Chamber Music's Intimate Joys


Not all classical music is orchestral:  big and loud symphonies, intended for concert halls. In fact, some of the finest works from the greatest composers were written for just a few lower-level players, perhaps friends or family members, gathering for a pleasant musical evening at home. Sure, there are plenty of hard-to-play masterpieces that are best left to highly skilled groups such as the Juilliard String Quartet. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample intimate chamber music written for both amateurs and professionals.


It's pretty simple, really: A handful of competent players gathering for the sheer pleasure of making music together. Two things are needed – music worth playing and, this is crucial, instruments that stay in tune. Back in the Medieval Period, instrument-building was in its infancy, as craftsmen and inventors working in shops all over Europe improved the look, sound and stability of string and wind instruments. By the 1400s and into the 1500s, a wide variety of fiddles, flutes and lutes were featured in royal courts, as players honed their skills and composers crafted tunes that accompanied meals, social gatherings and courtly dancing. Chamber music was born. Popular in every corner of the continent, experienced small ensembles toyed with combinations of sounds, blending related families, blending together fiddles and cellos of various sizes, or wide-ranging flutes and recorders. These bands were known as consorts. Soon, the two separate families were mixed together, now comprising both string and wind instruments, known as a broken consort. Welcome to the birth of what would one day grow into the symphony orchestra. As the Baroque Era unfolded (1600-1750), a new chamber-size sound was being developed down in Italy. A pair of players – two violins, or a violin and flute, etc. – carried the melody, while two other players supported them. Those two, usually a harpsichord and a viola da gamba (an early version of the cello), were treated as one musical voice, offering chordal and rhythmic support, and became known as the continuo. This combination was dubbed Trio Sonata, even though four players were involved. Soon, two categories were defined: Sonatas da Camera (chamber sonatas) and Sonatas da Chiesi (church sonatas). The former contained various popular dances, such as minuets, courantes and allemandes, while sonatas intended to be heard in church settings forbade dance music in favor of four formally titled segments such as allegros, andantes and vivaces, usually ordered as slow-fast-slow-fast movements. As the Classical Era began (late-1700s), the harpsichord as chamber participant was falling out of favor, soon to be replaced by the viola, which joined the cello and pairs of violins to form the string quartet – a format that would gain in popularity and musical importance in the hands of Haydn, Mozart and, later, Beethoven (Goethe famously praised the string quartet as “four sensible persons conversing”). As the piano succeeded the harpsichord, it too became a much-used chamber instrument, combining with a violin and cello as the very popular piano trio. By then, music had become a beloved form of entertainment everywhere in Europe, both in lavish mansions and palaces as well as in simpler middle-class homes. Knowing this, composers wrote challenging chamber music for themselves and skilled professional players – many of them personal friends – as well as simpler works that would be published and sold to amateurs for use in private, amiable run-throughs with friends and family. Yes, the orchestra was attracting concert audiences, as did the opera house. But the intimate joys of small-scale music would continue to stand side-by-side in quality and importance with the biggest of symphonies.

Exploration Questions

  • What role did Arcangelo Corelli play in the evolution of chamber music?
  • How did Haydn and Mozart contribute to the development of the string quartet?
  • Besides the solo and two-voice sonata, piano trio and string quartet, what were the most important chamber-music combinations in the 18th and 19th Centuries?

Reflective Questions

  • Who are your favorite chamber-music composers?
  • Why do you think chamber music impacted '60s rock 'n' roll, as it did in songs by the Beatles and Rolling Stones?
  • Do you prefer the intense, intellectual sounds of the string quartet, or the melodic immediacy of the piano trio?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading & Listening

  • Keller, James. Chamber Music – A Listener's Guide. Oxford University Press. 2010. 520 pages. A respected program annotator, Keller surveys a wide range of music, detailing chamber works from every musical period, traveling alphabetically from Anton Arensky to Hugo Wolf.
    Click here to order
  • Radice, Mark A. Chamber Music – An Essential History. University of Michigan Press. 2012. 384 pages. Following the same format in Keller's book, Radice follows the same order of composers, offering focused, readable summaries of works by composers from – once again – Arensky to Wolf.
    Click here to order