). In fact, the publication of the Slavonic Dances made his name and changed his fortune virtually overnight because so many people bought the sheet music. Before recording technology was invented, when music-lovers had to wait until an orchestra came to their city in order to hear the latest symphonies, such works were often arranged for piano duet and published in large quantities for the domestic market. Many people probably never heard those pieces performed in any other way. Composers also wrote original music for piano duet and some of these works are highlights of piano repertoire: Mozart’s Duo Sonatas, the Schubert F minor Fantasie, Bizet’s ‘Jeux d’Enfants’, Fauré’s ‘Dolly Suite’ or Debussy’s ‘Petite Suite’.
I’ve played piano duets with lots of different people, amateurs as well as professional pianists. It’s always intriguing how difficult it is to play with some people, yet how easy with others. There is no obvious link with how good a pianist someone is. One of my best-ever piano duet partners is a Parisian lawyer who plays for fun and has a sense of timing similar to mine. On the other hand I have sometimes played duets with eminent pianists whose keyboard style was at odds with mine, making it very difficult for us to put down chords at the same instant.
One of my favourite duet experiences was when I sat down to play some four-hand piano music with the South African pianist Lamar Crowson at Prussia Cove. We played for a while and it sped along with remarkable ease. He turned to me and said, ‘You’re a Gemini, right?’ And so I am.