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Chamber Music

Classical music began as entertainment for rich aristocrats and a showcase feature of rich churches who could afford to support composers and musicians as full time employees. In the smaller venues of entertainment rooms in the homes of the wealthy, small chamber ensembles played pieces composed specifically for those audiences. Some pieces were for listening, others for dancing, and others as background music, part of the décor. Virtuoso performers played pieces designed to impress audiences with their technical skills. Some of the great composers were also skilled performers who in the tradition of jazz performers improvised in these small gatherings and competed with each other.

In more recent times, chamber groups attempted to draw audiences to large concert halls and are having difficulty sustaining an audience. Recordings of string quartets filled the living rooms of sophisticated listeners. Often, recordings of these smaller ensmebles played better and were more compatible with home environments than recordings of symphonic orchestras.

Anne Midgette described the current state of chamber music:  “The term chamber music involves the idea of a few people playing music in an intimate space. But the most common perception is that the players are members of an established ensemble, performing century-old masterworks on traditional instruments in an atmosphere of worshipful silence. This is hardly the depiction of a living art form, or one attractive to anyone who is not already an initiate. Margaret Lioi, the CEO of Chamber Music America, offered a revised definition of chamber music: “music for small ensembles in which each player has a part, generally without a conductor.” This definition allows a more diverse membership that includes cabaret and folk groups, and jazz groups who consider themselves artists of the caliber of classical musicians, but with the advantage that they can improvise and create new compositions as they play.

Midgette points to the small group of traditionalists who continue to support the repetition of centuries old pieces, but also points to dissenters such as Eric Lin, a young composer and music student who attended a Emerson String Quartet performance of Beethoven at Carnegie Hall and found the experience “expensive and suffocating, and I like classical music.”

The string quartet has been the most popular form of chamber music. The violin, viola, cello and bass violin cover the entire pitch range of stringed instruments and offer a remarkably complete opportunity to invent music of beauty, complexity and variety.  Haydn wrote 83 string quartets. A Haydn string quartet has four movements: beginning with a melodic theme played ensemble, followed by each instrument developing the theme, often with the introduction of a secondary theme. This approach has been described as a “conversational style of composition.”  The second movement tends to be slower with an ABCABC structure. The third is a minuet in three quarter time.  The finale section is up tempo in rondo form, the main theme opening and closing the movement.

Mozart, the childhood virtuoso and great improviser expanded the chamber music repertoire, adding seven piano trios, two piano quartets and pieces for other solos instruments such as the flute and clarinet.  The piano was a recent innovation and following Mozart’s lead, composers to follow included the piano in their compositions. Mozart also wrote pieces for the French horn and wind instrument combinations.

Beethoven took advantage of improvements in instrument construction that allowed players to develop more virtuoso techniques. His debut as a composer at the age of 22 was three piano trios. These were followed by a septet that became a hit song. Beethoven is credited with the kind of progression of musical innovation that we recognize in the evolution of jazz in the 20th century.  Stravinsky referred to his last quartets, as "this absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever." Among Beethoven’s innovations are complex syncopations and cross-rhythms; synchronized runs of sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth notes; and sudden modulations requiring special attention to intonation.”

* Anne Midgette. Music That Thinks Outside the Chamber. NYT June 24, 2007

Notes adapted from Wiki entry on Chamber Music accessed online Oct 2008 at