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Having heard a few orchestral works that incorporate a piano merely as accompaniment (see below for some examples), I'm now curious:

When (approximately), and under what circumstances, was the piano incorporated into the orchestra merely as accompaniment?

I'm only aware of symphonies whose score includes a non-solo piano, but perhaps there are concerti (for some instrument other than the piano), song-cycles, overtures, and/or operas that include it as well.

The earliest composed orchestral work which includes a piano that I'm aware of is Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 (1886). Other examples:

Saint-Saëns' 3rd is more popularly known for its organ (which is nearly promoted to solo instrument in the work).

The piano in Mahler's 8th is barely noticeable, and it appears only late in the 2nd part, but then again there's a lot of other stuff going on (eight soloists, two choruses, kids' choir, etc...).

Only in Shostakovich's and Górecki's symphonies mentioned above does the piano feature prominently (but not as a solo instrument).

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    Mozart wrote a Concertante (KV 505) for a particular soprano singer that contains an accompanying piano within the orchestra - his note in his personal opus registry pretty much admits that he did that just to be near her. So there's one reason for you :-) – Kilian Foth Jan 27 '17 at 7:03
  • There's a piano part in the orchestra in Belshazzars Feast by Walton; also there are two piano parts in the opera "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" by Kurt Weill. One's in the pit and plays as part of the orchestra, the other is on-stage and it interacts with orchestra and plays with an on-stage jazz band. – JimM Jan 27 '17 at 11:53
  • Niels Gade, 1852 Opus 25 5th Symphony, D minor has a piano part. – GeezerGeek Jan 27 '17 at 18:26
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    Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements - youtube.com/watch?v=n9oY_cikDl0 – user16935 Jan 27 '17 at 19:05
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    P.S. I could've added Ives' 4th Symphony to the bullet list above, but it requires three pianos, one of which is quarter-tuned sharp, the second played with four hands, and the third smack-dab in the middle of the orchestra with its sound board removed. In this piece, the pianos share a ranking similar to the organ in Saint-Saëns' 3rd. – pr1268 Jan 29 '17 at 11:30
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From an article by Ralph Wood entitled The Piano as an Orchestral Instrument (which is dated 1934, so maybe there's more recent scholarship):

So far as I know, the earliest composer to add the piano to his "battery" was, as might be expected, Berlioz. In Lélio [1832–ed.] he used a piano (à 4 mains) to produce certain crystalline, ethereal effects, which presumably were just what he wanted, and which certainly he could not have got in any other way. That was, however, a very isolated specimen, and not until the present century did the piano really begin consolidating its position in the orchestral forces.

I'm not sure why Mr. Wood did not include the concertante by Mozart mentioned in the comments; perhaps he did not consider it a "full-scale" orchestral piece, or perhaps he was simply unaware of it. My best guess is that while Lélio has a narrator, and has movements that include both chorus and solo vocalists, it is not a piece for "soloist with accompaniment", while Mozart's piece is. The piano plays a more conventional "vocal accompaniment" role in the first movement, but in the final movement it is fully integrated with the orchestra. (It's definitely an oddball piece—the full score is available on IMSLP for those who want to check it out.)


In any event, the linked article is fun to read for the incredible amounts of shade Mr. Wood throws at the very idea of putting a piano into an orchestra:

There is something about the timbre of a piano, hard, constant, impersonal as it is, which refuses to mix. It refuses to mix with strings. It refuses to mix with the human voice (with the consequence that a large proportion of any song recital, whatever it may be to the mind, is somewhat of a trial to the ear.) It refuses, above all, to mix with an orchestra.

The last is the sort of rash, passionate declaration that might be evoked by the intolerable ordeal of hearing a series of all the notable piano concertos existent. They are of many kinds. They contain widely different varieties of treatement. I have yet to hear one, ancient or modern, which shall avoid paining my ear.

  • Thank you for this answer and brief discussion. Mr. Wood's commentary nails it: the piano has such a distinct sound that its presence is obvious in an orchestra even when it's not the featured solo instrument. – pr1268 Jan 27 '17 at 17:23
  • Given that sonatas for string instrument and piano, songs for voice and piano, and piano concertos have been popular from the piano's earliest days to the present, but that Wood thinks so ill of such music, it surprises me that he would write an article The Piano as an Orchestral Instrument. – Rosie F Oct 23 at 7:41
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The piano is a percussion instrument, falling in line with the less "controversial" tuned percussion instruments - celeste, xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, et al. I think one of the reasons it seems odd to be included is that it has a life of its own as a solo instrument, and is prevalent in recital music and chamber music. Bear in mind that its predecessor - the harpsichord - had been an integral part of seventeenth and eighteenth century orchestras without exception.

  • Regarding the last sentence, I wonder to what extent the piano was used as a continuo instrument in 18th century orchestras, and when it (or chord-playing instruments generally) fell out of use in that role. Some period instrument performances of late 18C operas use piano, but I don't know what evidence exists in the record to support that practice. – phoog Sep 19 '18 at 17:15
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Other examples of piano in the orchestra:

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem, and The Turn of the Screw

Alban Berg: Wozzeck (on stage and out of tune)

Aaron Copland: Rodeo

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Some more examples of the piano in the orchestra, courtesy of Walter Piston, Orchestration, p.341--6:

  • Stravinsky: Petrushka (1911)
  • Bartók: Dance Suite (1923)
  • Aaron Copland: Symphony 1 (re-orchestrated without organ, 1928)
  • Prokofiev: Symphony 5 (1944)
  • Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony 4 (1945)
  • Aaron Copland: Symphony 3 (1946)

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