I first heard this in a broadcast by Fritz Spiegel shortly after the war in what was then called the Home Service, later known as Radio4, after the split-off of the Third Programme, later Radio3. He played us this extraordinary work, the overture to Rossini’s opera Semiramide, arranged by Czerny for 8 pianos, 32 hands – yes, that’s 16 duets.
In the late nineteenth century, many homes possessed a piano, and custom arose of music making involving more than one household. If the piano was the only musical instrument available, and visitors were sufficiently adept, there was often use of piano duets. Much music was arranged for this format: Clara Schumann, for instance, arranged her brother Robert’s piano quintet for duet, and similar arrangements were available for some of Grieg’s dance suites.
According to Spiegel, the Polish composer Czerny, mostly known for writing piano “studies”, which were little more than tuneful exercises in physical skill, found himself at a large Christmas gathering, for which he was asked to provide an entertainment. So he looked at the available musical talent, which consisted of 16 pianists, of varying skill, and 8 pianos. He therefore arranged the overture for 8 pianos, 32 hands – 16 piano duets. This went down very well, and has been a favourite amongst pianists ever since – whenever the required number of them, and pianos, can be assembled.
There are several examples on the internet; mostly, they are by established pianists, who regard the whole thing as a bit of a romp, with sometimes erratic speeds. (Victor Sylvester would not be pleased.) This example, however, is by students at the Fryderyk Chopin Piano Academy in Warsaw. They take it a bit more seriously, with the precaution of a conductor, to hold everything together. This video is already available on YouTube, but for some reason in two parts, split at a fairly natural break in the middle. However, this seems a shame, so all I have done is to stitch the two together and return it to the internet.
Some of its friends call it “Hemidemisemiramide” …