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Chamber Music Month

A History Of Chamber Music, Part II: Classical Capers

A continuation of our look at chamber music’s past, exploring the music of the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth centuries.


Last week we learned all about chamber music's modest beginnings. Now, as we slink into the eighteenth century, we get to some of the most important developments in chamber music history. Sonatas, which we found had double identities and misleading names, became increasingly commonplace through the so-called Classical period (beginning around 1750-ish).

Classical sonatas were almost always cast in three movements instead of the four you would see in the sonata da chiesa, and they were either for keyboard instrument alone, or a keyboard instrument and another voice like violin, cello, flute, kazoo*, etc.

Speaking of keyboards, one of the most revolutionary developments of the transition from the Baroque to the Classical was the introduction of a new keyboard instrument, the fortepiano. This is considered one of they very first works for this innovative device:

If the name rings a bell (or hammers a string!), it's basically the earliest version of our modern piano. Its name literally means "loud soft" in Italian. Perhaps a bit simple, but it actually highlights one of the great features that the harpsichord lacked: volume control!

Just listen to the second movement of this sonata by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach (one of Johann's many children) and the expression possible on the new fortepiano:

By this time, we had also gotten rid of that pesky basso continuo, and pieces with the word "trio" in the title thankfully actually meant it this time. The much less ambiguous piano trios became immensely popular from this point forward.

Oh. Right… (Note from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Chamber Music)

Well, for the most part Classical period piano trios were the standard violin, cello, piano combo:

But, as magic as the number 3 may be, musicians still could not let go of their obsession with 4. Enter the string quartet, the chamber music heavyweight that almost no composer could resist tackling (not literally, one hopes). From Haydn, the oft-described "Father of the String Quartet:"

To Mozart, who followed in Haydn's footsteps but made his own name in the genre:

And of course, Beethoven, whose string quartet output is divided among his three primary creative periods: the early works (often stylistically compared to the aforementioned composers), the middle period (usually known as the "heroic" period for its trademark bombast and grandeur), and the late period (because it's at the end). Also of note is how string quartets more or less maintain a pattern of four movements, as opposed to the traditional three in a sonata.

But sometimes four voices just won't do, and composers were more than happy to expand their instrumentation choices, which led to some very famous odd-numbered works like Beethoven's Septet in E-flat:

Or Franz Schubert's "Trout Quintet," so named because of the fourth movement which is a series of variations on his song "Die Forelle" (The Trout):

And if you really want to get crazy, let’s try thirteen instruments! If you’ve seen the film Amadeus, you’ll definitely recognize this tune from Mozart:

So, while the Baroque period got the ball rolling on chamber music, the Classical period took the ball and scored a goal. This is where the repertoire expanded greatly and marked a new era of music-making for the home or palace, and a good portion of this music still gets widely performed today. Next week, we’ll get in touch with our Romantic side and see how chamber music evolved in the nineteenth century as it slowly approached the brave new world of the twentieth!

*Okay, it wasn’t written during the Classical period, but — for better or worse — this exists.

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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