Schubert's music for piano, four hands
Since the late 18th Century, the piano duet medium has occupied a role of untold significance in daily musical life. Although the regular home playing of duets has greatly declined in our time, partly due to the availability of recorded music, it is good to recall the important, if humble, role that four-handed music on one keyboard once played. The genre reached its high point in the 19th Century. At that time, it represented a publishing phenomenon of the first magnitude, and one could purchase piano duet arrangements of an almost unlimited number of orchestral, chamber and operatic works, in addition to original works of varying difficulty.
Like the duet medium in general, it is easy to take Schubert’s duets for granted, but many surprises await the unwary. Although earlier composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Clementi had already composed works for piano duet, Schubert was the first composer to reveal the medium in its full potential, a potential which had hitherto been unrealized. Schubert’s large output for duet spans his entire career. After his early pre-teenage works for duet came many arrangements, popular dances, and easy pieces. Schubert showed rapid musical development throughout his short life, so it should be no surprise that his works in the duet medium show the same swift rise to maturity as do the symphonies, string quartets, and masses.
The works on this program all date from the last years of Schubert’s life and provide a glimpse of Schubert’s extraordinary range of expression. The polonaises and marches, all from 1826, demonstrate Schubert’s skill in producing pleasing, high quality music in popular styles. Also in demand by the public were works in Variation form. Schubert obliged with many works of this sort, of which the Variations, D 813 are an excellent example. It too undoubtedly found a ready public. Like the duet medium itself, the practice of pleasing the public in this way has perhaps suffered somewhat among certain schools of composition in the recent past. In these works, Schubert reminds us once again that the apparently contradictory concepts of easy accessibility and high art need not be in conflict with each other.
The music in the second half of the program is of an altogether more serious nature. All of the pieces were written in 1828 and all can be counted among Schubert’s finest creations, regardless of genre. Less well-known are the Rondo in A major and the Allegro in A minor. The Allegro is a large scale movement in sonata form and has justly been called a work of symphonic proportions. Its title Lebensstrürme, reflecting the high seriousness of the music with its mixture of tragedy and melancholy, was a later addition of Diabelli, who published the work in 1840, well after the composer’s death. Hardly less fine is the serene Rondo, which nonetheless contains undertones of melancholy as well.
The great Fantasie in F minor is one of Schubert’s acknow-ledged masterpieces. It begins with a quiet but unsettled theme which is one of the finest melodies Schubert ever penned. The work covers a broad canvas of moods from stormy to calm. Near the end there is a fugue, highly unusual for Schubert. The fugue builds to a tragic climax, pulls back, and the work ends quietly with same theme that started the work.