Chamber music can be defined as music designed to be played in a room or other small venue by two or more instrumental soloists, one to a part, the parts usually of about equal importance. The upper limit of the number of players is fluid but is normally considered to be about ten.
The term has meant different things at different times. From the earliest times, music has been written for small ensembles, and consorts. Before the advent of public concerts in the second half of the 17th century, organised music-making took place in the theatre, in church, or in the royal or aristocratic salons, halls and chambers and could refer to any small ensemble, vocal as well as instrumental. So we have the term "sonata da camera" ("chamber sonata") for instance to distinguish it from the "sonata da chiesa" ("church sonata") both of which had evolved and melded by this time into what is now generally referred to as the trio sonata, where two instruments played melody parts with a “continuo” of another two instruments – harpsichord, theorbo (bass lute) cello etc. – supplying the rhythm and bass. The two part sonata, usually violin and continuo, although flute or other woodwind was common, was also popular.
Modern chamber music was born with the classical era after about 1750. More to the point it could be said have been born with Joseph Haydn who developed the four instrument trio sonata into the string quartet we know today, where the continuo was done away with and each instrument – two violins, viola and cello – had equal roles in the intimate interplay of the piece. Whilst the string quartet has followed the changing musical styles of the eras since its inception, the form as written today is exactly the same as that written by Haydn or Mozart. Very few notable composers have not written for this combination and it has been used by many as their most intimate form of expression.
Chamber music has been written for many combinations of instruments; the most popular, or interesting, are here:
- The Duet - usually for a string or woodwind instrument and piano. The piano is not an accompaniment generally but a true partner, as in its vocal sibling, the lied or art-song. By far the most popular and numerous has been the violin sonata, but great sonatas for cello, and clarinet, are popular. There is a frequent interchange of instruments with sonatas written for one instrument being transposed for others – Brahms, for example wrote viola “versions” of his two clarinet sonatas, and rewrote the first of his three violin sonatas for cello. Violists have a propensity for transcriptions of cello and violin works for their own instrument and saxophonists also tend to cast around in the preserves of other instruments.
- There are also notable works for two violins, violin and cello, flute and harp and other partnerships. The piano duet, either on one or two pianos, is a popular form - Brahms used it to introduce his larger scale works into the homes of the public through the sale of sheet-music at his concerts, much as a modern performer will have CDs for sale at the performance venue. Other piano duet arrangements of large-scale works even include Holst’s “Planets”. Works written as piano duets but later orchestrated by their composers include Ravel’s “Mother Goose” and Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances”, his last work.
- The Trio comes in various combinations, the most popular of which are the standard string trio for violin, viola and cello; and the piano trio, usually for piano, violin and cello. Most of the great composers have written works for one or both of these combinations; some of which are amongst the greatest chamber music written. There are trios featuring the clarinet, French Horn, flute, harp and even trombone.
- Two rare combinations must be mentioned because of the popularity of one work in each case. Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” trio for piano, viola and clarinet has been joined by only two other works for that combination in the modern repertoire; suites by Schumann and Bruch. Claude Debussy’s '“sonata for flute, viola and harp” is a mainstay of his tragically sparse chamber music. There is only one other piece heard for these instruments – a short “elegiac trio” written by Arnold Bax, quite independently of Debussy in the same year.
- The quartet, whilst finding its most notable expression in its form for strings, is extremely popular when a string trio is joined by a piano. Starting with Mozart’s frequently heard two, many of the greats have written piano quartets – Mendelssohn Schumann, Brahms, Sibelius, Faure, Walton. Mozart wrote a popular oboe quartet. Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” was written and first performed for piano (out of tune and with keys missing), clarinet, cello (minus one string) and violin whilst he was in a German prisoner of war camp in 1941.
- The quintet has had much the same history as the quartet and trio. The two most popular forms are piano or clarinet with string quartet, and the all string form.
- Some of the most popular works in all western music are piano quintets: Schubert’s “Trout”, and those by Schumann, Brahms, Cesar Franck and Dvorak. Shostakovich won the Lenin Prize for his piano quintet in 1941. The clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms are immensely popular.
- The actual make-up of the string quintet varies, often according to the instrumental disposition of the composer – Mozart used an extra viola, Luigi Boccherini liked the cello (although he did write quintets using the double bass and his guitar quintets are popular.) Schubert’s great D.956 quintet also uses two cellos. Brahms added a viola.
- Whilst the smaller ensembles occasionally consisted of wind instruments, when we get to the quintet we find a sudden interest in the wind form. Usually consisting of flute oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, the ensemble has a varied and popular repertoire. An ensemble consisting of piano and four wind instruments is popular - examples are the piano and wind quintets of Mozart and Beethoven.
- The sextet, septet, octet and nonet (for 6, 7, 8 and 9 instruments) have too many combinations to discuss here. They appear as wind and string ensembles and a combination of both. There are string sextets by Brahms, a wind septet by Beethoven; Schubert wrote an octet for a strings and wind ensemble; and there is a memorable octet for strings by a very young Mendelssohn. There is even a “concerto for piano, violin and string quartet” by Ernest Chausson which is a sextet by another name.
The term “chamber” can apply to larger forces, but refers to the ensemble, not the music. So we get a “chamber orchestra”, which is smaller than the full symphony orchestra, but is fully able to play the music (including symphonies) of the 18th and early 19th centuries using similar forces to the orchestras of the time.
“Oxford Companion to Music”
“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”