Theodor W. Adorno – Four-handed, one more time

August 5, 2006

I got to know the music we are accustomed to calling classical as a child, through four-handed playing. There was little of the symphonic and chamber music literature that would not be incorporated into home life with the help of the large wide-format volumes, uniformly bound in green by the bookbinder. They seemed made for page-turning, and I was allowed to turn the pages well before I knew the notes, following only my memory and hearing. Even Beethoven’s violin sonatas found themselves included in peculiar arrangements. Some pieces, such as Mozart’s G-minor symphony, so impressed themselves on me during that time that even today it seems to me that no orchestra could ever produce the tension of the introductory semi-quaver movement as completely as the questionable attack of the second player. This music more than any other was suited to the apartment. It was brought forth on the piano as on a piece of furniture, and those who plied it without shyness in the face of interruptions and wrong notes belonged to the family.

Four-handed playing laid the geniuses of the bourgeois nineteenth century as a gift at my cradle in the beginnings of the twentieth. Four-handed music: that was music with which one could still live and commerce, before the musical compulsion itself demanded solitude and secret craft. That says something not merely about the practice of playing but also about that which was played. For the literature that appeared here as classical is that of a period of less than a hundred years, itself destined for four-handed playing. It begins with Haydn and ends with Brahms. Bach is particularly unsuited to four-handed interpretation, and neither am I able to recall from my childhood that Bach was ever played; post-Brahmsian modernism is excluded simply by reason of manual difficulty, beyond that for the sake of its imperious tone-colours. It is hence the symphonic in the narrower sense that is, or was, accessible to four-handed playing. It stems from the epoch of truly bourgeois musical practice. If Bekker’s theory of the community-forming power of the symphonic hits the mark, then at the same time this community is at all events one of individuals. The demonstration that every individual finds himself confirmed in the great whole of the symphony lies in the fact that, without forfeiting any of its binding character, he can receive it into family and apartment, just as he hung the pictures of his classics. But four-handed playing was better than the Isle of the Dead[*] over the buffet; he always had truly to earn the symphony in order to possess it; play it. And he did not play it entirely privately; he could not, as he was accustomed to do with his lyrical pieces by Grieg, modify tempo and dynamics according to the whim of his instinctual impulses [Triebregungen], but had to direct himself — if he didn’t want to “slip out”, as was said, to lose the connection with his partner — by the text and prescript of the work. Yet more. Something of the secret of four-handed playing seemed to inhere in the works themselves.

No coincidence that the literature of four-handed “original compositions” confines itself to that period. Its true master is Schubert. The most important of his four-handed works: the great sonata, the F minor fantasia, the Hungarian divertissement, the A major rondo, the military marches too, are stylistically all near enough to the orchestra; perhaps written for piano only from lack of orchestral performance possibilities or from haste, they clearly show that manifold relationship of objective symphonics and private music practice, which may provide important rules for the compositional praxis of the nineteenth century as a whole. Conversely: if one plays four-handed excerpts of the symphonies of Schumann and Brahms one will be astounded how well they sit: all too well; even so compositionally rich a piece as the first movement of Brahms’ fourth presents itself so self-evidently when played four-handed that I cannot escape the feeling that it had only belatedly been raised up out of the region of the monochrome, tragic-intimate duet into instrumental multiplicity. Nevertheless, all four-handed playing is unreliable and at risk of failure; the brief ring of the piano’s tone does not allow for the rythmical balance [Ausgleich] that vibrating violin strings make possible, and two soloists at the piano, highly schooled in rhythm, will find it more difficult to play precisely than will an average orchestra. Listening to four-handed playing is hardly ever a joy. If in spite of this it asserted its great role for a hundred years, then this was because it alone sheltered the tradition of music-making in living-rooms which had meanwhile lost chamber music too to the podium. In the age of the strict division of labour the burghers defended the last of their music in the fort of the piano, which they kept thickly occupied; without consideration, indifferent to how it sounded in the ears of the others, the alienated [den anderen, Entfremdeten]. Even the errors that they unavoidably made preserved an active connection with the works, of which those who listened dreamily to perfect concert performances had long lost possession. For that the duettists admittedly had to pay the price: going into action they appeared as obsolete-homely and amateurish-untrained. But their dilettantism is nothing but the echo of the true music-making tradition, the product of its decline [Verfallsprodukt]. The question remains: for whom can the last artist meaningfully play when the last dilettante that still lives for the dream of himself becoming an artist has died? No singing community will replace him.

If four-handed playing has meanwhile fallen silent, then we cannot rightly be surprised. One hardly comes across novels of seduced piano pupils and seducing piano teachers in conservatoriums any more; the trots and gallops of the four-handed piano-equipages — with the rhythmically nodding heads of two good horses bringing their illustrious Mozart and their dignified Brahms proudly, if riskily, to the goal — will, in the world of automobiles with radios and gramophones, be equally rare. Four-handed playing has become a gesture of remembrance, and only few live — certainly amongst musicians — who practice its out-moded art. But one must needs think that some works that sound out vainly through powerful orchestral exertions will only reveal themselves to the shy gesture of remembrance, which shares with them the secret: to have a part in the life of society as a humane human being. If solitary ones, who have no listners to hope for, and no reason to fear any, were on occasion to make an essay at four-handed playing, then it would not be their loss. Ultimately a child, too, will be found, who will turn the pages for them.

Notes[*] Isle of the Dead: painting by Arnold Böcklin.

Translated from the German (c) by Marc Hiatt. (Last revised 03.08.2006.)

Written 1933. Collected in Impromtus. Zweite Folge neu gedruckter musikalischer Aufsätze (1968) Frankfurt a. M., and in Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 17 (1982) Frankfurt a. M..


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