Bartlett, Robertson, and the Problem of Piano Duets

Black and white photo of Bartlett playing piano while Robertson reaches over to write on the score.

Unidentified photographer. Rae Robertson and Ethel Bartlett, undated. Box-Folder 5/32, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson Music and Other Papers, Music Division.

The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician Emily Baumgart.

The Music Division has recently processed the Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson Music and Other Papers, which showcases the professional and personal lives of the Bartlett and Robertson piano duo. Ethel Bartlett (1896-1978) and Rae Robertson (1893-1956) met at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where they were both students of the British pianist Tobias Matthay, and they married in 1921. Although they performed together during their studies, they officially became a performing duo in the mid-1920s, touring and concertizing throughout Europe and the Americas before settling in California during the 1950s. Their collection, consisting primarily of musical scores and parts, demonstrates both their musical connections and their repertoire.

Early in their professional and personal partnership, Bartlett and Robertson discovered some difficulty in finding satisfactory two-piano works to perform in concerts and recitals. Although works for two-piano duet and piano, four hands did exist, Bartlett and Robertson despaired that the repertory “does not compare either in quantity, variety, or quality with the wonderful literature for solo piano” (Bartlett and Robertson: “The Two-Piano Repertory,” undated, Box-Folder 5/4). The duo took a two-pronged approach to deal with this problem.

First, they often performed new arrangements of existing music, spanning a wide range of music history from early English compositions by Giles Farnaby to works by the contemporary French composer, Maurice Ravel. Some of these arrangements were made by Bartlett and Robertson themselves, and other arrangements they commissioned. Although arrangements were then (and sometimes still are) often looked down upon, Robertson defended them, saying:

There is a good deal of snobbish talk indulged in by a certain holier-than-thou type of music lover, also by some music critics, and even (though less frequently) by some musicians, on the subject of musical arrangements or transcriptions. . . . When the fact is realized, however, that the list of criminals who are guilty of making arrangements contains such names as J. S. Bach, Brahms, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Busoni, and Rachmaninoff (to mention only a representative few), the makers and performers of arrangements must be conscious of at any rate sinning in good company and even the highest-browed critic might begin to wonder whether something could not be said in favour of his pet abomination. – Robertson: “Arrangements: Are They a Crime?” undated, Box-Folder 5/6.

In further support of musical arrangements, Robertson relayed a conversation with the English composer Frederick Delius, who declared that he would rather hear his music performed well in a two piano arrangement than poorly by a full orchestra. A talented piano duo like Bartlett and Robertson could perform that music well, even if it was not originally intended for two pianos. Additionally, their arrangements of older works allowed Bartlett and Robertson’s audiences to hear music that wasn’t often performed otherwise.

First page of handwritten score in pencil.

Benjamin Britten, Rondo alla burlesca, undated. Box-Folder 2/9, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson Music and Other Papers, Music Division.

Bartlett and Robertson’s second method for acquiring repertoire was to commission original piano duets by contemporary composers. Holograph scores for some of these commissioned works are found in the collection. Benjamin Britten wrote three works for the duo, two of which, Rondo alla Burlesca and Mazurka Elegiaca, are included in the collection. Both scores show somewhat early draft versions, with additions, corrections, bars crossed out, etc., demonstrating elements of Britten’s compositional process. Bartlett and Robertson were good friends with Britten and English tenor Peter Pears; Britten and Pears stayed for a time at their house in California, and it was likely during that visit that these works were written. Another English composer, Arnold Bax, also wrote several works for them earlier in their careers, at least one of which was composed before they were regularly performing together as Bartlett and Robertson. The holograph score for that work, The Devil that Tempted St. Anthony (1920), as well as Bax’s The Poisoned Fountain (1925), are also found in the collection. In this scan of St. Anthony you can see occasional annotations, which were likely made by Bartlett and Robertson for their performances.

First page of handwritten score in ink.

Arnold Bax. The Devil that Tempted St. Anthony, 1920. Box-Folder 2/1, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson Music and Other Papers, Music Division.

Come see these and other items in the Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson Music and Other Papers at the Music Division.

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