Chamber music is a genre of classical music with a history spanning several centuries. It has long been enjoyed by all kinds of people from all demographics of society. Read about its origins and development, and then listen to some examples of chamber music works from the Middle Ages through to today!
What is chamber music?
Chamber music is a form of (classical) music that is composed for a small group of instruments, usually with each one playing a different part. Solo instrumental works are usually not considered to be chamber music. Much of the chamber music of the past was designed to be played in palace chambers or in the home; more recently, chamber music works are regularly performed in large concert halls. Chamber music is often considered to be "conversational", as the different instrumental parts engage in "dialogue" around a theme or motif.
In the "Early Music" era of classical music (the Medieval and Renaissance Eras), man-made instruments usually accompanied the human voice. However, there were also "consorts", or instrumental ensembles, which were popular at court and in wealthy households. In the Baroque Era, chamber music was not a clearly defined genre, as the same musical works could be performed on a variety of different instruments, in orchestral or chamber ensembles. However, the sonata da camera (chamber sonata) and sonata da chiesa (church sonata) musical forms for one to five (or more) instruments are often considered to be the original chamber music forms, developing into the "trio sonata" form.
In the Classical Era of music (as opposed to classical music as a genre), a lighter, more simple "galant" style of music was preferred, compared to the complexity often present in the music of the Baroque Era. The custom of "serenades" began, where people would hire musicians to perform below their own balconies or those of friends or lovers. Composers sometimes wrote works specifically for this custom. One such composer was Franz Joseph Haydn - the "father of the string quartet" - who composed not only 68 string quartets, but also many works for other chamber music ensembles. Many other composers continued to write chamber music works during this era - most notably Mozart, whose innovations greatly expanded the possibilities of the chamber music genre, and Beethoven, whose ground-breaking work was essential to the transition between the Classical and Romantic Eras.
In the Romantic Era, societal and technological changes greatly affected the development of music, including chamber music. Employment of composers by the aristocracy was on the decline, so subscription concerts became popular; composers would write works for a professional audience to play to a paying audience in a rented hall. Chamber music was a very important part of the output of many composers; thousands of chamber works were composed during this time, many of which are among the most frequently-performed today.
As the 20th Century drew near, classical music, including chamber music, became highly experimental. Composers explored the limits of the different elements of sound and music. Throughout this century and into the 21st, many different movements took place, leading composers into a number of different directions, from 12-tone serialism (where a "series" of twelve notes form the basis of the work) to neoclassicism (modelled on more traditional structures and rules, with a modern twist) to "chance"/"aleatoric" music, and much more.
Today, living composers continue to explore and experiment with the possibilities of chamber music. Modern-day chamber music groups often perform works from both the past (especially the Romantic Era) and the present. Historical works continue to be performed in both concert halls and more unconventional contexts. Some chamber music groups may choose to focus particularly on "new" music, such as in the case of the Kronos Quartet, or on "crossover" (classical mixed with other genres) music, such as in the case of the Vitamin String Quartet. Chamber music also continues to be a popular form of classical music for amateurs and professionals alike!
Michael Praetorius - Terpsichore
Tafelmusik ("Table music") was a term used predominantly between the mid-1500s to the late 1700s to describe light music designed to be played at feasts and banquets. Composers often used this term as a title for a collection of this type of music, which could be instrumental, vocal, or both. Michael Praetorius wrote about Tafelmusik in his "Syntagma musicum" of 1619. His Terpsichore collection of musical arrangements (the tunes were already a part of the French dance repertoire) are an example of Tafelmusik; they were meant "for princely meals and also for banquets”. Terpsichore is made up of more than 300 instrumental dances, and is named for the muse of dance.
Franz Joseph Haydn - String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3 "Emperor"
Haydn was instrumental in the development of chamber music, earning himself the title "Father of the String Quartet". In 1897/98, Haydn composed six string quartets, dedicated to the Hungarian count Joseph Georg von Erdődy. The third of these quartets is nicknamed "Emperor" as the famous second movement is a set of variations on "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" ("God save Emperor Francis"). This was an anthem Haydn wrote for Emperor Francis II; the melody was used for the national anthem of Austria-Hungary, and later for the post-war German "Deutschlandlied" anthem.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Clarinet Quintet, K. 581
Mozart's clarinet quintet (a work for a single clarinet and a string quartet) is one of the earliest and best-known works highlighting the clarinet. It was written for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. The original composition was for basset clarinet, but nowadays the work is usually played on a clarinet in A. The quintet is sometimes referred to as the Stadler Quintet.
Ludwig van Beethoven - Große Fuge, Op. 133
The Große Fuge (Great Fugue/Grand Fugue) is a single-movement work for string quartet. It is one of Beethoven's late works, composed when he was almost completely deaf. This "double fugue" (a piece with two fugue "subjects" which are developed simultaneously) work was beyond its time, and was therefore condemned by critics at the time of composition. However, since the early 20th Century, it has come to be considered one of Beethoven's greatest works. It was initially meant to be the final movement of the composer's "Quartet No. 13 in B♭ major, Op. 130", but his publisher knew it wouldn't go down well with the public. Beethoven composed a new finale, publishing the Große Fuge as a separate piece.
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Franz Schubert - Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 "Forellenquintett" (Trout Quintet)
The "Trout Quintet" is a piano quintet work which, unusually, is written for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, rather than the standard piano and string quartet (two violins, viola, cello). It is known as the Trout because the fourth movement (out of five) is a set of variations on Schubert's Lied (song for voice and (usually) piano) "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). This piece is important because of its innovative use of harmony (relationships between notes) and the timbral (sound quality) characteristics, such as the unusual choice of instruments and the piano part which concentrates largely on the highest register.
Filmmaker Christopher Nupen created a documentary in 1969 called "The Trout", which focuses on a performance of this quintet. The film has gone down in music history for its depiction of the process and relationships behind the now-famous concert which brought together a legendary group of musicians: Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, and Zubin Mehta.
Arnold Schönberg - Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 (Moonstruck Pierrot)
"Pierrot lunaire" is a 1912 melodrama (an emotional, dramatic work which focuses on the character rather than action/plot) in three parts of 21 movements in total. It is written for reciter (usually a soprano singer), accompanied by a "Pierrot ensemble" of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (instruments may also be "doubled" by similar instruments). The vocal line is written in a sprechstimme (sung-spoken) style, and the music is atonal - it does not have a fixed "home" key.
Maurice Ravel - Chansons madécasses (Madagascan songs)
Ravel's "Chansons madécasses" is a set of three songs for mezzo-soprano or baritone voice, flute, cello, and piano. The works are settings of texts from the poetry collection of the same name by Évariste de Parny. They are usually performed together as a song cycle, though this was not the composer's original intention.
Dmitri Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 8
This work was composed in only 3 days (in 1960), and was dedicated "to the victims of fascism and war". Shostakovich was in Dresden, Germany for a film music project, and had recently (and reluctantly) joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The work may have been meant as somewhat of a suicide note or epitaph, according to his friend Lev Lebedinsky (spoiler alert: Shostakovich died of heart failure fifteen years later). The composer is very much central to the work, using his signature D-S-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B notes in German) motif, and it is believed that this work was deeply personal to him.
Steve Reich - Different Trains
"Different Trains" is a 1988 three-movement piece for string quartet and tape. It won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition the following year, for the original recording by the Kronos Quartet. The work was inspired by Reich's train journeys during World War II. As a youngster, he travelled between New York and Los Angeles to see his parents; his Jewish heritage meant that had he been living in Europe, he might have been travelling to a more nefarious destinations. The recorded tape fragments are speech snippets, and these provide a source for the string melodies.
Ok, we're going to add a few examples here!
Just like in the 20th Century, composers in the 21st Century continue to explore the possibilities of chamber music, unrestricted by the "rules" of the "common-practice" era (Baroque through to the end of the Romantic Era). This includes creating new subgenres, genre crossovers (such as classical/pop/rock), using electronic and non-traditional instruments together, and more. Check out our Living Composers blog posts for some examples of the range of work being created by the composers of today!
Norwegian artist Bjørn Nes explores a range of different genres in his work, and his 2021 release "Abacus" includes a Baroque-inspired guitar quintet. The material was modelled on Baroque dance styles, and was first developed on the electric guitar before being digitally notated, arranged, and so on. The writing process was balanced between the physical and digital music-making worlds. Rather than having a featured role as is often the case in classical works which include non-traditional instruments, the electric guitar is treated as a part of the ensemble in the "Guitar Quintet in F-major". The timbral (sound) quality of the electric guitar is, of course, different to the timbres of the bowed string instruments (violin, viola, cello) - just as in the case of the distinctly-timbred harpsichord, which was treated as both an ensemble and a solo instrument in the Baroque Era.
Another composer who combines genres and influences in her work is American Jennifer Higdon. Her work is often considered "neoromantic" (a modern twist on Romantic Era-style music), but has included influences from pop, rock, folk music, as well as drawing inspiration from nature, the performers she composes for, and much more. A prolific contemporary classical composer, she receives commissions from all around the world, including for chamber music ensembles. Her "Piano Trio" is in two movements, inspired by colour: "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red". Later, she also composed "Color Through" - a work which can be performed on its own or combined with the "Piano Trio".
New Zealand composer Salina Fisher often draws on her Japanese heritage, her fascination with nature, and her violin background in her work. She enjoys collaboration with a variety of art forms, having worked closely with practitioners of taonga pūoro (Māori traditional instruments), Japanese instruments, ceramics, and film. Her music has been commissioned and performed worldwide? "Lumina" is inspired by New Zealand glow worms and the caves they inhabit. It was commissioned by the LA Phil for performance by International Contemporary Ensemble in the Noon to Midnight Festival 2019, and is orchestrated for soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, bassoon, percussion (waterphone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, crotales), piano, violin, viola, and cello.
These are just a few of many examples of chamber music from Middle Ages through to this century. What else can you discover?
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