Chamber music is naked music.
Unlike the big orchestral showpieces, dressed out in brass and percussion, with a hundred musicians tickling your ears, the small combos playing string quartets or piano trios have only their unadorned music to seduce you with. No tam-tam, no shimmer, no tuttis and tooting trumpets.
Symphonies are public; they are oratory. They are campaign speeches for C-major or B-flat-minor. Quartets are personal; they whisper in your ear. They are composers thinking before they speak.
When you listen to Beethoven’s late quartets, you come to that point where the deepest emotions and the most profound thoughts can no longer be separated. They are the same thing.
At its simplest, chamber music is a variety of classical music in which a small number of musicians play together, one to a part, with no conductor. Chamber music is a matter of numbers. Primarily, the number 1.
With an orchestra, you can have 20 violins playing together, or six horns in unison. In chamber music, you normally have one musician to a part. Each plays a separate line of music.
But it’s much more than that.
It is, for most serious lovers of classical music, the purest form of their love; it is music divested of all the frivolous froufrou — the orchestral effects, the grand textures and timbrel mixtures that are the sleight-of-hand of such composers as Berlioz or Strauss.
As cellist Ellen Bial used to say, “The less noise, the more music.”
In chamber music, there is nothing but the notes, spread across some few instruments, like the outlines of the music, before it is colored over by paint. No yelling, just a word in your ear.
Arnold Steinhardt of the former Guarneri Quartet once called chamber music a “heart-to-heart talk we just had with an audience of strangers.”
It is, perhaps this sense of music as a conversation that is at the heart of chamber music. The sharing is not only between musician and audience, but among the musicians themselves.
“When you play a trio together, or a quartet, you are bonding with your fellow musicians on a very intense level, you are literally breathing together for 30 minutes, trying to be in tune with each other on a millisecond level,” violinist Gil Shaham says. “There is something very intimate about it.”
Intimate and naked: With little variety in sonority or texture, listeners are forced to concentrate on the musical lines. When you listen to an orchestra playing Pictures at an Exhibition, you can float back in the warm sudsy water of a saxophone pretending to be an old castle or trombones and tubas pretending to be an oxcart.
But when listening to a string quartet, you pay attention not to the sound of the music, but to its line. A symphony is a painting; a quartet is a drawing.
You follow a tune in the first violin and hear it repeated and varied in the cello, bounced back and forth between the players. The viola comments and the second violin chatters away.
The four lines of a quartet are racing along, and the fiddlers toss the tunes back and forth, like rugby players running to the goal.
You could draw the musical lines on paper, seeing where the lines intersect and where they stand alone. Theoretically, no one player is more important than another.
I so love chamber music, that I want to share it with everyone — no, not share, proselytize. This is real music for the real music lover — the kind of person who cannot live without music.
Chamber music was originally music performed in a small room (chambre in French), or with no audience at all, but for the sheer pleasure of the musicians.
In the 18th century, when most of the forms of chamber music we know were developed, its audience was almost always aristocratic and educated. Often, the noblemen played music themselves. Joseph Haydn wrote 175 works for baryton, an obscure instrument, half cello, half sitar, that happened to be played by his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy.
Suffice it to say, in an era when music served as the prime entertainment form, audiences were as well-versed in the quartet as young people today are in the intricacies of Guitar Hero. They looked for the best in their quartets and trios.
And many amateurs played instruments themselves. Composers made their living supplying the music that was published for people to play in their homes, where Papa might play the violin, Mama the cello and son and daughter second violin and viola.
In the 19th century, many homes had a piano, and bourgeois daughters played four-hand piano reductions of Beethoven symphonies or the latest ballet score. Publishers had to keep up with the demand for sheet music, the way iTunes keeps up today with new MP3s.
Luigi Boccherini wrote 91 string quartets and 110 cello quintets. Giuseppe Maria Cambini wrote 149 quartets. The demand was inexhaustible.
Even today, chamber music is essential for amateur musicians.
Maryellen Gleason was president of the Phoenix Symphony, but she also is an amateur viola player. Each summer she spends a week in Blue Hill, Maine, at the Adult Chamber Music Institute at Kneisel Hall, where she gets to play her viola in quartets of other amateurs.
“It’s something to balance my life,” she says. “I get to play music of composers that I love, and I learn more about the composers that I didn’t know, and I’m just swept up by the vastness of the chamber-music repertory.
“The biggest lesson I learn there is just how difficult it is to be a musician. It’s a very humbling experience.”
Even among professional musicians, the music often was played for their own enjoyment without any audience.
Symphony musicians play it to recapture their love of music, which, for some of them, has turned from their passion into their job.
And, instead of having a single leader governing how to play the music, you haggle it out with the other members of the group in rehearsal, coming to a consensus about tempo, balance, tone.
“It’s a democracy that actually works,” violinist Ida Kavafian said. “For the most part.”
The Guarneri is famous for its discussions — read “fights” — about the music. You can see this in the 1989 film that was made about the group, High Fidelity, directed by Allan Miller. One wants more vibrato and a romantic phrasing, but another objects, demanding a drier phrasing. Eventually, they come to an understanding, but the tension continues into performance, where they pick up on little things the others do.
“There is a constant give and take,” says violist Nancy Buck, who teaches at Arizona State University and plays with the Phoenix Piano Quartet.
“Being able to pick up on the cues the others give — it could be the way someone breathes, the gesture — these are intimate cues, like looking at body language or eyes when you’re talking to someone.”
It is music as intelligent, engaging conversation.
“When I was in college,” says pianist Walter Cosand, “they told us, ‘You might have to starve to be a musician, but you’ll have a lot of fun playing chamber music.’ “
There is an arithmetic of chamber music, almost a numerology.
Four is best, three almost as good. Above nine, things get crowded.
Chamber music comes in many combinations of instruments. The biggest divider is music with piano and music without. Add a piano to a string quartet and you have a piano quintet. Here’s a list of some of the most familiar, and some famous compositions you might consider to enjoy the ensembles.
Solo — Unless he or she’s playing a piano, you don’t find too many cases of a lone performer onstage. It can be tough to hold an audience for an hour if all you have is a cello, unless, of course, you are Yo-Yo Ma. But there are exceptions. Composers have written works for flute, clarinet, even bassoon. But the acme of all such are Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, the ne plus ultra of serious music. As an old teacher of mine once said, “They seem to me to be the only truly serious music ever written.” You can lose yourself in that vibrating string, for instance, the opening allemande from the Partita in d minor.
Or consider Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute.
Duo — Things open up when you have two people to engage in conversation. Most often, this will be a piano accompanying a solo instrument. There are hundreds of such sonatas, for violin, for flute, for tuba. By far, the largest number of such sonatas are for violin and piano, and were written by composers from Bach to Philip Glass.
Beethoven wrote his “Spring” sonata in 1801. The opening movement is tuneful and vernal. Prokofiev wrote his Sonata No. 2 in 1943. The finale is a blast.
Trio — The piano trio is second only to the string quartet in frequency in the chamber-music repertoire. Piano, violin and cello is the normal lineup, although there are trios with clarinet or horn instead (Brahms wrote one of each of those). One of the most moving is Dimitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-minor, op. 67. The fourth movement features a Jewish-inflected “Dance of Death. More graceful is the fourth movement of Dvorak’s “Dumky” trio; watch on the YouTube video as the musicians watch each other and pay attention.
The string quartet needs a section all its own.
The quartet is the quintessence of chamber music: Four voices ranged as the human voice — soprano, alto, tenor and bass. First violin, second violin, viola and cello.
Or as the old joke has it: A guy who plays the violin really well; a guy who plays the violin less well; a guy who used to play the violin; and a guy who hates the violin.
The fiddle family is flexible, capable of the same microtonal inflections the voice has, and can be just as expressive. Put four of them together in four-part harmony and you have the rock-solid core of the repertoire, from Joseph Haydn to Philip Glass.
“It combines the highest aspect of performance skills, the soloistic qualities you need but also the ensemble skills, knowing how to blend,” violist and quartet-member Nancy Buck says.
It’s that counterpoise that defines a successful quartet: the individual blending with the group. Always maintaining separateness but making a beautiful sound together.
But it isn’t just the instruments: The quartet literature is the highest and best thoughts of the greatest composers. Many, including Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bartok, used the medium for their most personal music. Their symphonies spoke their public thoughts; their quartets, their private musings.
Often very private: Beethoven asked the question, “Must it be?” — he even wrote it in the score — for the last movement of his final quartet, and answers “It must be;” Bedrich Smetana had the first violin in his First Quartet play a high harmonic “E” midway through the finale that mimicked the whine of the tinnitus that plagued him as he slid into deafness; Alban Berg hid the name of his adulterous lover in the Allegro Misterioso of his Lyric Suite; and Dimitri Shostakovich put his own name into the notes of his Eighth Quartet, an almost nihilistic introspection on the devastation of World War II. This is the second movement.
These are all just movements in larger works. Here are two of the monuments of the quartet literature complete. Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A-minor, op. 132 and Bela Bartok’s Fifth Quartet.
A quartet doesn’t have to be all strings. There are many written for piano, violin, viola and cello. Mozart did it, Schumann did it. But the best are the three by Johannes Brahms. Try his Piano Quartet No. 2 in A, op. 26. Here is the finale.
The practice of quartet writing continues. Here is the finale of Philip Glass’ Quartet No. 3, which served as the score for Paul Schrader’s film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
Taking up the arithmetic again:
Quintet — Take a string quartet and add a cello and you have a cello quintet. Add a viola and you have a viola quintet. Mozart wrote six of them. But add Franz Schubert and you have the “Trout” Quintet, the single most perfect, bubbly, tuneful work in the whole chamber-music repertoire.
On the opposite expressive end, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music in the whole repertoire, if you let Schubert add a second cello, you get the profound Quintet in C. You can hardly get more innigkeit than the second movement adagio.
Sextet — The more instruments you add, the further you get from the basic quartet. And with great sextets by Brahms and Dvorak, we’re still recommending Arnold Schoenberg’s powerfully rich and romantic Transfigured Night.
There is also Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34, written for clarinet, string quartet and piano.
Septet — Believe it or not, during Beethoven’s life his most popular composition was not his great Ninth Symphony or his Emperor Concerto, but rather his more modest Septet, for the eclectic group of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello and double bass. It’s still fun.
The Septet in E-flat major, Op. 65, for trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass by Camille Saint-Saens — often considered the most major of all the minor composers — is one of his greatest pieces.
Octet — Put two string quartets together and you have an octet. The one Felix Mendelssohn wrote when he was just 16 has never been beat. It is chamber music of the highest order. No greater music was ever written by someone as young. And there is little music less effervescent than its scherzo.
But for sheer cleverness, consider Darius Milhaud’s Octet, Op. 291, which isn’t just an octet. It is his quartets number 14 and 15 performed at the same time. Neat trick.
Igor Stravinsky said (he is notably unreliable) that the idea for his Wind Octet came to him in a dream.
Nonet — Getting to the high end of chamber music — any more and you start to look for a conductor. One of the only nonets to make it into the standard repertoire is the one by Louis Spohr, a contemporary of Beethoven. There aren’t very many nonets, but Ludwig Spohr’s is the most frequently performed, as long as you don’t count PDQ Bach’s No-No, Nonette for assorted winds and toys.
7 The high end
10 — Georges Enescu wrote his Decet for Winds in D, Op. 14, in 1906 for double wind quintet, with two flutes, oboes, horns, clarinets and bassoons; one oboist doubled on English horn.
11 — In 1918, Igor Stravinsky wrote a Ragtime for 11 Instruments, a prime example of “Uncle Igor’s Asymmetry Machine.”
12 — Milton Babbitt wrote 12-tone music, so it is hardly surprising that he wrote one of those ear-busting pieces, 1948’s Composition for 12 Instruments, a duodecet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, celesta, violin, viola, cello and double bass.
13 — One of Mozart’s greatest masterworks is his Serenade No. 10 for 12 Winds and Double Bass, in B-flat major, K. 361, also called the “Gran Partita.” This is one you shouldn’t miss. The third movement adagio is beautifully appreciated by Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus:
“On the page it looked nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”
And beyond — As we climb up the number ladder, the works become more and more orchestral sounding, even if there is one player per part.
Where can it end?
Richard Strauss wrote his Metamorphosen for 23 solo string instruments, but it is as lush as any Strauss orchestral piece.
Clearly, we’re out of the range of chamber music, but still in the “one voice per part” mode. In 1540, Thomas Tallis wrote his famous Spem in Alium (“Hope in any other”), a religious motet for eight choirs of five voices each, for a total of 40 individual solo lines. That may hold the record.