chamber music

chamber music
music suited for performance in a room or a small concert hall, esp. for two or more, but usually fewer than ten, solo instruments.

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Music composed for small instrumental ensembles and performed without a conductor.

Traditionally intended for performance in a room or reception hall, often solely for the performers' own pleasure, chamber music is now often heard in concert halls. It began with the 16th-century instrumental consort, and long continued to be associated with aristocratic households. The duo sonata (usually for violin and continuo) and trio sonata appeared in early 17th-century Italy. The string quartet arose in the 1750s and remains the best-known chamber genre and ensemble. The serenade, nocturne, and divertimento were Classical genres for varying instrumental forces, often intended to accompany meals and other activities. Standard ensembles include the string trio (violin, viola, cello), string quintet (two violins, two violas, cello), and piano trio (piano, violin, cello). The chamber orchestra, usually with fewer than 25 musicians, is often used for 18th-century music and usually requires a conductor. See also sonata.

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      music composed for small ensembles of instrumentalists. In its original sense chamber music referred to music composed for the home, as opposed to that written for the theatre or church. Since the “home”—whether it be drawing room, reception hall, or palace chamber—may be assumed to be of limited size, chamber music most often permits no more than one player to a part. It usually dispenses with a conductor. Music written for combinations of stringed (stringed instrument) or wind instruments (wind instrument), often with a keyboard (keyboard instrument) ( piano or harpsichord) as well, and music for voices with or without accompaniment have historically been included in the term.

      An essential characteristic of chamber music results from the limited size of the performing group employed: it is intimate music, suited to the expression of subtle and refined musical ideas. Rich displays of varied instrumental colour, and striking effects produced by sheer sonority, play little part in chamber music. In place of those effects are refinement, economy of resources, and flawless acoustical balance.

      This article discusses instrumental ensemble music written for groups of two to eight players with one player to a part, and in which stringed instruments and piano (or harpsichord) supply the principal interest.

Sources and instruments
      Instrumental music designed for home use has existed since about the middle of the 15th century. It became customary in Germany to supply folk-song (folk music) melodies with two or three countermelodies, to expand and elaborate the whole, and to arrange the result for groups of instruments; original melodies were given similar treatment. The instruments were not often specified, but on the basis of many paintings of the time one may assume that groups of viols (viol) of various sizes predominated.

      A more important source of later chamber music is to be found in the arrangements (arrangement) of 16th-century chansons (chanson) (songs of French origin composed usually for four voices on a variety of secular texts), some for voices and lute, others for lute alone. The typical chanson was characterized by contrasts in musical texture and often in metre; the effect of the whole was that of a short composition in several even shorter sections. That sectional form retained in the arrangements later became a striking feature.

      The chanson travelled to Italy about 1525, became known as canzona, and was transcribed for organ. The earliest transcriptions differed from the French arrangements in treating the original chanson with greater freedom, adding ornaments and flourishes, and sometimes inserting new material. Soon original canzonas for organ, modelled on the transcriptions, and for small instrumental ensembles, were composed. One such type, characterized by elaborate figurations and ornamented melodies, became influential in England late in the 17th century and played a role in the works of Henry Purcell.

      Parallel to the developments that led from the vocal chanson, in France, to the instrumental canzona, primarily in Italy, was the development of the dance suite. Early 16th-century dance tunes in all countries of western Europe usually had appeared in pairs: one was slow, stately in mood, and in duple metre (i.e., with two beats to the measure); the other fast, lively in mood, usually in triple metre, and often melodically similar to the first. Through much of the 16th century, composers in the several countries sought to expand the dance pair into a unified dance suite. Suites based on variations of one movement appeared in England; suites in which each of four dances had its own rhythmic character, melodically based on the first dance, were written in Germany; sets of dances with no internal relationships to each other were common in Italy. The most influential steps were taken in France by composers for the lute or the clavecin (harpsichord). Consisting essentially of four dance forms that were then popular—the allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue—the suites they composed were based on contrasting tempos, metres (metre), and rhythmic patterns. The French version of the dance suite became the prototype for later chamber-music forms.

      Toward the middle of the 17th century the two types of composition—one derived from the canzona and composed in sectional form, the other derived from the dance suite and consisting of several movements—appeared as works for small instrumental ensembles. In Italy small groups of stringed instruments were often employed in Roman Catholic churches to perform appropriate music; thus canzonas came to be widely used for church purposes. For church use the dance movements were omitted, and what came to be called a church sonata (sonata da chiesa) resulted. And a set of sonate da chiesa composed in 1667 by Giovanni Battista Vitali marked the beginning of the form as a separate entity.

      In the same year Johann Rosenmüller, a German composer working in Venice, published a set of Sonate da camera cioè Sinfonie . . . (Chamber Sonatas, that is, Symphonies . . .), each consisting of four to six dance movements with an introductory movement (sinfonia) not in dance style. The development of chamber music for the remainder of the century centred upon these two types, sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera.

      The first half of the 17th century was marked by considerable variety in the constitution of chamber-music groups. Compositions were commonly for one to four viols, or for combinations of viols and woodwind instruments, most often with a figured- bass accompaniment, a kind of musical shorthand, employed in virtually all music of the period about 1600 to 1750, in which the composer wrote a bass line and inserted figures and other symbols under certain notes. The figures indicated the nature of the desired chord to be improvised over the note—whether major or minor, whether in normal or in inverted position, and so on—and the figured-bass line was designed to be “realized” or played by a harmony instrument (such as a lute, organ, or harpsichord), often with a melody instrument (bass, cello, or bassoon) to reinforce the bass line. The bass line with its figures and the two instruments performing it were called basso continuo or simply continuo.

      As early as 1622, the Italian composer Salomone Rossi had begun to specify two violins and chittarone (a large lute) in his dance sets; and soon similar combinations were adopted generally. A work written for two violins and bass (continuo) became known as a sonata a tre or “ trio sonata”—even though four instruments (the three strings and the lute or harpsichord) were usually involved in the performance. Later in the 17th century works for one instrument and continuo appeared also and were called variously solo sonatas, duos, or sonate a due. The combinations of violin and continuo or cello and continuo were favoured, and sonatas for those combinations took regular places in the chamber-music field.

      Works for two violins and continuo (with harpsichord and bass understood) virtually dominated the field until the middle of the 18th century. About that time the custom of serenading (serenade) became popular; small groups of instrumentalists strolled the streets of Austrian and Italian cities, performing serenades and divertimenti (divertimento). The keyboard instrument realizing the continuo proved unwieldy and was soon abandoned. To the three remaining strings a viola was added to fill out the harmonies, the bass was replaced by a cello, and the string quartet emerged. This new combination of two violins, viola, and cello was then adopted by composers of serious music, and from about 1750 the string quartet took its place as the principal medium for chamber music. Owing its development largely to the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (Haydn, Joseph), it has reigned supreme to the present day. About 1760, other combinations for strings alone began to play important but relatively smaller roles in the field: the string trio (violin, viola, cello), string quintet (quartet plus a second viola), and string sextet (quintet plus a second cello) are chief among them.

      Meanwhile, as the continuo principle gradually approached obsolescence, the harpsichord (which was superseded by the piano about 1770) took on a new function in chamber music. In works with continuo it had been an accompanying instrument, improvising its part according to the directions indicated in the figured bass; now the keyboard instrument became dominant in new combinations that included one to four strings. The most important of these is the piano trio (piano, violin, cello), the repertory of which includes works from Haydn to the present. Various combinations of piano and one instrument loom almost as large. Toward the end of the 18th century and extending through the 19th, the combinations of piano quartet (piano trio plus viola) and piano quintet (piano and string quartet) give rise to a small but significant repertory ornamented by composers such as Mozart (Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus), Beethoven (Beethoven, Ludwig van), Brahms, and many others.

      Finally, works for individual combinations exist in considerable number after about the 1780s. Representative compositions of that nonstandard group include the clarinet quintets (string quartet and clarinet) by Mozart (K. 581) and Brahms (Opus 115); the Septet, Opus 20 (violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn), by Beethoven; the Octet, Opus 166 (as in the septet plus a second violin), the Trout Quintet, Opus 114 (violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano), and the String Quintet in C Major, Opus 163 (two violins, viola, and two cellos), all by Schubert; and the Horn Trio, Opus 40 (violin, horn, and piano), by Brahms. Composers of the 20th century have written works for instrumental groups to which a voice is added.

Historical development

Late Baroque period, c. 1675–1750
      The work of Arcangelo Corelli (Corelli, Arcangelo) (1653–1713) in standardizing the two major sonata types of his time had tremendous impact on chamber music. Corelli was of considerable influence on Henry Purcell (Purcell, Henry) (c. 1659–95), the most important English composer of his time. Purcell's works include 22 trio sonatas closely allied to the chiesa type, and over a dozen “fancies” (that is, fantasies), works of a single movement largely in contrapuntal style for groups of three to seven viols. Another Italian Baroque composer of widespread influence, Antonio Vivaldi (Vivaldi, Antonio) (1678–1741), in addition to several hundred concertos for various instruments and orchestra, composed some 75 chamber-music works. Of these, 12 trio sonatas, 16 sonatas for violin and continuo, and about 16 for various other instruments have entered the repertory.

      The contributions of Johann Sebastian Bach (Bach, Johann Sebastian) (1685–1750) to development of chamber music were noteworthy. In all, Bach's chamber works include 18 sonatas for one instrument (nine for violin, three for viola da gamba, six for flute) and harpsichord, two separate trio sonatas, and two late works of an unusual nature; Das musikalisches Opfer (The Musical Offering) and Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue). Half of the sonatas require figured bass; the other half, with written-out keyboard parts, are essentially in three-voice counterpoint: one voice in the solo instrument and two in the keyboard part. The Musical Offering consists of 12 canons and fugues for various combinations of two to six instruments and a four-movement trio sonata; the whole is based on a theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great in 1747, upon which Bach improvised in the presence of the King, and which he later elaborated to constitute this “offering.” The work reveals Bach's enormous technical skill and is filled with emotional intensity. The Art of the Fugue, Bach's last work, is a set of 19 fugues (the last unfinished) for two to four unspecified instruments. The work is based on one theme that is transformed in systematic fashion in successive movements, and employs two additional themes on occasion. The whole summarizes the contrapuntal practices of the past, contains profound spiritual symbolism, and is unique in music.

      The 40-odd chamber works of George Frideric Handel (Handel, George Frideric) (1685–1759), representing both chiesa and camera types, contain a wealth of melody and carefully worked-out fugal movements and are filled with the rhythmic drive that represents Handel at his best. Of these about 18 are solo sonatas (with continuo) for various instruments, and some 22 are trio sonatas.

Classical period, c. 1750–1825
      The 83 string quartets (of which seven are single-movement arrangements of orchestral pieces titled The Seven Words of Our Saviour on the Cross and known as The Seven Last Words) by Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) constitute a series in which virtually the entire history of the string quartet is represented. Most of them appeared in sets of six, each under a separate opus number. The earliest sets, Opus 1 and 2, express merely the superficial and diverting elements of Rococo style—the fanciful, ornamental style that was prevalent in the 18th century. From Opus 3 onward the four-movement form is regularized, and in Opus 9 thematic materials begin to reveal details that point to the future. Opus 17 discloses a virtuosic element in its first-violin parts, and lower voices are given only a small share in the thematic work. The latter process comes to full expression in Opus 20, for now cello and viola are entrusted with thematic statements and the quartet style is close at hand.

      After a nine-year interval (1772–81) Haydn introduced a “new manner” (his phrase) in the quartets of Opus 33; this resulted in the establishment of the principle of thematic development. Motive manipulation is basic to the texture, and the fully developed sonata form appears. Also in Opus 33 Haydn introduced the scherzo in place of the minuet, but did not continue that practice in later quartets.

      The 33 quartets from Opus 50 onward (excepting Opus 51, The Seven Last Words) include the masterworks on which Haydn's reputation is so firmly founded. Of them 18 (Opus 50, 54, 55, 64) were composed during the time (c. 1786–90) Haydn was in close contact with Mozart and are characterized by an increasing use of chromaticism to produce poignant effects. The 15 quartets written after Mozart's death (Opus 71, 74, 76, 77, 103) return to the optimistic style that was innate, and they reveal an ever-increasing expressiveness and mastery of detail.

      Haydn also composed more than 30 piano trios, eight violin sonatas, and over 60 string trios. While those works contain attractive melodies, they represent a minor aspect of the composer's activity.

      Of the 26 string quartets written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) the qualities of the last 10 are such that they have virtually overshadowed the 16 earlier works. Six of the 10 reflect Mozart's first attempts to work in Haydn's “new manner” and reveal how successfully he adopted the principle. The last three, dedicated to King Frederick William II of Prussia, a competent cellist, show Mozart's ability to adapt to the interests of his potential patrons. Here the cello parts reveal something of the virtuosity required of the first violin. Taken together, the last 10 quartets are among Mozart's masterpieces.

      Of Mozart's eight string quintets, three rise to supremacy. The String Quintet in C Major, K. 515 (K. stands for Köchel, a cataloger of Mozart's works), is a model of strength and delicacy, filled with moods reflecting grace and good humour, but also high dramatic tension. Its companion in G minor, K. 516, is characterized by the same strength but is the embodiment of anguish. Two years later Mozart composed the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581; now moods of grace, humour, and cheer prevail. The addition of the woodwind instrument enabled Mozart to achieve a high level of brilliance and colour throughout; the Clarinet Quintet is one of the monuments of the literature.

      Exactly half of Mozart's 32 violin sonatas were composed before his 10th birthday; in them the violin parts do little more than accompany the piano. The last 16 move gradually to a true ensemble texture, which is fully attained in K. 454, K. 481, and K. 526. Two piano quartets, contrasting greatly in mood, are alike in containing a balance between piano and strings. His seven piano trios are somewhat like the violin sonatas in gradually reaching a true ensemble texture. Of the seven, one in B flat major (K. 502), one in E major (K. 542), and one in E flat major for clarinet, viola, and piano (K. 498) rise to greatness in variety of moods, balanced forms, and perfection of detail.

      In the works of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) chamber-music composition takes a central place. His 17 string quartets constitute the backbone of the repertory. The first six take points of departure from the quartet style of Haydn's later works, but far exceed them in strength, occasional boisterousness, and variety of material. Five quartets of Beethoven's middle period represent a great increase in size, depth of expression, and formal freedom. The six last quartets include works that transcend conventional forms and textures. Development techniques and contrapuntal devices play more important roles here; forms are imaginative and fluid, movements are often thematically related, and a range of expression that uncovers new depths of the soul is here disclosed.

      Beethoven's other chamber music, like the quartets, reveals a gradual increase in the power of the motive to generate thematic sections. This is especially true in the Three Piano Trios, Opus 1; the String Trio in C Major, Opus 9, No. 3; and the String Quintet in C Major, Opus 29. Particularly in the scherzo movements, which Beethoven employs in place of minuets, he generally begins with a one-measure motive, from which most of the thematic material is derived. The Septet, Opus 20, together with many of the violin sonatas, the cello sonatas, and a few miscellaneous works, occupy an intermediate stage in this development. Some are based on long melodies that are developed, others on short motives that are manipulated. In virtually every case, however, a masterpiece results.

Early Romantic period, c. 1825–55
      Franz Schubert (Schubert, Franz) (1797–1828), in about 28 chamber-music works, at first modelled his compositions on those of the Classical period. His restless search for instrumental and harmonic colour soon took him beyond the bounds of Classical style and aligned him with the prophets of Romanticism. Of the eight works in which his mature mastery is so clearly revealed, all but one were composed after 1824. They include the last three string quartets, the Trout Quintet for piano and strings, an Octet for strings and winds, two piano trios, and the String Quintet in C Major with second cello added to the usual quartet.

      Less concerned with traditional formal structure than other composers of his stature, Schubert relied on unceasing melodic flow coupled with rare harmonic imagination. Typically a melodic section is repeated with changed harmonies, ranging far beyond the usual; the finale of the Piano Trio in E Flat Major, Opus 100, is an extreme example. But Schubert also had a keen sense of drama, as the String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor (Death and the Maiden) exhibits eloquently. Such characteristics (lyrical melody, harmonic variety, and drama) are wonderfully combined in Schubert's last large composition, the String Quintet in C Major with two cellos—probably the most perfect work of this composer's short life.

      With Felix Mendelssohn (Mendelssohn, Felix) (1809–47) a return to Classical ideals of form is seen, coupled, however, with Romantic enthusiasm. Of his about 24 chamber-music works, eight represent the composer at his best; these include five string quartets, two piano trios, and an Octet for eight strings. Mendelssohn's contributions include primarily a new kind of light and deft music, heard especially in his scherzos; a rich melodiousness that embraces all sections of the sonata-form movements (hence removing the element of thematic contrast on which musical conflict depends); and scrupulous attention to detail. The scherzo of the String Quartet No. 4 in E Minor, Opus 44, No. 2; that of the String Octet in E Flat Major, Opus 20; and the finale of the String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1, are among the finest representatives of Mendelssohn's enchanting style.

      Robert Schumann (1810–56) represents the best aspects of early Romanticism; these include an interest in tone colour, melodiousness, a free approach to details of form, and subjective expression in which enthusiasm plays a large part. Twelve chamber-music works reflect those aspects in varying degrees. A set of pieces entitled Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Tales) for piano, clarinet, and viola illustrates the search for new tone colours; the Piano Quintet, in which the piano is combined with two violins, viola, and cello (possibly for the first time in the 19th century), does likewise. Three string quartets are melodious, dramatic, brusque, and dreamy in turn. In three piano trios, as in one piano quartet, Schumann's tendency to let the piano dominate the strings is sometimes seen. And in all those works his characteristic impulsiveness and tendency to alternate between forthright and moody expression is characteristic.

Late Romantic period, c. 1855–1900
      In chamber music of the last half of the 19th century, only a few dozen works by composers other than Brahms survive in the repertory of the period. A piano quintet, one string quartet, and a single violin sonata by César Franck (Franck, César) reveal that composer's fondness for cyclical form (cyclic form), in which successive movements are thematically linked, and for a structural scheme that is based on harmonic manipulation rather than melodic development. Bedřich Smetana (1824–84), in two string quartets and one piano trio, tended toward autobiographical expression in which Czech folk dances played a part. His first quartet, Z mého života (From My Life), is supplied with a program.

      The work of Antonín Dvořák (Dvořák, Antonín) (1841–1904) represents a combination of the finest Romantic writing with a decidedly nationalistic flavour. Of about 30 works of chamber music, nine held an important place in the repertory; these include two string sextets, three quartets, two piano trios, a piano quartet, and a piano quintet. One of the string quartets, the American, Opus 96, purports to express Dvořák's impressions of American (including Indian) music. Another work, the Piano Quintet, Opus 81, marks a high point in the composer's use of attractive melody and rhythmic vitality; it, too, has Czech overtones. And the Dumky Trio, Opus 90, contains six dumky (a dumka being a Ukranian folk music form with moods alternating between melancholy and wild abandon); here the element of contrast is stressed to the utmost.

      Aleksandr Borodin (Borodin, Aleksandr) (1833–87), in the second of his two quartets, combined traces of Russian nationalism with expressions of pure lyricism. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich) (1840–93), with three string quartets (one of them containing the famous “Andante cantabile”), a string sextet, and a big-scale piano trio, often brought moments of orchestral sonority into his chamber music. The Piano Trio, Opus 50, is a virtuosic work in two movements—one a lengthy sonata form, and the other a set of brilliant variations—and is primarily elegiac in mood.

      It was Johannes Brahms (Brahms, Johannes) (1833–97), however, who dominated the period. All of Brahms's 24 chamber-music works are highly successful; in all these works Brahms's characteristic balance of emotional and intellectual expression is clearly revealed. Rich sonorities, thick textures, and rhythmic complexity are present everywhere, and the forms are those of the Classical period, somewhat modified in the light of Brahms's temperament and expressive requirements.

      Eloquent melodic writing is most characteristic of his earlier works, notably the String Sextet No. 1 in B Flat Major, Opus 18; the Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 25; and large portions of the Piano Quintet, Opus 34. Later works, by contrast, reveal Brahms's increasing concern with motivic and rhythmic development; as a consequence, lyricism plays a smaller role in such works as the two string quartets Opus 51, and the four late works with clarinet, namely the Clarinet Trio, Opus 114, the Clarinet Quintet, Opus 115, and the two sonatas Opus 120.

The 20th century
      As in all times of stylistic change, considerable overlapping of styles occurred at the turn of the 20th century. In chamber music, several composers born in the 19th century carried the modified Late-Romantic style into the 20th. Among the French composers were Gabriel Fauré (Fauré, Gabriel) (1845–1924), who, with 10 works, is remembered primarily for a refined and controlled style that is rhythmically subtle; and Vincent d'Indy (Indy, Vincent d') (1851–1931), represented by about eight works, who reflected the style of César Franck. Likewise the Hungarian Ernő Dohnányi (Dohnányi, Ernst von) (1877–1960) revealed the strong influence of Brahms in about six works noted for their outspoken melodiousness and contrapuntal excellence. The German Max Reger (Reger, Max) (1873–1916), with about 36 works, was primarily an exponent of chromatic writing in forms that are derived essentially from the 19th century.

      The first step toward the new styles of the 20th century were taken in France by Claude Debussy (Debussy, Claude) (1862–1918); his one string quartet (1893) and three sonatas (late works) represent the Impressionistic (Impressionism) style based on whole-tone harmony, of which he was an exponent. Somewhat similar are the string quartet and piano trio by Maurice Ravel (Ravel, Maurice) (1875–1937), with a rich array of tremolos, forms based on repetition of melodic fragments, and many astringent harmonies. In England, on a different path are a string quartet and piano quintet by Sir Edward Elgar (Elgar, Sir Edward) (1857–1934) and two string quartets, a string quintet, and a song cycle (On Wenlock Edge: for tenor, string quartet, and piano) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Vaughan Williams, Ralph) (1872–1958). Elgar reveals an intensely personal style; Vaughan Williams uses English folk song, elusive harmonies, and strong rhythms.

      The musical styles that have dominated the later 20th century are largely the work of three composers and their respective followers. The most influential was Arnold Schoenberg with his development of the “12-tone style”; but his earlier works were not yet representative of that style. A string sextet, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), transferred the form and content of the symphonic poem to the field of chamber music; two string quartets, Opus 7 and 10, are similarly post-Romantic in style, and the second includes a part for soprano voice. A set of 21 short poems for quasi-reciting voice and five instruments, Pierrot Lunaire, marked an intermediate stage; and four later works, including the third string quartet, saw the full development of the 12-tone style. In a fourth quartet and a few smaller works the system was carried to completion.

      In the Lyric Suite for string quartet (1927) Alban Berg (Berg, Alban) (1885–1935), also an Austrian and one of Schoenberg's pupils, brought elements of Romantic expression into the system. And another Austrian pupil, Anton von Webern (Webern, Anton) (1883–1945), sought to develop utmost refinement and consistency, along with brevity. A string quartet, a quartet for violin, clarinet, saxophone, and piano, and a chamber concerto for nine instruments are the principal works that illustrate his methods of extreme economy in the use of all materials. Webern's approach has been of maximum influence on many composers of the present day, and has led to the development of serial writing.

      A completely different path was taken by the Hungarian Béla Bartók in six string quartets and a trio, Contrasts, for piano, violin, and clarinet. In those works the main thrust has been on harmony (including acrid dissonances that border on atonality), greatly rhythmic drive with many irregular rhythmic patterns (some of them based on eastern European folk song, in which field Bartók was an avid worker), and the development of new instrumental effects. Coupled with such technical elements are fervent expressiveness and, in the slow movements, great repose. The Bartók quartets are among the major chamber-music works of the 20th century.

      The third principal influence, that of the Russian-born Igor Stravinsky (Stravinsky, Igor) (1882–1971), was felt perhaps less in chamber music than in orchestral, for Stravinsky composed fewer than a dozen works in the field. Five song cycles for voice and small groups of instruments, several short pieces for string quartet, and a pantomime, The Soldier's Tale, for narrator and seven instruments are varied in content and style. An Octet for wind instruments (1923) represents a deliberately impersonal style that requires no subjective interpretation on the part of the performers. And a Septet for three winds, three strings, and piano (1952) marks Stravinsky's adoption of serial writing, a style that he had consciously rejected earlier.

      The German Paul Hindemith (Hindemith, Paul) (1895–1963), with seven string quartets and more than two dozen sonatas and other works, favoured polyphonic textures, an expanded harmonic scheme, and great rhythmic drive. His style in later works became less dissonant, more lyric, and was characterized by a general lightening of the thick counterpoint that had distinguished his work of the 1940s. His seven works called Kammermusik are for larger groups and so do not come within the scope of this article. The French composer Darius Milhaud (Milhaud, Darius), in about 18 string quartets, four quintets for various combinations, and a number of other works, for a time espoused the principles of polytonality, the device of employing several keys simultaneously. Characterized by moods that are often pungent, humorous, and even satirical, his works reveal a mixture of dissonant counterpoint, rhythmic flexibility, and graceful expression. His 14th and 15th quartets, independent works in their own right, may be performed simultaneously to form an octet.

      Two Russian composers, Sergey Prokofiev (Prokofiev, Sergey) (1891–1953) and Dmitry Shostakovich (Shostakovich, Dmitry), are represented in the repertory by about 20 works adhering, in the main, to the forms and textures of the 19th century. Both men embrace the new harmonic techniques without departing entirely from Romantic expressiveness. Many of their compositions reveal a sense of humour. Of British composers, Sir William Walton, Lennox Berkeley, Alan Rawsthorne, and Benjamin Britten have made significant contributions to the medium.

      The chamber music by American composers has in general reflected the international styles mentioned above. One exception is seen in two quartets, a piano trio, and several violin sonatas by Charles Ives (Ives, Charles) (1874–1954), who maintained a style of great originality through his long lifetime. Another exception may be noted in the work of Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), Swiss by birth, but identified with the United States since about 1917. In five string quartets, two piano quintets, and a few smaller works, Bloch brought his Jewish heritage to expression in styles that are robust and varied.

      Among the more prominent American composers, a few may be singled out for their notable contributions. Walter Piston (Piston, Walter), with four string quartets, a piano trio, a quintet for flute and strings, and a piano quintet, is perhaps the most eclectic; his works are basically Neoclassical and are distinguished by elegance and vitality. Roger Sessions (Sessions, Roger), represented principally by two string quartets and a string quintet, has written in an austere, reserved, and strongly dissonant style. Quincy Porter (1897–1966) composed 10 string quartets, several quintets for various combinations, and smaller works; they are characterized by warm expressiveness achieved in textures that employ considerable repetition of short motives. The works of Roy Harris (Harris, Roy) are distinguished by forms that depart from 19th-century models; three string quartets and a piano quintet are among his most significant works.

      Aaron Copland (Copland, Aaron) may be mentioned for a piano trio; a sextet for clarinet, piano, and strings; a piano quartet; and a violin sonata. Those works include variously nationalistic allusions (including Jewish and Latin American), unresolved dissonance, and elements of serial style. William Schuman (Schuman, William) in four string quartets and smaller works discloses a strongly dissonant style that remains, nevertheless, within the tonal system; his works are rhythmically vital and express great energy.

      Elliott Carter, Jr. (Carter, Elliott), is best represented by a cello sonata and two string quartets. He employs elements of serial writing, composes in a virtually free rhythmic manner, and employs new instrumental effects in the manner of Bartók; yet his style is a completely individual expression. Leon Kirchner has composed two string quartets, a violin sonata, and a piano trio; unmetrical rhythm is a striking characteristic of his style, along with a variety of harmonies ranging from purely diatonic to atonal, and warm expressiveness is usually present.

      Among composers representing the countries of Central and South America, three have risen to international prominence. Heitor Villa-Lobos (Villa-Lobos, Heitor) (1887–1959) was the outstanding exponent of Brazilian national idioms, including those of the indigenous Indians. In his many chamber-music works (10 string quartets, several piano trios, and a few sonatas are representative) Villa-Lobos gave expression to those idioms. Carlos Chávez (Chávez, Carlos) (1899–1978) worked similarly with the idioms of Mexican Indians, but in several of his relatively few chamber-music works, Neoclassical style elements are prominent. Alberto Ginastera (Ginastera, Alberto) (1916–83), representing Argentina, stressed the element of rhythm to a high degree in a style that is thoroughly contemporary.

Structural elements

      A major distinction must be drawn between the prevailing musical forms of the period before about 1750 and those after that date. The earlier forms included primarily the sonata da chiesa, which emerged from the instrumental canzona, and the sonata da camera, which owed its origin to the dance suite. In the first of these, the several sections that had been taken over from the canzona were gradually extended, cadences (harmonic devices analogous to punctuation marks in prose) were confined largely to ends of sections, and the single-movement form soon dissolved into a set of movements of varying length, tempo, and metre. Toward the 1640s a tendency arose to standardize the number of movements and regularize the contrasts between them; soon a pattern of four movements arranged in slow–fast–slow–fast sequence, with textures based to a large extent on imitative or fugal writing, emerged. The Italian violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli (Corelli, Arcangelo), with about 38 sonate da chiesa, was the most consistent in employing that pattern after about 1680.

      The other form, sonata da camera, remained less regular. Its parent, the dance suite, had most often contained four movements, but works of three to eight or more movements exist also. When the dance suite adopted the trio-sonata instrumentation and gradually became the sonata da camera, it at first maintained that irregularity. Soon, however, it was altered to include a nondance first movement (prelude, preamble, or intrada), after which a number of idealized dance forms followed. In keeping with its origin, the sonata da camera revealed a relationship to dance rhythms in its several movements (except the first), and homophonic style (i.e., with a single melodic line supported by chords) dominated. The work of Corelli, embodied in 34 sonate da camera, again served as a model for later composers.

      Toward the end of the 17th century the two forms began mutually to influence each other. The sonata da chiesa, with its serious moods set usually in contrapuntal texture (i.e., employing counterpoint, the intertwining of independent melodic lines), adopted some of the lighter and more rhythmic aspects of its rival. Likewise, the sonata da camera, light in its total mood and based on dance rhythms, often embodied contrapuntal devices and contained movements that were essentially imitative or fugal in texture and serious in mood. By the end of the 17th century the distinctions between the two types tended to disappear; soon the terms chiesa and camera were dropped, and the term sonata a tre or “trio sonata” prevailed to about 1750. The situation in regard to solo sonatas (for violin and continuo, for example) was similar; they, too, took on common characteristics derived from the contrasting trio-sonata types, and contained both dance metres and contrapuntal textures.

      The post-1750 forms, on the other hand, were based on different patterns. A standard pattern of a string quartet consisted of four movements, the first of which was most often cast in sonata form—three-part form containing an exposition of two contrasting melodic ideas, a transition (later elaborated to create a “development section”), and a recapitulation of the first part with changed harmonies. The second movement was generally in slow tempo and could represent one of several forms: another sonata form, a set consisting of theme and variations, or the like. Then followed a movement in triple metre (at first a minuet and later a faster version of that dance called a “ scherzo”) derived from the dance field and consisting actually of two such idealized dances; the second, called a “trio,” usually lighter in texture, was followed by a recapitulation of the first dance. The last movement was a rondo (consisting of a regular alternation of two or more musical ideas, in the form A B A B A or A B A C A), or a set of variations, or even another sonata form. The whole represents a compound form called a “sonata,” although post-1750 and pre-1750 sonatas have few structural elements in common.

      The term sonata (in the post-1750 version) can be applied to most of the forms within the field of chamber music as well as to several outside that field. As seen in the compositions of a line of composers from Haydn in the late 18th century to Brahms in the late 19th and beyond, the piano trio, violin sonata, string quintet, and the others are all based essentially on the pattern that characterizes, above all, the string quartet. Even the symphony and the concerto of the post-1750 period are, in effect, sonatas for orchestra. Internal differences exist, of course; the piano trio and the violin sonata, for example, do not always include a dance-derived third movement, which the string quartet and symphony generally do. Conversely, the exposition of the symphony's first movement often contains more than two contrasting themes, and is often preceded by a massive introduction; and the recapitulation is often followed by a large concluding section or coda (literally, “tail”). Similarly, the first movement of a concerto (for piano and orchestra, say) is generally characterized by two expositions—one for the orchestra, the other for the solo instrument. In most other respects, the majority of the larger instrumental forms of the post-1750 period are closely related in their total structure.

      The years about 1600, marking roughly the date when chamber music emerged as a separate branch, also mark one of the major turning points in the evolution of music. Virtually all the factors of music were affected by the developments of the time. A new system of melodic organization (the tonal system, with its major and minor scales) soon assumed a preeminent position; the principles of harmony were expanded and systematized; a texture based on the polarity between melody and bass (as opposed to one that had been largely the result of writing intertwined and independent melodies) came to the fore; and the figured bass or continuo was invented (albeit, a few decades earlier) to deal with the new texture. In those new developments all the musical factors continued to be mutually related; but they are considered separately here for the sake of clarity.

      The melodies of the canzona, or sonata, at first continued to imitate vocal melodies; easily sung intervals, relatively slow tempos, and undulating stepwise contours were characteristic. Gradually composers began to consider the nature of the instruments they were using and to write melodies appropriate to those instruments. Soon the concept of instrumental idioms was developed; each instrument was given melodies appropriate to its structure. That development is seen most clearly in the many trio sonatas written by Corelli after about 1680.

      With the emergence of systematized harmony, in which specific functions were given to chords according to their relationships to the tonic (the basic, or root, tone of a given scale), melodies became harmonically directed, moved from one harmonic goal to another, and began to take on regular periodic structure (in units of four measures, eight measures, and so on). Slow movements often adopted elements of vocal style, in which sharp contours were avoided, and the melody followed purely musical or aesthetic laws rather than the laws of textual declamation. The ever-increasing use of harmonic dissonance was reflected in melodic writing through the 18th and 19th centuries. Extreme leaps, angular contours, irregular rhythmic shapes—such characteristics became the common property of all composers.

      The complex of chords (chord) gradually evolved into the system of tonality. Central to that system is the idea that the triad on the first tone of the scale (i.e., the tonic and the third and fifth intervals above it) determines the key or tonality (C major, D minor, and so on) around which other chords are grouped. Modulations (modulation) (shifts to other key centres) became regularized: those to the dominant (the fifth note of the scale) and subdominant (an interval of a fifth below, or the fourth note of the scale) became the most important. In the period immediately before and after 1800, especially in the works of Beethoven and Schubert, modulations to the mediant and submediant (an interval of a third above and below the tonic, respectively) became characteristic. And throughout the 19th century, modulation to ever more remote keys was practiced assiduously. Further, chromatic (chromaticism) tones—tones not related to the key centre (F sharp or D flat in a C major context, for example)—appeared in increasing numbers; and tones not part of the chord at a given moment (F in a triad on C, for example) were treated more freely. The consequence was a system in which tonality became so ambiguous that it ceased to serve any real function through long passages in the music. Chromatic harmony dominated much music of the late 19th century, and the steps from chromaticism to the atonal and serial systems of the 20th century, in which tonality was entirely abandoned, followed as a matter of course.

      Similarly, the element of texture underwent a series of changes. Much music was composed in homophonic (homophony) style, with a melody supported only by a few chords built above the continuo. Gradually, especially in the trio sonatas, an inner part came to imitate the upper melody to some extent; bits of figuration gave the two upper melodies a degree of independence, and eventually polyphonic (polyphony) texture, composed of two or more intertwining melodies, was restored. That texture reflected the harmonic developments of the time and came under the control of the tonal system with its dissonances, modulations, chromatic embellishments, and all the rest. Mixed textures, partly homophonic and partly polyphonic, became common also; but in general the uppermost melody dominated the structure well past the middle of the 18th century.

      Toward the 1770s, with the string quartet an established grouping, increasing attention was given to the inner and lower parts. Viola and cello were occasionally given thematic material, the violins at times played accompanying parts, and detailed writing for all four instruments compensated for the absence of the continuo. The practice of improvising harmonies at the keyboard came to an end, and all parts were obbligati (that is, obligatory). Continued refinement in the writing and equal distribution of musical responsibility to all four instruments resulted in the so-called quartet style, in which the distinction between melody and accompaniment disappeared and no instrument dominated the others. From that point forward, the idea of a soloist in chamber music lost whatever validity it had had earlier; the performers in a chamber-music work became members of a group of equals.

      In style, too, there has been a continuing series of changes. “Style” may be defined in this context as the sum of the devices—melodic, structural, harmonic, and all the rest—that a composer consistently employs, that a class of works regularly exhibits, or that a particular age finds most useful for its aesthetic purposes.

      In this sense, the majority of chamber-music works composed before 1750 are monothematic in style; those after about 1750 are polythematic. The typical fast movement of a trio sonata, say, consists of a series of phrases largely similar in contour and mood and differentiated primarily by harmonic considerations; whereas the typical sonata-form movement is characterized by having two or more themes embodying sharp contrasts of mood and shape, and further contrasted by means of texture, instrumentation, and harmonic colour. Alternation of dramatic and lyric moods, further, is most often characteristic of post-1750 chamber music.

      With the emergence of the string quartet and sonata form toward the middle of the 18th century, thematic materials most often took the shape of relatively long melodies—whatever their contour or mood. Those melodies were then manipulated or repeated in accord with harmonic principles and constituted sections in tonic, dominant, and so on. In the 1780s, and specifically in the quartets Opus 33 by Haydn, certain melodies were so constructed that they could, in effect, be broken apart into fragments or motives, each motive with its own distinctive shape. In the appropriate sections of sonata-form movements—namely, those that connected one thematic section with another, and the large transition that comprised the midsection of the form—the motives were treated separately, manipulated, combined in new ways, served to suggest yet other ideas to the composer; in short, they were “developed.”

      Such treatment of the motives led to the principle of thematic development and to the practice of motive manipulation. Begun by Haydn, carried forward notably by Beethoven and Brahms, and employed by virtually every other instrumental composer of the 19th century, the principle of thematic development is one of the chief distinguishing marks of late Classical and Romantic (Romanticism) instrumental music. Beethoven, however, and after him many other major composers, employed the process somewhat differently from Haydn; he often began with a melodic or rhythmic motive, then let the themes themselves grow out of the motive manipulation.

      The repertory of works for piano and strings also grew considerably from the late 18th century onward, and there was considerable modification in the role of the piano in that repertory. The keyboard instrument had entered the field, it will be remembered, after having played a century-long role as the improvising (improvisation) member of the continuo team, in which it provided accompaniments to the other instruments. When it emerged in its new role with written-out parts to play, it at first assumed a dominant position—in violin or cello sonatas and in piano trios alike. Many of the piano trios by Haydn are essentially sonatas for solo piano with accompaniments furnished by violin and cello; the latter often do little more than double the parts given to the pianist's right and left hands, respectively.

      Gradually the string parts acquired a degree of independence and became obbligato parts. The final steps toward complete equality were taken across the interval from about 1790 to 1840, especially in the piano trios and quartets of Mozart and Beethoven and in Schumann's Piano Quintet, Opus 44 of 1842. In many of those works, particularly the later ones, the piano emerged as one-half of the tonal body with the two, three, or four stringed instruments providing the other half. Again, as in the string quartets, the concept of soloist versus accompanist has no validity in chamber music with piano. A keyboard player does not “accompany” the strings; he is an equal partner in the ensemble—which marks a major change from the role he played in the 17th and the first half of the 18th centuries.

      Chamber music in the later 19th century became ever more affected by developments in the orchestral field. The rise of professional quartets in the time of Beethoven had the effect of moving chamber music from the confines of the home to the public concert stage. Composers took advantage of the virtuosic attainments of the best performers and wrote music with which the nonprofessional performer could not always cope. Effects requiring consummate technical ability became common; true virtuosity became a general requirement. Further, orchestral effects depending upon sheer volume of sound were often employed; the string quartets and piano trio of Tchaikovsky are examples. And with the rise of descriptive or program music in the orchestral field, extramusical or nationalistic elements sometimes entered chamber-music works; Smetana's autobiographical string quartet, Z mého života (From My Life), and certain of Dvořák's compositions containing Czech folk idioms and representing the Czech spirit are typical.

      The overwhelming majority of chamber music composed before about 1900 consists of works that employ instruments in conventional ways. Tones are limited to the pitches in the chromatic scale (i.e., a scale consisting of half steps, C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, and so through all 12 tones), stringed instruments are used in the traditional manner, and the piano likewise. A few notable exceptions may be mentioned: in the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 63, by Schumann (Schumann, Robert) the strings play a short passage sul ponticello (“against the bridge”)—that is, play closer to the bridge of the instruments than usual in order to produce the higher overtones and give the pitches an ethereal or veiled quality; in the same composer's Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Opus 47, the cello must retune its lowest string downward a whole step in order to supply a longheld tone beyond the normal range of the instrument. And, in a few works of the time, harmonics are called for: a string is touched lightly at its midpoint or at one of the other nodal positions at one-third or one-quarter of its length, and the harmonic ( overtone) thus produced adds a distinctive quality to the music. Such effects, plus the traditional pizzicato (in which the string is plucked rather than set in motion by the bow) are virtually the only exceptions to normal writing.

      In 20th-century chamber music, however, the number of purely instrumental effects has been increased; the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (Bartók, Béla) in several of his quartets became the leading exponent of such devices. In his String Quartet No. 4 (1928), for example, glissandi are required; in such cases the player slides his finger up or down the string to cover the span of an octave or more, and produces a wailing effect. Pizzicati are directed to be performed so that the string slaps back against the fingerboard, to add a percussive effect to the pitch. In works by other composers employing the clarinet, the performer is required to blow through the instrument with its mouthpiece removed while opening and closing the keys at random; this produces the effect of a high-pitched whistling wind along with a semblance of pitch changes. Or again, in the case of brass instruments, the composer's directives call for the player to tap his hand against the mouthpiece, to create a hollow percussive sound.

      Pitches (pitch) themselves are altered on occasion, for tones lying between those of the chromatic scale are sometimes employed; among early exponents of the quarter-tone practice, the contemporary composer Ernest Bloch (Bloch, Ernest) may be mentioned. In his Piano Quintet, and elsewhere, the string performers are required to play certain tones a quarter step higher or lower than written, thereby departing from the scales that had served music for many centuries. Other composers carried the quarter-tone practice further and developed a kind of microtonal music that employs intervals even smaller than quarter-tones.

      All such developments give evidence that 20th-century composers continue to seek new means of expression and expand their available resources—thus continuing a practice characteristic of composers in all periods. Two further aspects of that search remain to be considered: the development of new systems of tonal organization and the increasing use of instruments that embody the results of contemporary technology.

      Early in the 20th century a number of composers led by Arnold Schoenberg (Schoenberg, Arnold) experimented to reach beyond the confines of the tonal system. In a series of chamber music and other works, Schoenberg gradually arrived at a system in which all 12 tones of the chromatic scale are used as independent entities; concepts of tonic and dominant, of major and minor, and of key centres themselves no longer apply in those works. The 12 tones (12-tone music) are arranged in a self-determined series called a “tone row”; certain sections of that row, used vertically, form the chords that supply the harmonic material; the row may be manipulated in accord with self-imposed rules; and the row may be arranged differently for each composition. The system of composing with 12 tones, as Schoenberg referred to his invention, has been modified and enlarged by later composers, the relevant principles have been applied to other elements of music (notably the rhythmic factor); and under a new term, “serial composition (serialism),” the system has become one of the most influential of the present day.

      The other aspect concerns the use of various electronic (electronic music) sound-generating devices called “electronic synthesizers (music synthesizer),” and of magnetic (magnetic recording) tape recorders to transmit the results. The composer working with a synthesizer has virtually complete control over the shape and sound of the tones he wishes to produce. He can select tones with characteristics unlike those produced by conventional instruments, noises (that is, sounds with irregular vibration rates) to which a semblance of pitch has been given, or rapid changes in pitch, loudness, duration, and quality beyond the ability of any human mechanism. The new tonal materials, then, can be combined with voices and conventional instruments, or can be used alone. Devices such as the synthesizer have given the composer access to a new world of tonal resources; he still faces the problems of selection, combination, organization, and expressive purpose that have plagued composers since music began. Since his medium of performance is a tape recorder, since human participation in the performance may not be required, and since his composition may contain a few strands or a hundred strands of tone, it becomes impossible to make distinctions between chamber music, orchestral music, or any other genre. Electronic music is, thus, on the way to becoming a completely new type to which traditional classifications do not apply.

      For well over a century after its inception about 1600, chamber music was supported primarily by the nobility. Aristocratic establishments customarily employed groups of musicians who served as composers, conductors, and performers of a variety of operatic, orchestral, and chamber music; and traditionally the audiences were restricted to the patrons and their guests. Chamber-music concerts were instituted in London in 1672, and seem to have been exceptional for their time, for regularly established professional chamber-music groups did not emerge until about 1810, apparently first in Vienna.

      Meanwhile, primarily at certain German university towns in the 1700s, the establishment of collegia musica (music societies) marked the beginning of a movement that brought nonprofessional participation in its wake. Eminent musicians directed those societies in many cases; the Collegium Musicum at Leipzig, for example, was founded by Georg Philipp Telemann (Telemann, Georg Philipp) and had Bach as its director for a decade after 1729. Audiences were at first restricted to university students; later the general public was admitted, and the rise of the modern chamber-music audience began.

      Since the mid-19th century, chamber-music concerts have been a staple of musical life. Many of the best known string quartets (for example, the Joachim Quartet from 1869 to 1907, the Kneisel from 1885 to 1917, the Flonzaley from 1902 to about 1928, the London from 1908 to 1935, the Budapest from 1918 to 1968, and the Juilliard, Paganini, Amadeus, and Fine Arts quartets of the present day) have travelled to countries around the world performing the standard and contemporary repertories of their day.

      Parallel to this has been the continuing activity of informal, nonprofessional groups in virtually all musical centres of the Western world. An international association of amateur chamber-music players exists, whose members grade themselves (in a directory) according to technical ability and experience. The colleges and universities of the United States often stress ensemble activity in their music curricula, and many schools of music are centres of activity in the field.

      The sheer amount of music being composed makes it virtually inevitable that chamber music will continue to receive the attention of major composers—especially in view of the economic factors that make performance of new orchestral works hazardous at best. One may hope that chamber music will play as vital and significant a role in the future as it has played in the last three and a half centuries.

Homer Ulrich Ed.

Additional Reading
Walter W. Cobbett, Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, 2nd ed. by Colin Mason, 3 vol. (1963), an invaluable and comprehensive work containing analyses and descriptions of works and topics in the field; Edwin Evans, Handbook to Brahms, vol. 2 and 3, Chamber and Orchestral Music (1933–35), contains detailed analyses and comparisons of all of Brahms's chamber-music works, with a general overview of his style; Ernst Meyer, English Chamber Music (1946, reprinted 1951), a specialized study devoted primarily to the works of Elizabethan and later 17th-century composers; Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music (1944), a standard work that covers, in nontechnical language, large areas of the repertory; Homer Ulrich, Chamber Music, 2nd ed. (1966), a historical account of the field before Haydn, with descriptive analyses and history of the repertory since 1750.

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Universalium. 2010.

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