Before the advent of public concert-giving in the late 18th century, any musical performance for the aristocracy with a small audience in a small room was known as ‘chamber music’. The music could be cantatas, songs, trios, quartets, concertos and symphonies of few parts. Later the term ‘chamber music’ came to describe only music for two to nine players with one instrument to a part.
Nowadays chamber music is not confined to a small chamber with a limited audience but is a regular feature of concerts, although the acoustics and intimacy of a small hall are preferable to those of a large auditorium.
Many chamber music lovers have great knowledge of the genre while others simply enjoy hearing different combinations of instruments in small ensembles where the sound of each instrument is prominent. For the
benefit of those unfamiliar with the terminology for chamber music combinations, here are the chief combinations.
Duo: A duo is a combination of two different instruments but mostly they are called sonatas or carry an imaginative title. The term duo is usually reserved for a composition for two of the same instrument such as the cello duos of Offenbach.
Trio: The most common trios are the string trio of violin, viola and cello and the piano trio of violin, cello and piano. Sometimes a trio is incorrectly named. Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio is a trio for clarinet, viola and piano and should not be called a piano trio or a clarinet trio. Brahms’ opus 40 Trio is for horn, violin and piano, and
his opus 114 is for clarinet, cello and piano. Once again, these should not be called piano trio, horn trio or clarinet trio.
Quartet: A string quartet comprises two violins, viola and cello. When one of the strings is replaced by another instrument such as flute, oboe, clarinet or piano, the quartet becomes a flute quartet, oboe quartet, clarinet quartet or piano quartet, etc. In combinations of four other instruments, each instrument is named in the title of the quartet.
Quintet: The usual combination for the string quintet is the string quartet with added viola although, on occasion, the added instrument may be a second cello. In rare instances, the combination may be for string quartet plus a double bass such as in Dvorák’s opus 77 String Quintet. Quintets such as clarinet quintet, guitar quintet, etc. are the string quartet with the added instrument.
Sextets, Septet, Octet, Nonet: These can be for strings only, winds only or for different combinations of winds and strings and sometimes piano. A most interesting combination is in the Septet of Saint-Saëns where he used trumpet, string quartet, double bass and piano. Many other interesting combinations also exist.
In Chamber Soirée (Tuesdays 10pm) we also include songs accompanied by a chamber ensemble and major keyboard works because so many were originally composed for small intimate salons. These are not called chamber music but are works suitable for a private soirée. In Diversions in Fine Music, we devote one program each week to The Music Salon (Thursdays 9am) where we hear some of the shorter works composed for an intimate setting.
This article was featured in the December 2018 edition of the Fine Music Magazine. To become a subscriber, please click here, and gain access to many more informative pieces that are available in our magazines.