As you explore the world of classical music, you’ll probably hear the term “chamber music” a lot. But what does this term mean?
What makes a certain piece of music “chamber music”? And how does this compare with other forms of classical music, like orchestral music or instrumental music?
Let’s start with a definition of chamber music, before moving on to recommending some great pieces of chamber music to start with.
What is chamber music?
Classical music can be performed by all kinds of performer configurations. At one end, you have solo music – a solo piano sonata or a violin sonata, for example – which requires only one performer. At the other extreme, there is orchestral music – symphonies, concertos, symphonic poems and more. These works involve much larger forces – usually a full-size orchestra although in some cases, such as Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 8a choir is also added to the mix.
On this spectrum from soloist to full orchestra, chamber music falls somewhere in the middle. A piece of chamber music will usually contain parts for two to nine players – although, as there are also chamber orchestras, the lines between chamber music and orchestral music become somewhat blurred.
At the smallest, chamber music can be reserved for two people. It will often, but not always, be a piano plus another instrument, and will be known as a sonata. So, for example, Brahms – one of the undisputed masters of chamber music – wrote two cello sonatas (for cello and piano), two clarinet sonatas (clarinet and piano) and three violin sonatas (violin and piano).
What are the different common groupings in chamber music?
We can use Brahms as an example, in fact, when we go through the different common configurations of chamber music.
Chamber music for three performers is known as a trio, and the most common configuration is piano, violin, and cello. Brahms wrote three piano trios (a fourth is generally attributed to him), but he also wrote a trio for horn (horn, cello, piano) and a trio for clarinet (clarinet, violin, piano).
Moving on to music written for four performers, the most common configuration here is the string quartet. Brahms wrote three – but he also wrote three piano quartetsin which a piano replaces one of the violins.
Let’s move on to the music for five performers, Brahms wrote one of the most famous piano quintets (for piano and string quartet) in the repertoire. The German composer also composed a pair of string quintets (for two violins, two violas and a cello) and a pair of string sextets (by adding another cello to the mix). Unsurprisingly, as the staff increases, the sound gets a bit fuller and warmer.
Moving up, we also have septets (like the one written by Beethoven), bytes (Mendelssohn’s marvelous work, composed when he was only 16, is rightly the most famous) and even the nonet. The Czech composer Martinu wrote one for wind quintet, string trio and double bass. The permutations are virtually endless!
Does chamber music tend to have certain moods?
Being composed for smaller forces than orchestral music, chamber music tends to have a more intimate, reflective and personal feel. While an orchestral work is generally more about grand gestures, a piece of chamber music can be more like a dialogue – between the performers, whether a piano trio or a string quartet, but also between these performers and the listener.
A good way to understand the difference here is to compare Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies with his 15 string quartets. Shostakovich’s symphonies were written for public performance and often in response to demands from the communist regime. As such, they are great works, often declamatory. Think of the first movement of the Symphony No. 7, ‘Leningrad‘, for example. It is music to be heard in a large auditorium, and music with a large public message to convey – in this case, the resistance of the citizens of the people of Leningrad against the Nazi invaders.
By contrast, Shostakovich’s string quartets are much more personal and intimate affairs. Many were not heard in public for years after they were composed, and the contrast between Symphony No. 7’s emphasis and the quiet angst of his String Quartet No. 7 could hardly be more pronounced.
Five Wonderful Pieces of Chamber Music to Start With
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 1
Brahms was an accomplished pianist, and in his three violin sonatas the piano and violin enjoy equal prominence. This first sonata was composed around the same time as his famous Violin Concerto.
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Renaud Capuçon (violin), Nicholas Angelich (piano)
Beethoven: Piano Trio op. 97, ‘Archduke’
One of the finest pieces of chamber music in the repertoire, the “Archduke” Trio is one of 12 piano trios written by Beethoven. It’s probably the most famous, with the “Ghost” (named after its stealthy, twilight slow motion) right behind it. The Archduke takes its name from its dedicatee, Archduke Rudolf of Austria. The youngest of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II’s 12 children, Rudolf was a patron, friend and student of composition of Beethoven.
Fine Arts Trio
Dvořák String Quartet No. 12 “American”
Dvořák wrote 14 string quartets, of which number 12 is the best known. It was written in 1893, when the great Czech composer was living in the United States and working as director of the National Conservatory. It is perhaps best known for its slow, nostalgic movement, which seems to echo Native American music.
Schubert: Piano Quintet, “Trout”
Schubert’s Trout Quintet is full of joyful moments and an unmistakably Schubertian gift for melody. Most of the piano quintets are composed for a piano and a string quartet – Schubert’s replaces the second violin with a double bass, and thus has a very distinctive sound universe.
Kodaly Quartet, Jeno Jando (piano), Istvan Toth (double bass)
Like the ‘Trout’ Quintet above, Felix Mendelssohn’s String Octet contains many moments of infectious joy – not least the wondrous soaring melody that dominates its first movement. Incredibly, Mendelssohn composed the piece at just 16 years old.