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Chamber music makes up a third of the trinity of European classical music: chamber music, sacred music, and theater music.

This lesson will examine the developing role of chamber music, what it is, and who made it popular.

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Chamber Music – A Definition

Chamber music typically refers to music written for smaller ensembles, like string quartets or brass quintets. Depending on the era, chamber music can refer to slightly different things, but it all means essentially the same thing: music for small groups in an intimate setting.

Chamber Music – What Is It?

It’s 1750. You’re having a party at your castle.

You’ve got the food and the people are all here. But it’s not a party if the music’s not happening. And it’s not happening because you can’t stream music in 1750.

You need to hire musicians to play your party. So you have to hire some musicians. What do you choose?

Trio Sonata
Trio Sonata

Are you going to choose a brass quintet? That would be 5 loud brass instruments cranking out some tunes. Might be cool, except no one could hear anything other than the music.

Ok, how about a chorus? Don’t want to pay that many musicians, so it would probably be a few singers. Except when you’re trying to chat someone up, the singers’ voices would make it hard to hear the person you’re trying to talk to.The best choice for this scenario would be a small string ensemble, maybe with some woodwinds. This produces music that is quiet enough so people can talk, but present enough to have some background tunes. String instruments make danceable music too, so there’s that.

Chamber Music – Through the Eras

Now that we’ve established the purpose of chamber music, let’s look at how it was used during the different musical eras.

The common era of instrumentation and notation really began in the Renaissance Era (1500-1680). In the Renaissance era, chamber music was essentially any music that wasn’t being performed in the Church. By the Baroque Era (1600-1750) it’s largely the same idea, except the instrumentation has changed. The Renaissance Era was pretty wide open about what made up chamber music, but in the Baroque Era it became much more focused on the small string orchestra with harpsichord accompaniment.

It’s not until the Classical Era (1750-1825) that we see the heyday of chamber music.The Classical era was the time of preeminent chamber music composers, including Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. It’s at this point that chamber music resembles the image we painted earlier. Haydn might as well be called the father of the string quartet, and he is often considered the father of the modern symphony orchestra.

Mozart with his concertos and Beethoven with his string quartets brought the genre to its peak.The Romantic Era saw a decline in Chamber Music as the premier genre, due probably to the declining role of patronage as the primary form of making a livelihood as a musician. Instead, while composers like Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt continued to compose chamber music, it became chamber music for the concert hall.

Chamber Music – Important Composers

As we saw earlier, Renaissance and Baroque era chamber music was pretty ambiguous.

It amounted to any musing for small ensemble that wasn’t sacred. Let’s focus on Classical and later. First and foremost, Joseph Haydn and his 83 string quartets.

A string quartet is a piece written for four stringed instruments: typically two violins, a viola, and a cello. Next up is Mozart with his introduction of the clarinet to the band: clarinet, two violins, a viola, and a cello. It’s as though he was bored writing for simple quartets, and began including other instruments, including the french horn and flute, and writing for more advanced ensembles, including doubling the viola part.

Beethoven, with his early string quartets, mid period piano trio, and late period string quartets, contributed significantly to the genre. Of the Romantic and Modern composers, Schumann and Schubert were the most prolific, and continued Mozart’s development beyond the basic instrumentation.

Lesson Summary

Chamber music is all about the party. Ensembles were smaller in size, music was (typically) danceable, and favored the quieter instruments: strings, and later woodwinds.

The musical eras saw the role of chamber music change, from essentially any music not being performed in the church, up to specialized works for small ensembles performed in the concert hall. The most influential chamber music composer, Haydn, wrote an astounding 83 sting quartets, and while Mozart was not quite as prolific, he was every bit as influential with the way he developed the instrumentation. Later composers, including Beethoven, Schumann, and Schubert further developed the genre; only they began the move from the home to the concert hall.

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