What is Chamber Music?

“Chamber music" is a special category in the broad spectrum of classical music. Most major composers of orchestral music have written chamber music—pieces for small groups (trios, quartets, or larger ensembles of a dozen or so players) to be performed in a “chamber”, or an intimate setting such as a house or small concert hall. Chamber music is usually instrumental—almost any mix of instruments—although it can also be vocal. There is no conductor to direct the proceedings.

A key to its appeal is that chamber music consists of exquisitely crafted pieces, often composed for virtuoso performers. Compared with the broad scale and complex sounds of an orchestra, a chamber music ensemble allows us to hear each performer and his or her interplay with each other performer. The music also tends to be contemplative and its audiences enjoy the lower decibel level.

Newcomers to chamber music may wonder how musicians can stay together without a conductor. Their success may be contained in the old joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! Practice! Practice!" Entrances are cued by one of the performers, usually the first violin. The players don't "follow" someone; they play together, and each has to anticipate when his or her instrument is to join the flow. This requires careful listening and concentration.

The most common chamber groups are string quartets (two violins, viola and cello), piano trios (violin, cello, and piano), and woodwind quintets (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon). A sonata for two instruments is also a form of chamber music, as in a violin and piano combination.

The string quartet has dominated chamber music over the centuries, primarily because of the enormous body of works by Beethoven, Shostakovic, Bartok and Haydn. Haydn, the “inventor” of the string quartet, composed more than 100 such works. Nearly all composers of significance have written and performed string quartets, as well as the second most popular form, the piano trio.

In recent years, an increasing interest in "ancient music" and in works composed prior to 1600—often performed on early instruments—has extended the spectrum of chamber music. At the opposite end of the spectrum is “new music”, performed at summer and new music festivals, and complementing the programs of most chamber music series.

Perhaps composers have reserved their finest creative efforts for chamber music. Few would argue that among the greatest classical works of all time are the string quartets of Beethoven, the piano trios of Brahms and Schubert, and Mozart's glorious quintet for piano and woodwinds.

It is safe to say that all who come to know chamber music grow to love it.