Chamber Music Month

A History of Chamber Music, Part III: Romantic Rogues

This week, we look at chamber music with some heart as we delve into nineteenth-century Romanticism and its aftermath.

Thus far, we’ve seen the origin stories and the next generation of our chamber music superheroes. Now, we reach our proverbial Bronze Age as we explore chamber music in the nineteenth century. Known as the Romantic Era, the nineteenth century was all about emotion, which the music of the time strongly reflected.

Just compare this Mozart Piano Trio to this one by Johannes Brahms:


The Mozart has a certain rigid simplicity to it — can you hear it? The phrasing is regular, and the mood is fairly light and bouncy. And then you have the Brahms, which is lush and emotive, with long musical gestures and plenty of dynamic contrast (in musician speak, basically lots of fluctuations in volume).

And if the piano became kind of a big deal in the eighteenth century, it was huge in the nineteenth century. If you ask even the most casual classical music listeners about piano repertoire, 9 times out of 10, they’ll mention this:


Even if you don’t know Chopin’s name, you probably recognize that piece! Or how about this one? If none of those, you have to know this tune! And if not Chopin, surely this guy is on… your… list?:


Anyone who’s seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit is definitely familiar with the end of this rhapsody. Between Chopin and Liszt, the piano player as nineteenth century “rock star” was born, and they even performed some of the very first piano recitals. Of course, other composers tickled the ivories as well, with Robert Schumann perfecting the art of miniature writing:


The period is also characterized by a strong emphasis on music that was inspired by literature and art. Here’s a piece that you might recognize from orchestral literature, in its original form:


One interesting development in the piano repertoire was music for piano four hands. No, we didn’t suddenly get an influx of four-armed piano players (although I’m sure some of them wish that were possible!). These were simply piano duets where two people played on the some keyboard (or on separate keyboards if necessary). This kind of music was present in the Classical period, but it didn’t flourish until this time where Schubert took the idea and ran with it:


Brahms, Bizet, Mendelssohn, and others got in on the action, too. And of course, outside of its use as a solo instrument, the piano still remained a chamber music standby in ensemble performances. Schumann basically invented the modern piano quintet as we know it (piano + string quartet) with this work:


Overall, chamber music genres remained pretty much the same through the course of the century, and it was really the music that went through the most significant changes. Also of note, it seems like we talk about German and Austrian composers in classical music a lot, but the nineteenth century was really where other nationalities got their time to shine. A new French style began to arise from works by Gabriel Fauré and Cesar Franck. And there was even music with a cross-national bent as composers were inspired by visits to other countries, with works like Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence inspired by the Italian city:


Or Dvorak’s so-called “American Quartet” which has a distinctive, folksy flair to it:


And as time slowly crept towards the new century, changes were afoot in the music world. The traditional predictability of music from the Baroque and Classical periods was beginning to erode away, and composers sought new means of expression. (Kind of like how modern rock bands seem to want to “reinvent” themselves with every new album.)

Impressionism was a new style of music (named after the art movement) that had some of Romanticism’s emotive qualities, but entirely different execution. This is where composers were able to “break the rules” of music, so to speak, and use unusual melodic and harmonic figures to create a new sound. Claude Debussy usually gets all the credit for carrying the impressionist banner, and is quite well-known for various piano works. He also had a game-changing string quartet (as well as some other chamber works that we’ll talk about in our next installment!):


Which inspired a similar work by his fellow countryman Maurice Ravel in the early twentieth century:


But more on that time period next week!