Three-hand effect

Last updated
Excerpt from Thalberg's Moise fantasy illustrating the "three-hand" effect, and indicating use of piano pedals. ThalbergMoise.jpg
Excerpt from Thalberg's Moïse fantasy illustrating the "three-hand" effect, and indicating use of piano pedals.

The three-hand effect (or three-hand technique) is a means of playing on the piano with only two hands, but producing the impression that one is using three hands. Typically this effect is produced by keeping the melody in the middle register, with accompanying arpeggios in the treble and bass registers. [1]



The effect had been prefigured by composers including Francesco Pollini (1762–1846), a pupil of Mozart, whose 32 esercizi for the piano (1829), based on techniques found in the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau, included music written on three staves, and using interlocking hand positions, to generate the impression of three, or even four, hands. [2] Another early example exists in an 1817 caprice in E-flat Major by Alexandre Pierre François Boëly. This four-voiced composition has two melodies in bass and treble, with a third melody harmonized in sixths played simultaneously between them. [3]

In Paris of the 1830s, bravura piano technique became very fashionable. Various intricate problems in piano playing were solved during this period, and unusual techniques invented. Advances in piano technology also enabled innovative techniques. [4] Sigismund Thalberg employed a three-hand effect in his Fantasy on Don Juan (1833–34) and subsequently gained great success using it in his Fantasy on Rossini's Moïse (1835). Thalberg primarily used the technique in settings of other composers' works. Arthur Loesser describes his style as "drawing scarves of quick arpeggios" above and below a melody. He adds "[Thalberg's] clever shading that helped make this device convincing: since the accompanying arpeggios were very soft, the resonance of the well brought out melody tones...could seem to 'sing'." [5] Moriz Rosenthal alleged that Thalberg had adapted this effect from the harp technique of Elias Parish Alvars (1808–1849). [6] A contemporary review of Thalberg playing in London mentioned "myriads of notes sounding from one extremity of the instrument to the other without disturbing the subject, in which the three distinct features of this combination are clearly brought out by his exquisite touch." [7] Carl Czerny noted that the technique also required careful novel use of the piano pedals, especially the sustaining pedal; normally having been used to sustain notes in the bass register, Thalberg applied it "to the notes of the middle and higher octaves, and thereby [produced] entirely new effects, which had hitherto never been imagined." [8] Thalberg's entry in Grove Music Online is more circumspect, explaining that "Thalberg's basic compositional method was relatively simple, consisting of placing the melody in the centre of the keyboard first in one hand, then in the other (the thumbs and the sustaining pedal used in particular to prolong the sound), and ornamenting it with florid counterpoint and chords above and below", and concluding that "Thalberg's compositions are of questionable value". [9] Douglas Bomberger has commented "Thalberg has come to represent the excesses of the romantic period, when bigger was better and two hands could sound like three." [10]

Franz Liszt, initially condemning Thalberg's use of this technique, later adopted it himself, for example in his Grandes études on themes of Paganini. [11] [12] By 1840, Felix Mendelssohn, inspired by hearing Thalberg play, [13] was occasionally using this technique in his own compositions. [14] The style became part of the repertoire of many virtuoso pianist-composers of the 19th century.

Ferruccio Busoni composed six studies, constituting "Book Four: 'For Three Hands'" of the second edition of his Klavierübung (published posthumously in 1925), which exhibit different versions of three-hand effect. The studies include transcriptions of music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Offenbach, and Busoni himself. [15]

Kenneth Hamilton comments that "[Thalberg's] inheritance is still with us today, as anyone will testify who has ever heard a cocktail pianist wreath a slow popular tune in elegant arpeggios." [16]

Three-hand effect pieces

This is a partial list of two-hand piano compositions intended or arranged to create the illusion of three hands playing simultaneously.

Related Research Articles

Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni was an Italian composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer, and teacher. His international career and reputation led him to work closely with many of the leading musicians, artists and literary figures of his time, and he was a sought-after keyboard instructor and a teacher of composition.

La campanella

"La campanella" is the nickname given to the third of Franz Liszt's six Grandes études de Paganini, S. 141 (1851). It is in the key of G-sharp minor. This piece is a revision of an earlier version from 1838, the Études d'exécution transcendente d'après Paganini, S. 140. Its melody comes from the final movement of Niccolò Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 in B minor, where the tune was reinforced metaphorically by a 'little handbell'. This is illustrated by the large intervals of 16th notes in the right hand.

Sigismond Thalberg

Sigismond Thalberg was a composer and one of the most distinguished virtuoso pianists of the 19th century.

The Transcendental Études, S.139, are a series of twelve compositions for piano by Franz Liszt. They were published in 1852 as a revision of an 1837 series, which in turn were the elaboration of a set of studies written in 1826.

Ignaz Friedman

Ignaz Friedman was a Polish pianist and composer. Critics and colleagues alike placed him among the supreme piano virtuosi of his day, alongside Leopold Godowsky, Moriz Rosenthal, Josef Hofmann and Josef Lhévinne.

<i>Fantasy on Themes from Mozarts </i>Figaro<i> and </i>Don Giovanni

The Fantasy on Themes from Mozart's Figaro and Don Giovanni, S.697, is an operatic paraphrase for solo piano by Franz Liszt, left as an unfinished manuscript upon his death, but completed by the pianist Leslie Howard and published in 1997. It has also been referred to as the "Figaro/Don Giovanni Fantasy" and is based on music from Mozart's operas The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787). Liszt composed the work by the end of 1842 or early 1843, as he performed it at the latest in Berlin on 11 January 1843.

Three Concert Études, S.144, are a set of three piano études by Franz Liszt, composed between 1845–49 and published in Paris as Trois caprices poétiques with the three individual titles as they are known today.

The Études by Frédéric Chopin are three sets of études for the piano published during the 1830s. There are twenty-seven compositions overall, comprising two separate collections of twelve, numbered Op. 10 and Op. 25, and a set of three without opus number.

Transcendental Étude No. 12 in B minor is an étude for piano written by composer Franz Liszt. It has the programmatic title "Chasse-neige", and is the 12th and last of the Transcendental Études. The étude is a study in tremolos but contains many other difficulties like wide jumps and fast chromatic scales, and it requires a very gentle and soft touch in the beginning. The piece gradually builds up to a powerful climax. It is one of the most difficult Transcendental Études, being ranked 9 out of 9 by publisher G. Henle Verlag—one of the six in the series to receive the highest possible difficulty ranking.

Étude Op. 10, No. 1 (Chopin) étude written by Chopin

Étude Op. 10, No. 1 in C major, known as the Waterfall étude, is a study for solo piano composed by Frédéric Chopin in 1829. It was first published in 1833 in France, Germany, and England as the first piece of his Études Op. 10. This study in reach and arpeggios focuses on stretching the fingers of the right hand. The American music critic James Huneker (1857–1921) compared the "hypnotic charm" that these "dizzy acclivities and descents exercise for eye as well as ear" to the frightening staircases in Giovanni Battista Piranesi's prints of the Carceri d'invenzione. Virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who refused to perform this étude in public, said, "For me, the most difficult one of all is the C Major, the first one, Op. 10, No. 1."

Transcendental Étude No. 2 in A minor, "Molto Vivace", or Fusées is the 2nd piece of the Transcendental Études by Franz Liszt. The title Fusées is not Liszt's own, but was added by Ferruccio Busoni in his edition of the Études, referring to the right hand figures that leap off the keyboard, giving impressions of rockets going off. It is a study in alternating hands, hands overlapping, both hands playing the same note alternatingly, and steep right hand leaps.

Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543 is a piece of organ music written by Johann Sebastian Bach sometime around his years as court organist to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar (1708–1713).

Alberto Jonás Spanish musician

Alberto Jonás was a Spanish pianist, composer, and piano pedagogue. Although not much is known about his life, as a pianist he was regarded as a virtuoso on the level of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Moriz Rosenthal, Leopold Godowsky, Józef Hofmann, and Josef Lhévinne. He also ranked, during the 1920s and 30s, among the greatest and most sought-after keyboard pedagogues of the time.

Ferruccio Busoni discography

Ferruccio Busoni discography chronicles the list of releases by the music artist.

Ferruccio Busoni discography (as pianist) artist discography

This article lists acoustic recordings made for Columbia by Ferruccio Busoni. The published recordings were issued on 78-rpm records. It is believed that the original matrices were destroyed in a fire at the Columbia factory in England in the 1920s. Copies of the original 78s still exist, and the recordings have been transferred to LP and CD. Some of the digital copies have been computer enhanced.

Klavierübung (Busoni)

The Klavierübung, by the Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni, is a compilation of piano exercises and practice pieces, comprising transcriptions of works by other composers and original compositions of his own.

Bach-Busoni Editions Series of publications by the Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni

The Bach-Busoni Editions are a series of publications by the Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) containing primarily piano transcriptions of keyboard music by Johann Sebastian Bach. They also include performance suggestions, practice exercises, musical analysis, an essay on the art of transcribing Bach's organ music for piano, an analysis of the fugue from Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' sonata, and other related material. The later editions also include free adaptations and original compositions by Busoni which are based on the music of Bach.

Carlo Grante is an Italian classical pianist. He graduated at the National Academy of St Cecilia in Rome with Sergio Perticaroli. Later he also studied with Ivan Davis, Rudolf Firkušný, and Aliza Kezeradze. He is known as a performer of mainstream classical composers such as Franz Liszt, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Domenico Scarlatti, as well as highly demanding late romantic and 20th-century composers such as Leopold Godowsky, Ferruccio Busoni, George Flynn, Roman Vlad, Paolo Troncon, Michael Finnissy, Alistair Hinton and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. His discography consists of more than 50 albums.

<i>Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue</i>

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, is a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach probably composed it during his time in Köthen from 1717 to 1723. The piece was already regarded as a unique masterpiece during his lifetime. It is now often played on piano.



  1. Hamilton (1998), p. 58
  2. Cvetko (1980), p. 48; Rowland (2004), p. 122.
  3. 1 2 Kim (2007), pp. 53–54. "This etude in allegro ma non troppo tempo achieves a three-hand effect when performed correctly".
  4. See Loesser (1990), pp. 358–359, and Harding (1978), p. 153.
  5. Loesser (1990), p. 372.
  6. Rosenthal (2005), p. 75.
  7. Cited in Harding (1978), p. 155.
  8. Cited in Hamilton (2008), p. 156.
  9. François, Fortuné (2001). "Thalberg, Sigismond". In Root, Deane L. (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . Oxford University Press.
  10. Bomberger (1991), p. 198.
  11. Hamilton (1998), pp. 58–61
  12. 1 2 Arnold (2002), p. 104 "The third and most famous Etude of the set in D♭ (Un sospiro) is known for its beautiful melody gracefully plucked out by alternating hands over legatissimo cascading arpeggios that create an adroit, Thalbergian three-hand effect."
  13. Harding (1978), p. 155.
  14. 1 2 Todd (2004), p. 215"...the Prelude and Fugue in E minor appeared in the album Notre temps from Schott in 1842 (for the occasion Mendelssohn joined a newly composed prelude, a kind of study in the three-hand technique, to a youthful fugue from 1827)"
  15. Busoni (1925), pp. 51–62.
  16. Hamilton (2008), p. 158.
  17. 1 2 "Transcriptions and paraphrases", Raritaten der Klaviermusik website "[Ferruccio] Busoni commented: “Anyone who has heard or played this section without being moved has not yet found their way to Liszt.” For this section [of the Norma Reminiscences] is a kaleidoscope of pianistic sonorities which is further elevated by a new piano technique of the time, credited to Sigismund Thalberg. He had developed the so-called “three-hand technique”, covering all registers of the keyboard with the aid of continuous pedal use: Thalberg had employed this device as early as 1837 in his Fantasia on Rossini’s “Moses”, Op. 33."