Six Canonic Etudes, Op. 56
Arranged by Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Historically, for the most part, duo-piano and piano four-hands pieces were played as entertainment in the home, and therefore much of the early duo-piano literature is relatively simple. Then along came Mozart, who performed piano duets with his sister and wrote the first major works for this instrumentation, including the Sonata in C, K. 19d. By the second half of the 19th century duo-piano and piano four-hands arrangements became a common vehicle for familiarizing audiences with orchestral works, and as composers such as Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy discovered the piano's potential to contain the range of symphonic literature, they began to add significant works to the duo-piano and piano four-hands repertoire in the form of transcriptions as well as original works.
Shortly after moving to Dresden in 1845, Schumann undertook teaching his wife Clara counterpoint. The couple had also just acquired a pedal-piano attachment for working on their organ playing. This unusual instrument, dating back to the 18th century, is a piano equipped with a pedal-board like that found on an organ, either with its own separate soundboard and strings or with hammers to strike the strings of the original piano. The 19th-century type, the kind the Schumanns probably had, was a separate board designed to fit underneath a standard grand piano. Schumann composed the Six Canonic Studies for this instrument during the spring of 1845.
A strong advocate of the piano duo, Debussy played the French premiere of Wagner's Rheingold with Raoul Pugno - the celebrated French pianist and sonata partner of Eugene Ysäye - and made duo-piano arrangements of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Saint-Saëns' Caprice on Airs from Gluck's Alceste, Wagner's overture to The Flying Dutchman, and Schumann's Studies (Op. 56) and Sketches (Op. 58) for pedal piano.
In their original form the Studies can be played by one person on pedal-piano or two people on one instrument. The exercises employ canon as their formal glue and are heavily Baroque in flavor. But they are set in Schumann's thick vertical scaffolding and share the composer's trademark elasticity of tempo and free-spirited gestures. Debussy's transcription is adapted specifically for two pianos, as pedal pianos were virtually non-existent, and rarely if ever played in performance, by the early 20th century.
- Meg Ryan is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Publications Assistant.