What is chamber music?

CHAMBER MUSIC is music written to be performed in a room of a private house or in a small hall. It has been written for voices alone, instruments alone, and combinations of voices and instruments.

In chamber music each player or singer has a part all his own: he/she does not play or sing the same part as other performers, as he/she would in a chorus or the string section of an orchestra. A chamber work may be for one person as in a piano sonata, or for as many as twenty, as it’s a work for chamber orchestras or wind ensemble. Chamber operas, such as Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, are operas written for just a few singers and a small orchestra.

The earliest chamber music was written to be sung. In sixteenth-century Italy and England small groups would get together to sing madrigals. These singers sang for their own entertainment, although there might be a few people who sat and listened. Other groups of music lovers would get together after dinner to play on the soft-voiced viols.

Noblemen of means liked to have music at dinner. Such “table music” was usually written for strings. In the seventeenth century composers began to write chamber music for two or more instruments, calling these works sonatas. The most common of these early forms is the trio sonata, performed on two soprano instruments, a bass, and a keyboard instrument. The keyboard instrument filled in the accompaniment while the three others played the important melody lines. After 1750, when the keyboard instrument was replaced by the viola, the string quartet became the favourite form of chamber music, for both composers and listeners. This popularity was due to Haydn’s eighty-two masterful string quartets. Since the time of Haydn almost every great composer has written at least one string quartet. Many composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Bartók, poured some of their deepest thoughts in this mould.

Chamber music has been written for an almost unlimited number of vocal and instrumental combinations. Composers have written for families of instruments – trios for strings or woodwinds, for example, and quartets have been written for instruments of the same kind, as for four bassoons (by William Schuman) or four saxophones (by Henry Cowell). The piano has been used with the violin and cello trios. It has also been used with the string quartet and many different combinations of wind instruments.

Brahms wrote his Liebeslieder waltzes for vocal quartet and two pianists. Villa-Lobos has scored two of his Bachianas Brasileiras for eight cellos and a soprano. Stravinsky, in his In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, has written for tenor voice, string quartet, and four trombones. Schoenberg wrote a serenade for clarinet, mandolin, guitar, violin, viola, and cello, and Berg has a chamber concerto for piano, violin, and thirteen wind instruments.

Extract from The Golden Encyclopedia of Music by Norman Lloyd, 1968