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Noon Edition

Just The Two Of Us: Classical Music's Famous Duos

Just in time for Valentine's Day, the Ether Game Brain Trust is looking at some famous musical duos. Snuggle up with your Valentine and check out our playlist of some famous duo, duets, and couples below:

  • Léo Delibes (1815–1910), Lakmé, "Flower Duet" – The famed "Flower Duet" for soprano and mezzo soprano is probably the most enduring work from French romantic composer Léo Delibes. In the original opera, the duet is sung by the title character Lakme and her servant Mallika, as the two girls pick flowers down by a river. The opera is set in India under British rule. Lakmé is the beautiful daughter of a Hindu priest. When she falls in love with a British officer, tensions rise between her father and the occupying British. Now, there's also another popular opera about a military officer traveling to a distant land and falling in love with one of the native women: Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Interestingly enough, Madama Butterfly also has a duet between the title character and her servant as they pick flowers. And in the opera world, both of these duets are referred to colloquially as the "Flower Duet."

  • Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Daphnis et Chloé – Despite all odds, two children discovered by shepherds grow up to be lovers. This is the basic premise of the story of Daphnis and Chloë as first brought to us by the classical Greek writer and romancer Longus. Longus was from the isle of Lesbos, and that's where his story is set. Maurice Ravel described the music he wrote for a ballet setting of this piece as a "choreographed symphony." It is his longest, but perhaps most enduring piece of music. One fascinating feature of the orchestration is the use of a choir that doesn't sing actual words, but amorphous sounds. Sergei Diaghilev took the ballet on tour to London, but without the choir. This omission caused Ravel to send angry letters to the London Times. Curiously though, Ravel left the wordless choir out of both of his orchestral suites of Daphnis and Chloë.

  • Robert and Clara Schumann – If we're talking about famous duos in classical music, we have to talk about Robert and Clara Schumann. The Schumann's were destined to be together, despite their age gap (Robert was nine years older) and the restrictions put in place by Clara's overbearing father. During their courtship in the year 1840, Robert channeled his romantic feelings creatively, writing dozens of songs for Clara. 1840 became known as his Liederjahr, his "year of songs." One of the song cycles he wrote in this period was Frauenliebe und -leben, or "A Woman's Love and Life," with poetry by Adelbert von Chamisso. These poems are from the perspective of a woman, as she falls in love, marries, and eventually becomes a widow. In this song, the 19th-century notions of obedience in marriage are certainly very dated here in the 21st century. But for the budding romance between Robert and Clara, they must have felt especially profound.

  • "Pas de deux" from Sleeping Beauty by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) – The pas de deux, or "step of two," is usually one of the highlights of any ballet. It's a showcase piece that features a man and a woman performing in tandem. A famous pas de deux from the ballet literature comes in Act III of Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty, an interpretation of the classic French fairy tale by Charles Perrault. In this scene, Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré are finally united after her 100-year sleep, and the two become one during this wedding scene. The original choreographer for this pas de deux was famed choreographer Marius Petipa, who helped Tchaikovsky craft the work in 1889. Tchaikovsky's earlier ballet Swan Lake had been a disaster at its premiere. So for Sleeping Beauty, he worked more closely with Petipa to help ensure its success.

  • Johannes Brahms, Double Concerto for Violin and Cello – Another type of famous duo in classical music is the double concerto, in which two instruments from the orchestra are featured instead of just one. Brahms composed his double concerto for violin and cello, a combination he initially expressed anxiety in writing for because he was not a serious string player. A deeper purpose kept Brahms motivated however, which was that the concerto was meant to be a gesture of reconciliation with violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms and Joachim had been close friends until a divorce between Joachim and his wife Amalie drove the musician and composer apart. Joachim, who was known to be a jealous man, had accused his wife of adultery. In the ensuing legal dispute, Brahms testified to her credibility rather than side with Joachim. Happily, the friendship was rekindled through the concerto, and it would also be Brahms' last major work for orchestra.

  • Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924), Dolly Suite for Piano Duet (Four Hands) – The 1890s were a successful time for Fauré. He was received in Venice by the Princesse Edmond de Polignac which resulted in his composition Cinq mélodies on poems by Verlaine and directly anticipated Faure's famous La bonne chanson. It was also the period of his happy liaison with Emma Bardac, the future second wife of Debussy, to whom he dedicated La bonne chanson. To Bardac's daughter he dedicated the duet Dolly, a collection for one piano and four hands that he also named after her. The collection of six short pieces marked a departure for Fauré, who rarely used descriptive titles in his music unless his publishers required them. Each of the pieces in the Dolly suite feature a whimsical title. The second piece that we just heard for example: Mi-a-ou, is named for the two-year-old Dolly's attempt to pronounce the name of her older brother: Raoul.

  • Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), Romeo and Juliet – Though the famous Shakespearean duo Romeo and Juliet have appeared numerous times in music history, Sergei Prokofiev's ballet adaptation of the romantic tragedy is perhaps the most controversial. Prokofiev clashed with the management at the Bolshoi Theater when he wished to change the play's ending, complaining that quote "living people can dance, the dying cannot." Finally, the work was rejected by the Bolshoi as being unsuitable for dancing. With a resolution passed, Prokofiev found his works banned and himself severely censured by the Union of Composers. Stepping dangerously close to being labeled a "degenerate modernist" like his friend Shostakovich, Prokofiev took the advice of ballet conductor Yuri Feyer and made many revisions to the work. The ballet was finally performed in Leningrad in 1940 and would go on to receive international acclaim. Later Prokofiev returned to the work and composed three orchestra suites from the music of the ballet.

  • Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829), Grand Duo Concertant in A, Op. 85 – The "Grand Duo Concertant" was a popular instrumental form up until the early 19th century. The work was a virtuosic showcase piece for two solo instruments working in tandem, a kind of precursor to the double concerto that took over in the Romantic era. Many composers wrote Grand Duos, including Carl Maria Von Weber (for clarinet and piano), Franz Liszt (for violin and piano), and Frederic Chopin, who wrote one for piano and cello with help from cellist Auguste Franchomme. This particular Grand Duo Concertant comes from the early 19th century guitarist Mauro Giuliani. Giuliani was born in Italy, but had much more success in Vienna, hobnobbing with the likes of Beethoven, Hummel, and Diabelli. This work showcases virtuosic techniques of both guitar and flute, while retaining some of the elements of classical sonata form from the 18th century.

Want more duos? Check out this week's podcast!

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