"Piano duet" music falls into several categories. In no particular order, these are:
Some of these categories overlap somewhat; for example, some of Markham Lee's more difficult piano duets are excellent musically but might be regarded by some as teaching music.
The piano duet repertoire is large, but little of it is in print. One way to explore most of it is via the British Library, using the lending library service at your local library, filling in the necessary forms, or buying up stock from secondhand bookshops and music shops. Failing that you need to make friends with some collectors and visit music shops regularly.
I have derived a lot of enjoyment from playing duets over the years, and consider the following list to be worth looking at if you wish to investigate this type of music. Please forgive any errors; most of it is compiled from memory. If you have corrections to offer, you could send me an email. If you have favourite duets which do not appear below, I would also be interested to hear from you.
ORIGINAL COMPOSITIONS FOR FOUR HANDS ON ONE PIANO
The Beethoven Sonata in D op. 6 is a good one for beginners to work at; nicely crafted and not technically too demanding for either player. Brahms' Hungarian Dances are too well-known to require much comment; the early ones are more immediately appealing and the later ones rather serious. (One does wonder sometimes whether Brahms actually had a sense of humour) Most of the pieces are quite difficult and both players have to be confident of their notes before good synchronisation is possible.
Dvorak's Slavonic Dances are excellent and require the players to modulate to virtually every key, sometimes at high speed; lots of fun if one can avoid too many wrong notes. The Debussy and Faure suites are fairly well-known concert items and not too demanding. Inglebrecht wrote some interesting books of pieces where one player plays five finger exercises and the accompanist does some extraordinary things; so did Andre Caplet and one or two others. The Leon d'Ourville is light salon music; the Pauer is slightly harder and a little more interesting harmonically. Raff's pieces are worth exploring; his output is patchy but the best pieces are very good. Schubert's duets are debatably the best works in the repertoire; the F minor Fantasy, the Polonaises, and the Allegro in A minor being concert favourites. Warlock's "Cod-Pieces" are also worth a look; very amusing pastiches, and some of Thomas Johnson's pieces, which are teaching music but with his impish sense of humour; advanced players will enjoy them as much as beginners.
ARRANGEMENTS FOR PIANO DUET
The Victorians specialised in these; a good way of hearing a symphony or string quartet or other large-scale work if there was no convenient concert was to buy the piano duet arrangement and bash through it at home.
Some arrangements are much more effective than others. A decent arrangement has some interest for both players, a reasonably clear texture, and not too much doubling. The bass line should be interesting and not too repetitious or heavy.
There are features common to arrangements which do not work well on the piano. The arranger may have a poor technique, or it may be that the piece itself is not really suitable as a piano duet, but these are the danger signals:
i) Florid passages in the top part with no definite rhythmic pulse. They often occur in duet arrangements of slow twentieth century orchestral music, and in slow introductions.
One of the problems in arranging something for duet is deciding how closely to stick to the original. Arranging, say, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for duet.....are you entitled to put notes in the arrangement which are not in the original score, if in doing so the music is improved? Can you, for example put an extra G in a chord of C minor if it improves the sound which the piano makes?...obviously arrangers are reluctant to do this....composer arrangements are generally preferred, if available.
Duets which work well include the Haydn String Quartets (4 volumes, Peters), Haydn Symphonies (Peters), Mozart Symphonies (Augener and Peters) Spohr's quartet in Dm, Nonet and Octet (Augener), Beethoven's Septet in Eb (Peters), the wonderful Handel Organ Concertos (4 volumes, Peters), Handel and Bach Organ Fugues, Brahms varitations on a theme of Schumann (composer arrangement, Augener); Brahms St. Anthony variations (Lengnick), most of Schubert's songs, Algernon Ashton's string quartets (difficult), Mendelssohn's music from "A Midsummernight's Dream", especially the Scherzo; Max Reger's organ works; anything by Busoni, Grainger, Quilter, Parry...
There are many works not suitable as duets; I would place in this category most of the Beethoven symphonies, the Brahms symphonies, Mendelssohn's string quartets, Wagner, nearly all 20th century symphonies, most overtures, most slow orchestral music later than about 1850, operatic arias, choral works, piano trios, quartets and quintets....I have seen, and played, arrangements of all of these, and have been astonished at what has been attempted....even the duet version of Hugo Ulrich's symphony, written a hundred years ago, is available, and will probably never be played again by an orchestra. At least we can get a vague idea of what it might have sounded like by playing through it at home.
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