What is Chamber Music?

December 5, 2018

Introduction: A Slight Disclaimer

Kai Christiansen I like to call earsense the chamber music exploratorium. So what exactly is chamber music? The definition varies a bit depending on whom you ask, and it has changed over the many long years of its history (one could claim 500 years). As a chamber music devotee and a passionate, as well as professional advocate, I could write a great deal about chamber music and that, in the end, is really the sum total of earsense itself. But for the purposes of defining a domain (pun intended) particularly for the general music lover who is apt to know little to nothing about it, I would like to offer a reasonably succinct but persuasive overview. My goal is not to be so specific as to be restrictive nor in any way to be elitist about what is fundamentally only one of many musical genres. But earsense is, after all, devoted to something it, and I, specifically call chamber music, my own favorite genre of music, and that is what I mean to present here.

I will certainly qualify this as, ultimately, my own subjective definition and I make no claims for accurately representing historical nuance nor perhaps even the latest trends in modern chamber music. It is a practical, working definition from which earsense springs and, I like to think, a serviceable one for capturing what is essential, special and appealing about this extraordinary musical genre. I will take it on faith that, since I feel so passionately devoted to chamber music in particular, readers will be interested to discover why I, in particular, like it so much. And for this, a subjective definition is actually most valuable.

Finally, I will have to say this is a work in progress. Like earsense itself, this article is apt to grow, change, and even split into multiple parts overtime. Fortunately, the web is the ideal communication and publishing medium for this approach. But for the moment, let’s see what I can get down “on paper.”

Getting to the point: What is Chamber Music?

Simply put, chamber music is “classical music” for a small ensemble. Most commonly, that means 3 to 6 players but general usage easily encompasses 2 to 8 players (without necessarily any hard upper limit per se). No conductor. In modern parlance, is it often called “small ensemble music” particularly to avoid some of the negative connotations of the word “classical” and sometimes to encompass more contemporary music styles than the word “classical” typically denotes. But for our purposes here at earsense, the word “classical” is simply the most efficient keyword to connote a general style, history, attitude and practice of chamber music and to distinguish it from many other popular and artful genres of small ensemble music that earsense does not currently include in its purview (e.g. jazz, rock, bluegrass, folk, world musics and the like).

The term small ensemble distinguishes chamber music from music for large ensemble, namely symphonic music for large orchestras requiring a conductor and with more than one musician to a part. Definitions of chamber music often use the term “one to a part” meaning that each player in the ensemble has his or her own unique part without reinforcement by another player. Each part is essential to the whole; nothing is superfluous.

This smallness, or what we like to call its intimacy is what gave rise to the term “chamber” in the first place. In Latin/Italian (Camera), German (Kammer), French (Chambre), and English (Chamber), the word means “small room” as distinct from a theatre or church, hall or auditorium, all of which are intended more for large public spectacle with perhaps a greater purpose, program or agenda. Simply put, again, chamber music is that which can be accommodated within a modest room: a few musicians, perhaps a few listeners, almost more of a private affair. Certain its historical origins point to private, royal chambers and then, more democratically, a domestic living room or a café. This is one of the reasons that chamber music has been called “the music of friends.”

While chamber music may well include the voice and a sung text and there is a astonishing canon of intimate art music in this form, chamber music, for me and the purposes of earsense, is predominantly instrumental: abstract or “absolute” music that is sound without a verbal dimension. This is not to exclude the human voice, arguably the greatest instrument, as a player of intimate chamber music per se, but for me, more to exclude conceptual language in order to concentrate on the phenomenon of the non-verbal meaning of sound alone. It is also a matter of practicality: I exclude most (not all) vocal chamber music simply because earsense would be MUCH bigger and harder to mange. So, for my purposes, I can say that while, chamber music historically includes vocal music (especially looking back to the Renaissance with Italian madrigals or French chansons comprising the true origins of chamber music), here, I define chamber music as “classical music for small instrumental ensemble.”

Finally, chamber music is intended for players and listeners where the music is enjoyed in and of itself as a listening experience without additional multi-dimensional entertainments like lighting, set designs, graphics or videos, costumes, dancing or elaborate programmatic encumbrances, though, these may certainly accompany the experience. Chamber music delights in the artful expression of “pure” sound and the activity of undistracted and concentrated listening. When I am most rapt in the midst of a chamber music “experience”, I tend to close my eyes.

The eminent British musicologist, historian and composer Donald Tovey summaries admirably:

For general purposes, chamber music may be defined as instrumental music written for a group of individual performers, and intended to be heard for its own sake in such rooms as are to be found in private houses. Dance music, and music intended 'to accompany the clatter of dishes at a princely table', exclude themselves from the category of music intended to be heard for its own sake.

—Donald Tovey

The Greatest Composers, Their Greatest Works

Ok. There’s a reasonably terse and serviceable definition (to reiterate): instrumental classical music for small ensemble. Initially, that might suggest that, within the realm of classical music with its grand symphonies, operas, concertos and requiem masses, small ensemble music is, well, small: smaller impact, smaller historical significance, worth only a smaller part of your attention.

Not so! Most of the greatest and most familiar classical composers you might name (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten etc.) have also written chamber music, and, in many cases, it is their best music! There are some primary reasons for this.

Chamber music bears much less of a burden to achieve a public spectacle, to wow, dazzle or entertain in the pedestrian sense of the word (although it certain can do that). Simply from a practical viewpoint, its modest forces don’t carry. More often, it appeals to and is written for connoisseurs and so it sometimes acquires a greater subtlety, complexity or sophistication. It is also generally considered more difficult to create and to perform (not necessarily to hear). Every part is essential, unique and fully exposed. Vulnerable. Naked. There is no padding, reinforcement or redundancy. It offers a supreme creative challenge. But further more, as chamber music is more often free from the demands of success in the public marketplace, it can be more experimental, innovative and challenging.

And it is literally more private. Many of the greatest composers have used chamber music for their inner most expressions of love, despair, transcendent spirituality or simply their most personal, idiosyncratic and far reaching. For many composers, chamber music comprises their most intense, creative and powerful music.

For all these reasons, a composer’s chamber music is the very music you are less apt to know. I often say that most people know of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, but far fewer seem to know of his 15th string quartet. That is truly unfortunate. In my humble opinion, you are missing Beethoven’s best, at least within a very special genre. But, of course, I am biased.

End of Part 1, for now . . .

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.