Chamber Music

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Chamber Music

Not sure what chamber music is? Don’t panic! We’ve got the answers right here!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Chamber Music

Are you sitting here during Houston Public Media’s celebration of Chamber Music Month lost and bewildered about what chamber music even is? Well, grab your towel and follow this handy primer to the vast universe of chamber music: 

Once upon a time, chamber music was exactly what it says on the tin: music performed in a chamber setting like a room in a house, the great hall of a palace, or the sanctuary of a church. Naturally, because of concerns regarding space, the music would often feature one performer to a part, as opposed to large orchestra works where several string players will play the same part with a multitude of wind players behind them.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with Bramwell Tovey
Multiple musicians on a part makes it so much easier to hide mistakes when you don’t know your part. Image courtesy of the City of Vancouver.

Nowadays, chamber music can be played just about anywhere, but it still typically refers to smaller ensembles, often with one performer to a part, and usually no more than two of the same instrumental voice. “So who plays this chamber music?” you might be asking. And if you’re not, we’re going to tell you anyway! Brace yourself, because the originality and wit with which we name our chamber ensembles is nothing short of brilliant: 

Solos

Duos

Trios

Quartets

Quintets

Sextets

And so on…

“Whoa, whoa, hold on there! Is it really that easy to name a chamber group!?” you might say. If you didn’t, we’re putting words in your mouth anyway. And yes, it’s deceivingly simple! Certainly, one might see fit to be a little more specific about the instrumentation. For instance, the string quartet might be the most well-known type of chamber ensemble there is. There are also brass and woodwind quintets, but one could just as easily fire a player to reduce the ensemble to a quartet, or clone a player to make it a sextet!

Prague Wind Quintet 1931
I’d definitely take a clone of Václav Smetá€ek’s awesome spectacles.The Prague Wind Quintet in 1931. Public domain.

The overall principle is the same: imagine any number of instrumental combinations and just use the number of how many there are to give them a name. One should remember that musicians do so love ambiguity, however, so if you see something called a piano trio, it doesn’t actually mean there are three pianos huddled together playing music. (Though that has been done before!) It could really mean any combination of two instruments accompanied by piano. The most standard ensemble is that of the violin, cello and piano, such as in Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 39 in G. Other such combinations are clarinet, cello, and piano, like in Brahms’ Trio in A minor, or clarinet, violin, and piano in Bartók’s Contrasts.

The truly wonderful thing about chamber music is the diverse options of instrumental color available for each piece. The possibilities are big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big they are. “How big are they?” you might ask, and if you didn’t… well, you know the drill by now. For instance, check out the 20th century darlings of the flute, viola, and harp trio, the saxophone quartet, or the Schoenberg-inspired Pierrot ensemble.

Paul Legrand
Fortunately for the coulrophobes out there, the Pierrot ensemble does not actually feature a clown. Paul Legrand as Pierrot the clown c. 1855. Photo by Nadar. Public domain.

Chamber music is the way of the future of classical music. With so many composers writing so many great pieces, it’s difficult for groups like the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, or our very own Houston Symphony to play them all. They could try, but then the musicians would probably never eat or sleep, which is problematic to maintaining one’s livelyhood. Fortunately there is an ever-growing number of ensembles whose sole mission is to perform as much chamber music as they possibly can. Chamber Music America is an organization that wants to keep the public informed about these groups and their performances, so they are a handy resource to check out!

Hopefully this little guide has given you a little bit of insight into the world of chamber music, and maybe you’re realizing that you’ve probably been hearing it your entire life without even realizing it? Seriously! How often have you heard this, or this, or even this? Chamber music has been with us for a while, and much like 42, it’s definitely here to stay for those of you who have the passion and enthusiasm for listening to it!

For those of you interested in contemporary chamber ensembles and organizations, here are some great ones:

Alarm Will Sound

Atlanta Chamber Players

Bang on a Can

Canadian Brass

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Da Camera

Duo46

eighth blackbird

Kronos Quartet

WindSync

And many others

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Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on HPM Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews for Houston...

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