Vail music: What is chamber music?
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado –Chamber music is the heart of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. I am often approached and asked “What is chamber music?” Nothing makes me happier than giving my two cents on the matter.
Chamber music (musica da camera in Italian, kammermusik in German, musique de chambre in French) is generally an instrumental ensemble -though it can equally apply to vocal music – performed by one player for each part. In orchestral music, on the other hand, there are several players for the same part.
The group or ensembles of musicians that perform chamber music are classified according to the number of players, duos (2), trios (3), quartets (4), quintets (5), sextets (6), septets (7), octets (8), etc. The emphasis is on the ensemble, not the individual players. Chamber-music ensembles generally include from two to 10 musicians.
The term chamber music was originally intended to cover music not destined “for the church, the theater or a public concert room.” The music was considered a symbol of intellectual sophistication, prestige and power.
As now used, it no longer automatically implies a particular venue. It includes music for small ensembles of instruments and/or voices, usually one instrument/voice to a part, customarily performed in the home or in small concert halls (although economic pressures often dictate the use of larger venues).
The main genres are the string quartet, piano trio, piano quartet, piano quintet, string trio and string quintet, but also comprise duo sonatas for violin or cello and piano, sonatas for a wind instrument and piano, string duos, sextets, septets, octets, etc. Most composers have contributed to the now-abundant repertoire of chamber music.
The modern conception of chamber music, originating around the time of Haydn (18th century), achieved a more established profile in the mid- to late-19th century.
Haydn, who developed associated combinations of concerted chamber music, focused on new artistic directions involving texture and form, which would influence subsequent generations. A less definable characteristic than either form or texture, but common to all classic examples of chamber music, is the intimacy of feeling expressed via the interaction of a team of combined solo players. All composers have depended on this quality, though in varying intensity.
The 19th century “concert hall” was beginning to replace private performances that led to increased technical demands on performers and a heightened degree of sophistication. Also, the growth and development of the piano-forte, from the days of Mozart (1756-1791) to those of, say, Schumann (1810-1856), created a new standard of technique for those chamber-music pieces that include a keyboard instrument.
Toward the end of the 19th century, chamber music entered a new phase that included an alteration in established formal structure. By the turn of the century, it became obvious that attention was concentrated on harmony and timbre rather than design.
There was a preference for a more direct and less affected form of musical expression. German, French and English chamber music styles developed in different directions, seemingly alienated from the three, or four-movement sonata form based on the classical view of tonality, which modern harmony has challenged.
Chamber music has proved to be an excellent medium for experimentation. Needless to say, trends are always partnered with innumerable exceptions.
The 20th century saw the rise of chamber music combinations for woodwinds and brass. Works range from trios such as Poulenc’s masterpiece (trumpet, horn and trombone) to woodwind quintets (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) by Carter, Neilson and Schuller, and brass quintets (two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba) by Arnold, Dahl, and many others.
Chamber music is very much alive and well in the 21st century. New works are commissioned regularly by many different organizations, musicians and patrons of music.
Since the burgeoning period of chamber music and its augmented focus on the ensemble, many world-famous string quartets, piano trios and various other groups have emerged. Regardless of predominant concert-hall performance, chamber music has retained some right to its name that indicates its domestic origin since it is often treated as “the music of friends” and is played privately by nonprofessional and professional musicians.
Some of history’s greatest composers used chamber music as a vehicle to create their most profound and important works. Others used the medium as an outlet for fun and lighthearted entertainment. The best composers often did both.
Lynne Maaza is the associate artistic director for Bravo! This is Lynne’s 12th year with Bravo!
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