The only way to listen to the latest symphony or opera in the nineteenth century was to either seek out a live performance or perform it at home with a piano partner, à quatre mains. Thus, an enormous amount of four-hand literature abounds from the 1820s to the 1930s.
Works in transcription largely dominate this repertoire: operas, symphonies, and chamber works were adapted en masse for four hands by skilled and not so skilled musicians alike. But there were also works freshly composed in the medium, and four-handed playing could be heard in the home (its natural environment) but also on the relatively new environment of the concert stage.
The ubiquity and popularity of the four- handed format meant that it crossed national, social, and economic boundaries. As such, the piano duet was a powerful cultural site in which anxieties about gender, nationality, labour, and pleasure were writ large. Adrian Daub in Four- Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and Nineteenth-Century Culture has brilliantly surveyed nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novels for traces of how the piano duet interacted with those who played and listened to them. Daub argues on the strength of a rich and provocative bed of primary literature that four-hand piano playing theatricalised nineteenth-century issues of subjectivity, community, eroticism, nationalism, and consumerism.
One of the most compelling arguments in Four-Handed Monsters is Daub’s exploration of how four-hands music had a particular and especial relationship to consumption and commodification. Certainly, as the “proto-CD of nineteenth- century domestic culture,” four-hand music was mass-produced and consumed eagerly. The nineteen-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche’s Christmas wish- list in 1863, for instance, reads “(1) The Grand Duo by F. Schubert, arranged for four hands; (2) Düntzer’s edition of Goethe’s lyric poems.” Four-handed music and its performance was undoubtedly one of the important and influential components of nineteenth-century transnational musical culture. One would argue that it could be considered the most pervasive and important, by dint of its widespread agency.