Music for Piano Four Hands | Piano Duets

Some History of Music for Piano 4 Hands

The piano duet (music for 4 hands) became popular in the second half of the 18th century. The piano, at this time, was a focus for entertainment and a great amount of music was both composed and arranged in this format. 

Why play piano duets 

If you are a keyboard or piano player a repertoire that is deserving of attention and worth exploring is that composed for music for 4 hands. Apart from developing ensemble playing skills it is an excellent medium for developing awareness and understanding of compositional process.

What music is in the repertoire for piano duet aka music for piano 4 hands 

J. C. F Bach (1732 – 1795) the third youngest of J.S. Bach’s four composing sons composed two sonatas for piano (4 hands).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  (1756 – 1791) composed much music for piano 4 hands which he often performed with his elder sister known as Nannerl. There are sonatas, variations and arrangements of music composed for solo piano. These works are excellent for developing an understanding of how Mozart composed his music and are great ensemble pieces with a similar content to the music found in his piano concerti. Mozart’s music is always of a very high and consistent quality. His music was generally composed perfectly formed as such in his head and then subsequently transcribed to manuscript. 

First Movement K.19d | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:​

Minuet and Trio K.19d | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Rondo K.19d | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:​

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) made an important contribution to the repertoire for music for piano 4 hands and there are the three Opus 45 Marches and a number of sets of variations together with arrangements of dances and a two movement Sonata in D Opus 6. For those who enjoy a particular challenge there is an arrangement by the composer of the Grosse Fugue in Bb for piano 4 hands, a copy of which in the composer’s hand was only re-discovered in relatively recent times.

March No.1 in C | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:​

Variations on “Ich denke dein” | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Franz Schubert’s (1797 – 1828) contribution to the repertoire is unusual in that some of his major and greatest works are for this medium. The haunting and dramatic Fantasy in F minor D. 940 is an often performed, well recorded work that is in this category. There is also a substantial 4 movement Sonata for Piano Duet in C major D.812 known as the “Grand Duo.” The Rondo in A Major D.951 or “Grand Rondeau” is another appealing piece in the key of A that strikes the same mood as many other of the composer’s works in the same key such as the Piano Sonata in A D.664. Whilst Schubert excelled at composing all types of music his chamber music is particularly significant because many works were composed for a circle of musical friends many of whom supported him at challenging and difficult times in his life. In addition to the substantial works there are many sets of variations, marches and arrangements of dances popular from the composer’s time.

Military March No.1 Opus 51 Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Children’s March in G | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) Whilst known for his operas this prolific Italian composer contributed some excellent piano duets to the repertoire which are recent discovery for this blogger. 

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) was intent upon becoming a concert pianists but an injury to a finger led hm to focus on composing. The Studies in Canon Opus 56 for pedal piano were later arranged by Georges Bizet for piano duet and the six movements are excellent pieces to both play and enjoy. They were composed when Schumann was intent upon revisiting the principles of contrapuntal discipline in his writing.

Study in Canon No.2 arr. Bizet | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Study in Canon No.3 arr. Bizet | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Study in Canon No.4 arr.Bizet Free sheet music and accompaniments link: ​

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) contribution to the piano duet repertoire include the 21 Hungarian Dances (1 – 10 date from 1858-68 and 11-21 from 1880), the Waltzes Opus 39 (1865) and the Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Opus 23. The Hungarian Dances, based on actual Hungarian themes, were very popular and subsequently the composer (and others) made arrangements for various instrument groupings.  

Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875)  composed his Jeux d’enfants (Children’s Games) Opus 22 in 1871. It a suite of 12 miniatures for piano 4 hands which were then subsequently orchestrated (although not all by the composer). Commentators have suggested that Jeux d’enfants enabled Bizet to discover his true compositional strengths and spirit as a composer – namely writing short melodic pieces that had a chromatic context Bizet’s  Jeux d’enfants well maybe of been the inspiration for Fauré, Debussy and Ravel to compose similar childhood  inspired music.

Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907) played piano duets with his mother and not surprising made a contribution to the repertoire including the characterful Norwegian Dances Opus 35 (1880) which were later orchestrated by Hans Sitt. Much of the composer’s orchestral music has also been arranged as music for piano duet. 

Norwegian Dance No.2 Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Antonín Dvorák (1841 – 1904) is another late romantic composer associated with the movement known as Nationalism who composed his Slavonic Dances Opus 46 (1878) and Opus 72 (1886) for piano duet. As they quickly became popular Dvorák soon orchestrated them at the request of his publisher. On the whole, they are Bohemian in context and whilst Dvorak does not quote folk melodies he does make use of traditional rhythmic patterns and folk music structures. Amongst the more familiar dances that feature are the furiant, the dumka , the polka, the mazurka and the polonaise. The works were inspired by Brahm’s Hungarian Dances and were important in establishing Dvorák as a major composer. 

Gabriel Fauré’s  (1845 – 1924) composed the piano duet collection familiarly known as the “Dolly Suite.” Often the inspiration for composing a piano duet collection was a connection to a child and this was the case with this collection of six pieces largely composed between 1893 and 1896. 

Mi-a-ou | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Le garden de Dolly | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Kitty-Valse | Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) is another French composer who contributed to the piano duet repertoire composing  a four movement Petite Suite for piano duet in 1888/89 which was subsequently orchestrated by Henri Busser. There are also some other piano duets by the composer including the 6 Épigraphes antiques which date from 1914 although the music initially originated in another format.

Moritz Moszkowski (1854 – 1925) was a German composer of Polish – Jewish descent who was an exceptional pianist and well known at the end of the 19th century as a concert pianist, conductor, composer and teacher. He composed many small-scale piano works of which his 5 Spanish Dances Opus 12 set are probably the best known existing in several formats  including piano duet. The Spanish sound is referenced by use of the phrygian mode which has the semi-tones between the first and second and the fifth and sixth degree of the scale  – D Eb F G A Bb C D. The rhythmic shapes are from patterns associated with the Bolero which originated in Spain during the C18th as a form of ballroom dance and became a template and form used by many composers of art music. Music associated with particular countries and regions of Europe particular on its fringes was very popular towards the end of the 19th century identified with a movement that was known as nationalism. 

Spanish Dance No.2 Free sheet music and accompaniments link:

Anton Arensky (1861 – 1906) was a Russian composer and music professor who taught Rimsky Korsakov, Scriabin and Rachmaninov amongst others. Influenced by Tchaikovsky he composed some charming chamber music including the Opus 34 and and Opus 66 piano duets. He tended to imitate the musical style of others rather than pursue and and establish his own distintive musical style and as a consequence he suffered criticism from his contemporaries. It probably explains the reason why his music is not more widely performed and known.

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) composed his five movement Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Suite) for piano duet in 1910. The work was subsequently orchestrated and expanded by the composer. Four of the movements have a literary inspirations and they were composed and dedicated to children of the composer’s friends.

More recent composers who have contributed to the piano duet repertoire whose, music is in copyright, are Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963)  and Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1972).  Poulenc has composed a Sonata for Piano 4 hands and amongst Stravinsky’s piano duets are the 5 Easy Pieces and 3 Easy Pieces. In addition,  there are 4 hands arrangements of the composers ballets Petrushka  and Rite of Spring both by the composer. György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) was a Hungarian-Austrian modern classical composer identified with the “avant-garde.”Amongst his piano music is a Sonatina for piano 4 hands . György Kurtág (b1926) is a Hungarian classical composer and pianist who has composed many piano duets which he often performed with his (late) wife Márta. He is particularly interested in creating miniatures or what have been described as musical fragments. His nine volume collection Játékok includes much  4 hand music.

Who plays piano duets?

There are many fine performers of piano duets and often they are husband and wife teams, siblings or musicians that are together at a festival. John Ogdon played  and recorded with his wife Brenda Lucas whilst Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky were two brothers from German pianists who played both piano duets and music for two pianos frequently premiering contemporary works.

Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter famously played piano duets at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1960’s and these performances which included the Mozart Duet Sonata in C K.521 which are still available in the recording catalogue. Martha Argerich is another pianist who often shares a duet or duo rôle at a music festival and again recordings are available often of the live concerts.

Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu played as a piano duet and piano duo in the late 1980’s and recorded the Schubert Fantasy in F minor D.940 in what was a landmark recording along with works for piano duo.

Piano Duets and PlentyMusic 

To encourage pianists and keyboard players to participate in an ensemble music activity PlentyMusic has a number of piano duets available in its catalogue with “accompaniments” to download enabling the player to take on the rôle of either the Primo or Secondo player in an ensemble music activity. Download formats are pdf for sheet music and mp3 for sound files. The sheet music and accompaniments music can be found on the PlentyMusic website in the Area of Study: Piano Duets (Music for Piano Four Hands). There is more music available than that referenced above and music is continuously been added to the website.

Please advise the PlentyMusic Office either through LiveChat or by email if you would like to see some additional scores and accompaniments in place for this repertoire.

Stephen Royle

February 2020


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