What is a Piano Duet?

The website received an interesting question the other week, as follows:

Does the term "piano duet" only refer to 1 piano - 4 hands, or can it include 2 pianos - 4 hands? I have in mind the Cann Twins, who seem to use 2 pianos in most of their concerts now, but are described as playing piano duets. And is there be any difference in music written for one 1 piano - 4 hands and music written for 2 pianos?

I answered as follows:

Piano duets........yes, you're right; there is some ambiguity when these are talked about.

"Piano Duets" described as such on the title page of modern scores are often teaching music and are for 4 hands one piano.

Piano Duo can mean either 4 hands one piano or 4 hands two pianos. For example, the Schubert Polonaises are often described as piano duos (4 hands one piano). But they are often described as piano duet (4 hands one piano).

However I have an LP of Previn and Ashkenazy playing Rachmaninov 2-piano suites, and these are described on the sleeve as Piano Duos.

To summarise, piano duos are either 4 hands one piano or 4 hands 2 pianos. Piano duets are generally 4 hands one piano unless specifically described as "two-piano duets", but I suppose language changes, and perhaps there's a difference between England and America.

There is a difference between 1-piano 4 hands and 2-piano 4 hands in musical content. If two piano are used, the composer ensures that the full keyboard of both instruments is utilised. If composing music for 2 players on one keyboard, however, the music is somewhat compressed in the middle because there is an overlap of the right hand of the lower player with the left hand of the upper player. They obviously cannot play the same notes at the same time.

Two-piano music sounds a little more "orchestral" and is more virtuostic on occasion. There isn't really any virtuostic music for piano duet on one keyboard because both players are having to keep out of the way of each other when playing, and this limits what they can do. They really have about half the keyboard each - or a bit more if the other player leans out of the way.

The most virtuostic work I know for piano duet is the Schubert Fantasy in F minor which perhaps you know. There have been attempts to put piano concertos into piano duet format (one keyboard) but these are not generally successful or playable, and they are really just historical curisoities. The problem is that you can't easily split a solo part into something which two players can share. Even if it were possible there would be a formidable synchronisation problem. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to play, say, a Mozart piano concerto on 2 pianos, with one player taking the solo part, more or less unmodofied, and the other player taking a reduction of the orchestral part.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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