By Benjamin Downs
On June 2, 1988, twenty-six of the greatest pianists of the 20th century convened in New York’s Carnegie Hall to mount a concert unlike any other before it. The evening was organized in honor of Steinway Piano’s 135th anniversary, but the pianists who gathered around the honored instrument seemed to overshadow the very instrument that occasioned the event, the 500,000th piano built by the venerable firm. Two of the celebrants were Rudolf Serkin––widely considered one of the greatest interpreters of Beethoven––and his son, Peter Serkin. While the other pianists, including luminaries Vladimir Horowitz, Murray Perahia, and Alexis Weissenberg, performed solo works, the father and son sat shoulder to shoulder to play Franz Schubert’s March, Op. 52, No. 2 for piano, four hands.
Pianists of Serkin’s caliber are rarely self-effacing enough to share the stage. The dominant tradition of great pianists that continues today is inherited from Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt: the high priestess channeling the music of the master or the hero in the agony and ecstasy of musical combat. In both cases, the pianist sits alone on the stage, the audience shrouded in the anonymity of darkness. The pianist Glenn Gould memorably (if cynically) characterized this tradition as downright “gladiatorial,” the pianist struggling in isolated combat as the audience watches on.
But for every dominant tradition there are ten others. Against this portrait of the lone hero––Glenn Gould’s “gladiatorial” combat––the tradition of chamber music that the Serkin father and son demonstrated is celebrated for its spirit of cooperation. The performer does not only play, but plays with. Sigmund Freud speculated that the tradition of play in the arts could be traced to child’s play. Games can involve the subjugation of one’s will to another’s (i.e. cooperation), or competition, rejection, loss, and frustration. Similarly, the arts are not a rush of pure pleasure delivered straight to the nervous system, consumed by the passive spectator like a kind of sonic opium. Oedipus Rex, Tchaikovsky’s Symphonie Pathétique, Picasso’s Guernica, and Brakhage’s Dog Star Man could hardly be described as pleasurable, though few people who see or hear them regret doing so. These artworks and many other masterpieces can be tragic, shocking, disorienting, or nauseating. And of all the arts, music might offer these experiences in the most vivid and visceral way, even while retaining the innocent association of a child’s most basic activity: “play.”
Even a musician working in the isolation of his studio enters into a kind of play—with the composer—each time he or she translates their symbols from the score into sound. A composer provides the rules of the game, some hard and fast (for example, “These notes must be played in this order.”), but most malleable (i.e. “Play about this quickly, with this general character, etc.”). These rules can be hazy suggestions (“Andante”) or poetic (“Exotique” as in Messiaen); but to slavishly follow even the most explicit rules would produce sounds more machinic than human. So the musician plays with the composer, following the rules, but bending and interpreting them. Though soloists also find themselves in a kind of play (as just described, with the composer’s intent, or playing with and against an orchestra in concerto performances), this dimension of play in musical performance is nowhere more evident than in chamber music. When one player joins another, the play becomes relational: they play with. Some of the earliest examples of this kind of “playing with” show the origins of polyphony itself: one player produces the sounds that the composer has instructed while another bends the rules of the game, adding notes above or below.
As chamber music developed, so did the ways in which the players interacted with each other. Some of the earliest repertoire for piano four-hands (one keyboard, two players) was written by Mozart for performance with his sister, Nannerl, an accomplished keyboardist herself. According to all accounts, the Mozart siblings’ performances were given in private concerts, in a room well suited to the early keyboard’s limitations. Like most chamber music of the late 1700s, the performances were given to a circle of friends gathered in a chamber (usually palatial) suitable for intimate performance. This model, however, was beginning to change. In the cultural hubs of Western Europe––Vienna, Paris, London––chamber music was quickly becoming an activity for the middle class to enjoy in public performances. Although amateur music-making was on the rise, its opposite––newly demanding virtuosic music––was gaining popularity as well. As this new class of duo repertoire developed, the relation between players and audience began to change. While chamber music was initially well named (that is, music for the chamber, “musica da camera,” or “Kammermusik”), it soon found its way to the stage. In this space, musicians become performers. Having moved from the privacy of the home––a space that guaranteed that play of any type was a secret kept between the players––to the visibility of the stage, the play is projected outward to the gathered public. This is not to say that private performances of chamber music stopped altogether. The cultural cognoscenti continued to meet, listen, and perform in the exclusive settings of salon culture throughout the 19th century; but the four-hand repertoire of our musical canon––pieces by Schubert, Brahms, Dvo˘rák, Fauré, and others––quickly found a place in public performances where operas and symphonies were the dominant genres. Thus the duo repertoire became a paradoxical mixture of private and public. The musicians still play with one another as if in a secret dialogue, but an audience sits in the shadows, listening in.
This double-sided nature of music for two players was not lost on publishers. In 19th century Germany, where every home had a piano and every eligible young lady knew how to play it, four-hand piano pieces and arrangements sold at unprecedented rates. These arrangements almost always demanded the players’ hands overlap and cross—maneuvers that one might deem unnecessary if the purpose of the music were only to perform the notes. This music clearly encourages playfulness beyond the musical. The possibility of musical-cum-amorous play lies just beneath the surface in many artistic works, breaching it occasionally in literature like Leo Tolstoy’s novella Kreutzer Sonata where the jealous husband is convinced his wife and her chamber music partner are also playing around….
The 20th century saw an amalgam between the solo pianist-hero and the cooperative piano duet in some of the most virtuosic works for piano duo (that is, two pianos, four hands). Sergei Rachmaninoff’s suites for two pianos follow the model of his solo works. They are technically demanding, orchestral textures dominate, but his instrument of choice, the piano, is doubled. His Suite no. 2 has been a staple for the famous piano duos of the 20th century like Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire and the husband/wife duos Rosina and Josef Lhevinne and Victor Vronsky and Vitya Babin. Though works like this suite are undeniably affective, they sacrifice the intimacy of the single-keyboard, four-hand performances where one must not just share the stage, but the instrument itself. In the former, two soloists come together to perform, but their instruments separate them from each other. In the latter, two soloists are conjoined through their shared instrument as they not only play, but play with.
If there is a fixed tradition in the long history of music for two, perhaps it is only this: Play with! The rules of play are as flexible as they are unwritten and, like children’s games, can change as quickly as they are agreed upon. Each musician plays off of the other, responding to subtle musical suggestions, amending them or defying them; plays with the composer’s instructions, and plays with audience’s expectations. Sometimes the wordless game is, as Tolstoy suggests, the passionate play of Eros; other times, as Goethe characterized it, a “rational conversation.”
Comparing music to a friendly, if sometimes competitive, diversion should not be read as a denigration of music as “only” or “just” a game. Freud’s intuition was that games, play, and playfulness are not trivial escapism, but foundational practices that undergird societal interaction and cultural production. If he is right, and I suspect he was, then perhaps our species, forever plagued with an inability to cooperate peacefully, needs to sit, watch, and listen to chamber music.
Benjamin Downs is a pianist and musicologist. He has written program notes for chamber music ensembles including the Juilliard, Tokyo, and Moscow String Quartets. His work has also been published in academic journals including The Music Research Forum and Mosaic.