Music for two pianos is both grandiose and fragile. Two concert grands set side by side can pour out torrents of noise, and yet the apparatus itself is the height of cultivation. The complexity of the kind of industrial society necessary to standardize the mass-manufacture of an instrument as sophisticated as the piano astounds whoever stops to think about it; the piano lasts only as long as civilization itself does. When looking for a metaphor for Europe as it slid inexorably towards the Second World War, it was to this image that W.H. Auden turned:
It's farewell to the drawing-room's civilised cry,
The professor's sensible whereto and why,
The frock-coated diplomat's social aplomb,
Now matters are settled with gas and bomb.
The works for two pianos, the brilliant stories
Of reasonable giants and remarkable fairies,
The pictures, the ointments, the frangible wares
And the branches of olive are stored upstairs.
—from "Danse Macabre," January 1937
Theodor Adorno wrote a beautiful short essay in 1933 called "Vierhändig, noch einmal" ("Four-handed Once Again") about the culture of four-handed transcriptions that he knew as a child in the early twentieth century—a world where arrangements of orchestral works for two-piano duets still were an important way of publishing and publicizing music, before the rise of recording and the demise of the Mitteleuropaïsche salon culture. It was a world where music was less divided between a professional caste of performers and everyone else—a world where a certain middle-class amateurism was necessary in order to have music in the evenings at all:
... [L]istening to four-hand playing is hardly ever a joy. If, despite that, four-hand playing maintained its great role for a hundred years, it is because it alone guarded the musical tradition in living quarters, which have in the meantime also lost chamber music to the podium. In the age of strict division of labor, the bourgeoisie defended its last music in the fortress of the piano, which they vigorously maintained; inconsiderate, indifferent to how it sounded in the ears of the others, the alienated ones. Even their mistakes, which were unavoidable, preserved an active relation to the works that those who in an intoxicated state listened to perfect concert performances had long ceased to possess.If this world had largely vanished by 1933, well before the ravages of World War II, then it had certainly disappeared by the end, never to return in the same way quite again. No one heard the Leningrad Symphony for the first time in piano reduction.
But during the war, a relatively young Witold Lutosławski (pronounced Luto-SWAFski) was eking out a living in various Warsaw cafés as—of all things—a cocktail pianist, or something close to one. He played in a duo with Andrzej Panufnik during the German occupation, and they tossed off a number of clamorous arrangements and compositions for two pianos. None survived after Lutosławski fled the city just before the Warsaw Uprising—except the sketches for what would ultimately become the explosive, raucous Paganini Variations, which I like to think of as the golden age of two-piano works going out with a bang.* I only learned about these recently, and have been listening to them on repeat ever since. Go ahead. Listen. As played by the wonderfully quirky pairing of Martha Argerich and Gabriela Montero, via YouTube:
*Obviously not the end. John Adams's Hallelujah Junction is a great example of an excellent modern two-piano work. But it must be admitted that the glory days have probably passed.