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Chamber Music

A History of Chamber Music, Part IV: Modern Mavericks

The final chapter in our look at chamber music history, with music from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries!


Since we've basically done the equivalent of binge-watching chamber music history, this is like catching up with the latest “episodes” and then we actually have to wait for the next “season!” It's been an interesting ride thus far, though. They (i.e. classical musicians) were definitely still figuring some things out in season one, and season two seems to be when they settled on a formula, since season three was just more of that, but with some new characters. Now with this new season, things get really experimental.

For instance, by the twentieth century our familiar ensembles were old hat. In the search for something new, we developed the colorful combination of the flute, viola, and harp trio, which became popular through Claude Debussy (who is like the new character introduced at the end of a season that really shakes things up):

And given that new ensembles always need new music, this trio has provided fertile ground for a number of composers ever since then:

Another long-lasting combo spawned from this century is the Pierrot ensemble, which is a quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano that frequently also includes a singer or percussionist, depending on the piece. So named after Arnold Schoenberg’s revolutionary (and aurally challenging for some) Pierrot Lunaire from 1912, this grouping is one of the definitive staples of modern chamber music:

And Steve Reich even won a Pulitzer Prize with double the fun!

There were also two quintets that certainly existed before but didn’t really seem to blossom until this time: the woodwind quintet and the brass quintet. What set both of these ensembles apart from a group like the string quartet was the distinctive timbres or sound qualities of the different instruments. Strings can blend together nice and seamlessly, but clarinets and bassoons or trumpets and tubas not so much. These individual “colors” tend to paint a different picture, of course:

And even though there’s plenty of new repertoire for these works, musicians have a thing for nostalgia and looking back to the past for inspiration. So naturally arrangements of works originally for other ensembles and instruments are popular:

And if you want to talk about popularity, the relatively new saxophone is easily one of the definitive sounds of twentieth-century music, between the two worlds of classical and jazz. The first known work for saxophone quartet (soprano, two altos, tenor, and bass) was this piece by Jean-Baptiste Singelée from 1857:

With the tradition continuing well into today:

Of course, alongside all of these new players are our dear old friends of old like the string quartet and piano trio, just with some newer, more fashionable clothing, so to speak:

As we mentioned in last year’s Hitchhiker’s Guide, chamber music is one of the driving forces for contemporary art music. Certainly, new large ensemble pieces are still being written, but there are far too many composers and far too few major orchestras playing new pieces; thus, smaller groups are taking on these works. And many pieces are even designed for new, creative combinations of instruments:

And if you’d like to check out more groups playing exciting new repertoire, you can check out this list, which really only scratches the surface of chamber music’s broad reach.

That marks the end of our look at chamber music’s long history. We hope you’ve learned something new and maybe now have an inkling to catch some concerts near you! (If you’re in Houston, you can always look here!)

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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