Chamber music is named after the camara or palace chamber, in which small groups of instruments used to perform for the aristocracy. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described chamber music as “four rational people conversing”.

During Medieval times and the Renaissance, instruments were mainly used to accompany singers but purely instrumental ensembles also existed, called consorts. A string consort, for instance, consisted of stringed instruments which eventually evolved into what we now know as the modern string family and a recorder consort consisted of the various sizes of recorder, from bass to sopranino.

Haydn is credited with being the creator of modern chamber music as we know it today...

In the Baroque period, chamber music was not yet clearly defined as its own art form, however the trio sonata was the predominant medium for small ensemble. It consisted of two treble instruments and one bass, accompanied by a chordal instrument such as organ, harp or lute filling in the harmony. At the time, the music could be played on any variety of instruments, rather than each instrumental part  being precisely specified. The voices were very often interwoven into a sophisticated polyphonic texture. In the second half of the 18th century, tastes began to change and composers came to prefer the Galant style, which was characterised by a “thinner texture.. and clearly defined melody and bass”.

Haydn is credited with being the creator of modern chamber music as we know it today. A master in the classical era, composed an impressive 83 string quartets and 45 piano trios as well as numerous string trios, duos and wind pieces. This “conversational” style that Goethe referred to can be clearly perceived in Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 20 No. 4 in D major. In the footsteps of Haydn, lots more chamber music was composed by many other greats, such as Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Dvorak.

Brahms was a great innovator in his manner of writing chamber music, running phrase into phrase and mixing melodic motifs to create a tapestry of continuously moving melody. Debussy, Ravel and Fauré created new tone colours for chamber music. Arnold Schoenberg, before arriving at serialism in chamber music, produced his iconic Verklärte Nacht, a late romantic work. Afterwards he headed in the direction of atonal music with his Second String Quartet which includes a soprano.

Nowadays, chamber music can consist of anything from five synthesisers to a blend of five cellos and a vacuum cleaner.

Images: Danish String Quartet with clarinettist Sebastian Manz

Danish String Quartet

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