Designed for small ensembles of between two to eight players, allowing each instrument to carry a unique voice to a piece, Chamber music is what some have referred to as the music of friends. Structurally, scores for Chamber music is meant to be created for intimate gatherings, playable by amateur musicians so, by convention, they will not cover solo performances. The pieces are often unobtrusive, complementing social gatherings as a background ambiance.
Though it is possible in modern times to have chamber music played in concert halls and theaters, it is still common to find chamber music played at grand house functions and churches which carry the sound naturally.
As the name suggests, chamber music was meant to be played in the particular room where often guests would be greeted by estate owners. But the use of small ensembles goes back further to medieval times. Often, small groups of players of older medieval instruments served public functions, such as public addresses.
In sixteenth-century France, the popular chansons, pieces created for four voices based on liturgical texts were a way to engage the public in religious settings. In Germany, at around the same time, with the advent of mass publication, scores were printed, often without any reference to specific instruments, for use by musicians to provide counter melodies to popular folk songs.
The elements of chamber music were further developed with the advent of Italian dance music. These were often presented as two pieces – one slow and stately piece and another, livelier, piece which took the melodies and key of the first. As the sixteenth century progressed, these two-piece sets were expanded into four, the allemande, the courante, the sarabande, and the gigue. Each of these were designed to complement each other in melody, but offer a contrast in rhythm.
During the latter half of the 17th century, the composer began to rise in status. Often, stately courts would be under the employ of grand houses, ducal and royal. These houses could accommodate larger instruments such as the harpsichord which very quickly became an important feature of chamber music. In addition, many early composers would be appointed by the clergy.
One such was Henry Purcell, one of the most influential English composers of all time. Influenced by the hugely popular Arcangelo Corelli, Purcell would create sonatas not dissimilar to the Italian chiesa, a church sonata. Often his pieces were created for between 3 and 7 instruments, largely of the violin family, to be performed as religious pieces. At a similar time, the hugely influential Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi composed around 75 chamber music works.
Not far behind them was the J S Bach. Bach’s input into the development of chamber music is intrinsic to the form. He offered a large amount of work for between one and six instruments, and the masterful Art of the Fugue towards the end of his life, as well as The Musical Offering, a complex composition of 12 canons and fugues and a four-movement sonata, all based on a theme by his patron, Frederick the Great.
Bach’s contemporary, George Frideric Handel drew on the Italian chiesa, as well as the sonata da camera pioneered by his countryman Johann Rosenmüeller earlier in the seventeenth century. Handel composed around 40 chamber works and is held today as one of the masters of the form.
The eighteenth century saw the widespread popularity of chamber music grow exponentially with the rise of Joseph Haydn. He is credited with the standardizing of the form into what we now know as the conversational form of chamber music. He revolutionized the composition of classical music with the idea of giving each instrument a specific, separate melody to play in the building of the whole. As a pioneering experimenter in the form, Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet. Even in his own time he was recognized and revered by other composers.
Though Haydn was seen as something of a mentor to aspiring composers, his reputation would be soon superseded by his friend Mozart. The conversational style pioneered by Haydn was greatly expanded by Mozart, who took similar influences such as Sammartini, Richter, and Holzbauer. A constant experimenter, in Mozart’s ensembles we find the stings for the first time being given a chance to counter the piano. The piano at this time was an innovation, and it is Mozart who first uses it to good effect in chamber music.
Following hot on his heels was another giant of the quartet, Ludwig van Beethoven. Chamber music composed by Beethoven is technically challenging and utterly groundbreaking while adhering to some of the strict rules of the form. So radical were some of Beethoven’s innovations that he and Haydn eventually fell out over his third trio. Beethoven was to deviate wildly in his tempo and expression from his forebears. He is noted for bringing a new voice to the cello in Chamber music, often elevating above the piano and the violin.
Music for the Middle Classes
From the time of Beethoven onwards, the role of the composer consort declined. As the old aristocratic houses were often now more engaged in politics and turbulence, music began to return to a wider public. Chamber music is what the middle-classes would traditionally turn to.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, as society became more gentrified, so did their music tastes. Advances in musical instrument production that a better quality of instrument was more available and many middle-class houses would have pianos, as well as strings available for amateur musicians. Sheet music could be better distributed and musicians better trained.
This did, however, face a backlash during the middle of the nineteenth century. Some purists preferred the emerging celebrity of virtuosi players. As the conflict in the world of music continued, the musical elite staged ever more elaborate productions which would outshine the simple quartet, establishing orchestral scores as a place for musical master and chamber music as a mere recital.
However, as time has progressed, the elements of what chamber music is defined by have transformed and re-emerged in the likes of jazz and rock. As an accessible medium, chamber music continues to be performed by buskers and in small venues across the world.