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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 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:

A very similar tradition could be found during the same time in Germany, where it was called Tafelmusik (“table music”). This was not music meant to be played on tables (I mean, unless things got rowdy?), but, rather, music to be played during feasts and banquets. Again, we can see the continuing tradition of a small group of musicians playing music in a room for the entertainment of rich people.

We begin to see a transition out of this idea of early “chamber music” with the music of J.S. Bach. Some of his instrumental sonatas for two or more players and maybe some of his Brandenburg concerti might be considered “chamber music” by some.

Okay, but you keep putting scare quotes around “chamber music.” When are you actually going to start talking about chamber music?

The true beginnings of chamber music as we recognize it today (and as any studious undergraduate music major should write in a music history essay) came about in the Classical era (1750 - 1820). Why not until the eighteenth century? Because in the earlier periods, instrumental music was frequently improvisatory, rarely printed, and seldom given specific instrumentation.

But in the eighteenth century, we got Franz Joseph Haydn. Haydn wrote roughly one zillion pieces of music (give or take a few), 68 of which were string quartets. It was with Haydn that we saw the standardization of this specific ensemble, consisting of two violins, one viola, and one cello. Haydn wasn’t known as the “Father of the String Quartet” for nothing! He also wrote over forty piano trios (piano plus two other instruments, usually violin and cello), but, sadly, this was not enough to earn him the nickname “Father of the Piano Trio.”

I feel like you’re talking way too much about string instruments.

You’re right. Over in the land of wind instruments, there was Harmoniemusik. Early Harmoniemusik designated an ensemble of about five to eight wind instruments, employed by an aristocratic patron. It would make sense that the Classical era saw the development of wind chamber music because around the eighteenth century was when the modern versions of the oboe, bassoon, and clarinet came into existence.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Emperor of Austria and the various Austrian nobles of the time began keeping musical ensembles in their court called Harmonien; these were usually made up of pairs of oboes, horns, bassoons, and, eventually, clarinets. These musicians were part of the household staff and provided musical serenades for banquets and garden parties.

[Side note: in addition to the Harmonien, the courts also kept a small string orchestra in their employ. Occasionally, the Harmonie would join the orchestra to add color and musical texture. Hence, the Harmonie came to designate the wind section of an orchestra and this is why, still today, the standard wind section of the orchestra is comprised of pairs of each wind instrument!]

The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (This guy!) as well as his successor, Franz II, kept Harmonien in their courts. Joseph II even founded his Imperial Wind Ensemble in 1782, which was comprised of—you guessed it—two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons. This instrumentation remained popular for half a century. However, instrument additions or substitutions could be and were made, such as substituting more oboes or english horns for clarinets or using basset horns.

Arguably, the most famous composer of Harmoniemusik is a guy you might have heard of before: Mozart. Mozart’s Harmoniemusik expanded the genre, to include a Divertimento for ten winds and his famous Serenade for twelve winds and string bass (the “Gran Partita”):

He even wrote in a Harmonie band onstage in the finale of Don Giovanni!

So, chamber music was basically like a zygote in the Middle Ages, a toddler during the Renaissance, a tween in the Baroque, and, finally, a high school graduate in the Classical period. What happened next?

After this crucial time period in the development of true chamber music, the genre blossomed. Mozart and Beethoven further popularized the string quartet, making it one of, if not the, most universally recognized chamber music forms in Western classical music. Romantic period composers like Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann greatly developed the chamber music genre even further, composing masterpieces for various combinations of winds, strings, and piano, including trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, and octets.

In the nineteenth century, composers Anton Reicha and Franz Danzi helped to popularize the woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, french horn) as a standard chamber music ensemble.

And by the twentieth century, chamber music had materialized into full-fledged adulthood, in college for the first time, exploring all of the exciting possibilities life has to offer. The concept of chamber music had become what we understand it to be today: music for a small ensemble, with one player per part, often performed without a conductor. Think of the possibilities! In addition to ensembles like the string quartet and wind quintet, chamber music now includes instrumentations like a brass quintet:

saxophone quartet:

clarinet choir:

and some very unique and diverse combinations, like Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, which is for a septet of violin, string bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion, plus a narrator and additional actors/dancers!

In chamber music, the possibilities really are endless. It can tell stories, accompany a celebration, express an idea, or simply just be a wonderful work of art. This is why it is such an exciting genre and one that we love sharing with you!

So, is a hot dog a sandwich?


Ysabel Sarte is currently working on completing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in Musicology/Ethnomusicology while working as an admissions counselor for Penn State University. She is also a clarinetist, having studied, performed, and taught in California, Tennessee, Washington state, Kentucky, Texas, and Japan. Her research focus is on the aural universe of the female mystics of early modern Spain, but her broader range of interests includes medieval memes, cooking, terrible reality television, armchair politicking, writing, pedagogy, and her animals.

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