A Brief History of Chamber Music

Updated: Apr 29, 2019

We've spent time on this blog talking about how to listen to chamber music, but we have yet to dig into what chamber music actually is and where it came from. So we decided to turn to an expert! Ysabel Sarte is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology, which is a fancy word for "music historian." She offers us the following flying leap through the development of chamber music.

“Is water wet?”

“Is a hot dog a sandwich?”

“What exactly is ‘chamber’ music?”

These are all just a few of life’s greatest and most enigmatic questions. And although we’ll have to leave the first two unanswered, we can help unravel the mystery of what it means when we talk about “chamber music”!

Generally speaking, chamber music is differentiated from solo pieces and works for large groups like band and orchestra by the fact that it is typically written for a small group of musicians, each playing a different part, most often without a conductor, and, in its conception, meant to be performed in a small room or...chamber.

Oooh. “Chamber” music. Now I get it! But when did it start?

As with many things classical music related, the beginnings of chamber music can be traced way back...as far back as the Middle Ages and Renaissance! During this earliest period, small groups of musicians would often improvise accompaniments for singers or perform in small purely instrumental groups called consorts, usually for royalty or nobility. A lot of this music was structured after popular poetic/vocal and dance forms of the time. An example is this short dance piece called an estampie from the thirteenth century:

This idea of music performed by small groups continued into and became a little more sophisticated during the Baroque period (1600 - 1750). During this time, composers began writing small instrumental pieces in three or four movements called either a sonata da camera (for the court) or sonata da chiesa (for the church). Most frequently the instrumentation was that of a trio sonata, which was comprised of two upper parts and a continuo (instruments playing the bass line). Usually, this meant two violins plus a cello and harpsichord, but sometimes the upper parts would be played by flute, recorder, or oboe, while the continuo could instead be bassoon, viol, or violone plus theorbo or a small organ.

You spelled a bunch of those instrument names wrong.

It seems like it, doesn’t it? But don’t worry. Some of those instruments were early versions of or related to instruments we know now. The viol and violone are string instruments related to today’s cello. And you can think of the theorbo as a super cool looking bass lute.

Oh, okay.

Well known composers of the time, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully and Francois Couperin, wrote music for the French royal court that was designated Musique de la Chambre (music for the king’s chamber). These included music for Baroque operas and opera-ballets, like this example: