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Chamber Music Month

A History of Chamber Music, Part I: Early Ear Worms

A quick rundown of chamber music during the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods of music history.


You probably read our incredibly important and highly acclaimed musical primer “The Hitchhiker's Guide to Chamber Music.” As that guide is so 2015, and we at Houston Public Media are all about staying current, we now present its eagerly awaited sequel: “A Brief But Thoroughly Informative Historical Record of the Advent and Development of Music Written for Small Ensembles Meant to be Performed Anywhere That Doesn't Require a Lot of Space” (working title).

For brevity’s sake, let's just call it “A History of Chamber Music.” This is Part I: Early Ear Worms.


Music was an incredibly important facet of life in the time of lords and ladies, both for use in church and entertainment. It was from the latter that chamber music arose. Music in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was malleable, and much of it could be performed on whatever instruments were available; players often improvised their own accompaniments to composed melodies, such as in this modern mashup of two Medieval tunes:

Chamber music also had its practical uses in providing rhythm and mood for dancing at court, such as in this collection of Renaissance dance pieces by Tielman Susato, the Danserye. It’s like a 16th-century Electric Slide!:

In the Baroque period, music became a little more rigidly structured. The term "sonata" started getting thrown around, and naturally musicians had to make some sense of it.

Quick, pop quiz! How many performers are usually found in a trio sonata? If you guessed four, you win (and we admire your counter-intuitive bravery)!

The Baroque trio sonata name is misleading but not entirely wrong. The trio comes from two treble voices (usually violins) accompanied by a basso continuo, which often consists of a harpsichord and a cello playing the same bass line with embellishments provided by the harpsichord. So, there are three musical parts, but four performers.

Arcangelo Corelli was one of the masterminds of the developing genre of the sonata, having written 48 trio sonatas and 12 sonatas for violin and continuo in the late 17th-early 18th century. And because musicians like to make things complicated (see: Trio sonata above), those sonatas are further broken into two types: sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera, which are neither about cheese nor cameras. The sonata da chiesa is literally a "church sonata," and the da camera a "chamber sonata."

Here’s an example of a trio sonata da chiesa:

And here’s a trio sonata da camera:

In case that’s not complicated enough, it turns out that the sonata da chiesa wasn't exclusively meant for the church, and really just came to be the name for four-movement sonatas with a slow-fast-slow-fast tempo pattern. The sonata da camera, on the other hand, came out of the tradition of dance music and was essentially a suite of pieces modeled after styles of dance like the allemande, sarabande, and gigue.

One of the most famous bits of a sonata to come from Corelli is his irresistibly catchy set of variations to the “la folia” progression:

It seems like everyone wanted a piece of this material, from Handel to Salieri, and much later composers like Rachmaninoff (after Corelli, though he didn’t actually come up with the original progression) and even video game composer Nobuo Uematsu.

There are certainly other types of chamber music during the Baroque period. Madrigals were an immensely popular genre starting in the Renaissance with intricate, intertwining voice parts:

Solo keyboard music was also in great abundance throughout the Baroque period, from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier to Couperin's almost endless supply of harpsichord pieces, which can be played just about anywhere given the instrument's relatively small size:

And, even composers' pets wanted in on the action, apparently. The story goes that Domenico Scarlatti had a cat named Pulcinella who was fond of walking across his keyboard, and the peculiar opening theme of this fugue came from one such moment. It's not the first time a cat has found a talent for playing the keyboard:

There are a bunch of modern groups that love performing this older music, like:

Academy of Ancient Music

Anonymous 4

Apollo’s Fire

Ars Lyrica Houston

Bach Society Houston


Chatham Baroque

The English Concert

Mediaeval Baebes

Mercury, the orchestra redefined (formerly Mercury Baroque!)

The Tallis Scholars

And many, many others!

Come back again next week for a look at chamber music by the big dogs: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven!

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 Houston Public Media 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...

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