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“The Duet and the Dance: American Piano Duets”

The piano duet genre (one piano four hands) is a favourite for students and teachers alike. Unlike the piano duo repertoire (two pianos), the piano duet was historically not traditional concert fare; rather, the lighter duet pieces by composers such as Mozart or Schubert were not at the same level of technical difficulty as their solo (or duo piano, in the case of Mozart) They were intended for amateurs to enjoy at home, in the company of a few friends.

The nature of the duet form makes it ideal for students who enjoy collaborating with their friends. Just as Schubert turned to the popular dances and marches in his Vienna for inspiration, American composers used the duet form to explore the dances of their day. The “melting pot” of America during the late nineteenth century and twentieth century provided a rich pool of cultural variety for composers to draw upon. Latin and African-American inspired music features prominently.

The piano duet genre is ideal to train students to listen to their collaborators. Having only one set of keys (and one set of pedals!) can create challenges in dance music—playing lightly and having clear rhythm and balance are essential. Often players have to adjust fingering or hand distribution to accommodate each others’ space and avoid collisions! Equally, mastering the timing and synchronization at a single keyboard can dramatically improve students’ rhythmic discipline.

American composers used dances as inspiration in a variety of ways. Whereas Gottschalk’s Ojos criollos is a direct transcription of a Cuban dance style, Samuel Barber views the stylish dances from his childhood through a highly personal, nostalgic lens in his Souvenirs, Op. 28. Like Schubert’s own dances for piano duet, John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances are truly concert pieces disguised as dance music, with great artistry hidden behind a lighter façade. David Lang’s series of “gravity” piano duets paradoxically aim for suspension and weightlessness. before gravity (2012) unfolds dreamily through rapidly changing meters like a gentle, sad dance. William Bolcom’s Serpent’s Kiss, a rag fantasy, is a wonderful showstopper for advanced high school students.


Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Ojos criollos, Op. 37
Samuel Barber: “Hesitation Tango” from Souvenirs, Op. 28
John Corigliano: “Overture” from Gazebo Dances
David Lang: before gravity (2012)
William Bolcom (arr. Edward Neeman): "Serpent’s Kiss" from Garden of Eden