The Classical Chambermusic Description Page

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Frederick the Great plays a flute concert in his summer palace Sanssouci; painting by Adolph Menzel

Chamber music is a form of classical music, written for a small group of instruments which traditionally could be accommodated in a palace chamber. Most broadly, it includes any art music that is performed by a small number of performers with one performer to a part. The word "chamber" signifies that the music can be performed in a small room, often in a private salon with an intimate atmosphere. However, it usually does not include, by definition, solo instrument performances.

Because of its intimate nature, chamber music has been described as "the music of friends."[1] For more than 200 years, chamber music was played primarily by amateur musicians in their homes, and even today, when most chamber music performance has migrated from the home to the concert hall, there are still many musicians, amateur and professional, who continue to play chamber music for their own pleasure. Playing chamber music requires special skills, both musical and social, which are different from the skills required for playing solo or symphonic works.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described chamber music (specifically, string quartet music) as "four rational people conversing."[2] This conversational paradigm has been a thread woven through the history of chamber music composition from the end of the 18th century to the present. The analogy to conversation recurs in descriptions and analyses of chamber music compositions.


History of chamber music

From its earliest beginnings in the Medieval period to the present, chamber music has been a reflection of the changes in the technology and the society that produced it.

Early beginnings

Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen play a quartet on viols in this fanciful woodcut from 1516.

During the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, instruments were used primarily as accompaniment for singers.[3] String players would play along with the melody line sung by the singer. There were also purely instrumental ensembles, often of stringed precursors of the violin family, called consorts[4] Some analysts consider the origin of classical instrumental ensembles to be the sonata da camera (chamber sonata) and the sonata da chiesa (church sonata).[5] These were compositions for one to five or more instruments. The sonata da camera was a suite of slow and fast movements, interspersed with dance tunes; the sonata da chiesa was the same, but the dances were omitted. These forms gradually developed into the trio sonata of the Baroque — two treble instruments and a bass instrument, often with a keyboard or other chording instrument (harpsichord, organ, harp or lute, for example) filling in the harmony.[6]

During the Baroque period, chamber music as a genre was not clearly defined. Often, works could be played on any variety of instruments, in orchestral or chamber ensembles. The Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, can be played on a keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ) or by a string quartet or string orchestra. The instrumentation of trio sonatas was also often flexibly specified; some of Handel's sonatas are scored for "German flute, Hoboy [oboe] or Violin"[7] Bass lines could be played by violone, cello, theorbo, or bassoon, and sometimes three or four instruments would join in the bass line in unison. Sometimes composers mixed movements for chamber ensembles with orchestral movements. Telemann's 'Tafelmusik' (1733), for example, has five sets of movements for various combinations of instruments, ending with a full orchestral section.[8]

J.S. Bach Trio sonata from the "Musical Offering"

Second movement

by Ensemble Brillante[9]

Baroque chamber music was often contrapuntal; that is, each instrument played the same melodic materials at different times, creating a complex, interwoven fabric of sound. Because each instrument was playing essentially the same melodies, all the instruments were equal. In the trio sonata, there is often no ascendent or solo instrument, but all three instruments share equal importance.

Baroque musicians playing a trio sonata, 18th century anonymous painting.

The harmonic role played by the keyboard or other chording instrument was subsidiary, and usually the keyboard part was not even written out; rather, the chordal structure of the piece was specified by numeric codes over the bass line, called figured bass.

In the second half of the 18th century, tastes began to change: many composers preferred a new Galant style, with "thinner texture, ... and clearly defined melody and bass" to the complexities of counterpoint.[10] Now a new custom arose, that gave birth to a new form of chamber music: the serenade. Patrons invited street musicians to play evening concerts below the balconies of their homes, their friends and their lovers. Patrons and musicians commissioned composers to write suitable suites of dances and tunes, for groups of two to five or six players. These works were called serenades (sera=night), nocturnes, divertimenti, or cassations (from gasse=street). The young Joseph Haydn was commissioned to write several of these.[11]

Haydn, Mozart, and the classical style

Joseph Haydn is generally credited with creating the modern form of chamber music as we know it.[12] In 83 string quartets, 45 piano trios, and numerous string trios, duos and wind ensembles, Haydn established the conversational style of composition and the overall form that was to dominate the world of chamber music for the next two centuries.

An example of the conversational mode of composition is Haydn's string quartet opus 20 number 4 in D Major.[13] In the first movement, after a statement of the main theme by all the instruments, the first violin breaks into a triplet figure, supported by the second violin, viola and cello. The cello answers with its own triplet figure, then the viola, while the other instruments play a secondary theme against this movement. Unlike counterpoint, where each part plays essentially the same melodic role as the others, here each instrument contributes its own character, its own comment on the music as it develops.

Score of Haydn's Opus 20 Number 4, showing conversational mode.

Haydn also settled on an overall form for his chamber music compositions, which would become the standard, with slight variations, to the present day. The characteristic Haydn string quartet has four movements:

An opening movement in sonata form, usually with two contrasting themes, followed by a development section where the thematic material is transformed and transposed, and ending with a recapitulation of the initial two themes.
A lyrical movement in a slow or moderate tempo, sometimes built out of three sections that repeat themselves in the order ABCABC, and sometimes a set of variations.
A minuet or scherzo, a light movement in three quarter time, with a main section, a contrasting trio section, and a repeat of the main section.
A fast finale section in rondo form, a series of contrasting sections with a main refrain section opening and closing the movement, and repeating between each section.

His innovations earned Haydn the title "father of the string quartet",[14] and he was recognized by his contemporaries as the leading composer of his time. But he was by no means the only composer developing new modes of chamber music. Even before Haydn, many composers were already experimenting with new forms. Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Ignaz Holzbauer, and Franz Xaver Richter wrote precursors of the string quartet.

Joseph Haydn playing string quartets.

If Haydn created the conversational style of composition, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart greatly expanded its vocabulary. His chamber music added numerous masterpieces to the chamber music repertoire. Mozart's seven piano trios and two piano quartets were the first to apply the conversational principle to chamber music with piano. Haydn's piano trios are essentially piano sonatas with the violin and cello playing mostly supporting roles, doubling the treble and bass lines of the piano score. But Mozart gives the strings an independent role, using them as a counter to the piano, and adding their individual voices to the chamber music conversation.[15]

Wolfgang Amadeus mozart - String Quintet No. 4 K.516 - 1. Allegro.ogg
Mozart: String Quintet No. 4, K. 516, first movement, played by Roxana Pavel Goldstein, Elizabeth Choi, violins; Elias Goldstein, Sally Chisholm, violas; Jocelyn Butler, cello.

Mozart introduced the newly invented clarinet into the chamber music arsenal, with the Kegelstatt Trio for viola, clarinet and piano, K. 498, and the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, K. 581. He also tried other innovative ensembles, including the quintet for violin, two violas, cello, and horn, K. 407, quartets for flute and strings, and various wind instrument combinations. He wrote six string quintets for two violins, two violas and cello, which explore the rich tenor tones of the violas, adding a new dimension to the string quartet conversation.

Mozart's string quartets are considered the pinnacle of the classical art. The six string quartets that he dedicated to Haydn, his friend and mentor, inspired the elder composer to say to Mozart's father, "I tell you before God as an honest man that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by reputation. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."[16]

Many other composers wrote chamber compositions during this period that were popular at the time and are still played today. Luigi Boccherini, Spanish composer and cellist, wrote nearly a hundred string quartets, and more than one hundred quintets for two violins, viola and two cellos. In this innovative ensemble, later used by Schubert, Boccherini gives flashy, virtuosic solos to the principal cello, as a showcase for his own playing. Violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and cellist Johann Baptist Vanhal, who both played pickup quartets with Haydn on second violin and Mozart on viola, were popular chamber music composers of the period.

From home to hall

Copy of a pianoforte from 1805.

The turn of the 19th century saw dramatic changes in society and in music technology which had far-reaching effects on the way chamber music was composed and played.

The collapse of the aristocratic system.[17] Throughout the 18th century, the composer was normally an employee of an aristocrat, and the chamber music he composed was for the pleasure of and the performance by aristocratic amateurs. Haydn, for example, was an employee of the Count Nikolaus Esterházy, a music lover and amateur baryton player, for whom Haydn wrote many of his string trios. Mozart wrote three string quartets for the King of Prussia, Frederick William II, a cellist. Many of Beethoven's quartets were first performed with patron Count Andrey Razumovsky on second violin. Boccherini composed for the king of Spain.

With the bankruptcy of the aristocracy and new social orders throughout Europe, composers increasingly had to make their own ways by selling and performing their compositions. They often gave subscription concerts, renting a hall and collecting the receipts from the performance. Increasingly, chamber music was written not only to be performed by rich amateurs, but to be performed by professional musicians to a paying audience.

Changes in the structure of stringed instruments. At the beginning of the 19th century, luthiers developed new methods of constructing the violin, viola and cello, that gave these instruments a richer tone, more volume and more carrying power.[18] Also at this time, bowmakers made the violin bow longer, with a thicker ribbon of hair under higher tension. This improved the projection of the instrument, and also made possible new bowing techniques. In 1820, Louis Spohr invented the chinrest, which gave violinists more freedom of movement in their left hands, for a more nimble technique. These changes contributed to the effectiveness of public performances in large halls, and expanded the repertoire of techniques available to chamber music composers.

The invention of the pianoforte. The pianoforte was actually invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori at the beginning of the 18th century, but not until the end of that century, with technical improvements in its construction, did it become an effective instrument for performance.[19] The improved pianoforte was immediately adopted by Mozart and other composers, who began composing chamber ensembles with the piano playing a leading role. The piano was to become more and more dominant through the 19th century, so much so that many composers, such as Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin, wrote almost exclusively for piano solo.


Straddling this period of change is the giant of western music, Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven transformed chamber music, raising it to a new plane, both in terms of its content and in terms of the technical demands it made on its performers and its audiences. His works, in the words of Maynard Solomon, were "the models against which nineteenth-century romanticism measured its achievements and failures."[20] His late quartets, in particular, were considered so daunting an accomplishment that many composers after him were afraid to essay the medium; Johannes Brahms composed and tore up 20 string quartets before he dared publish a work that he felt was worthy of the "giant marching behind."[21]

Manuscript of the "Ghost" Trio, Op. 70, No. 1, by Beethoven.

Beethoven made his formal debut as a composer with three Piano Trios, Op. 1. Even these early works, published when Beethoven was only 22, while adhering to a strictly classical mold, showed signs of the new paths that Beethoven was to forge in the coming years. When he showed the manuscript of the trios to Haydn, his teacher, prior to publication, Haydn approved of the first two, but warned against publishing the third trio, in C minor, as too radical, warning it would not "be understood and favorably received by the public."[22] In fact, Haydn's prediction was wrong; the third trio proved to be the most popular of the set, and Haydn's criticisms caused a falling out between him and the sensitive Beethoven. The trio is, indeed, a departure from the mold that Haydn and Mozart had formed. Beethoven makes dramatic deviations of tempo within phrases and within movements. He greatly increases the independence of the strings, especially the cello, allowing it to range above the piano and occasionally even the violin.

If his opus 1 trios introduced Beethoven's works to the public, his Septet, Op. 20, established him as one of Europe's most popular composers. The septet, scored for violin, viola, cello, contrabass, clarinet, horn and bassoon, was a huge hit. It was played in concerts again and again. It appeared in transcriptions for many combinations — one of which, for clarinet, cello and piano, was written by Beethoven himself — and was so popular that Beethoven feared it would eclipse his other works. So much so that by 1815, Carl Czerny wrote that Beethoven "could not endure his septet and grew angry because of the universal applause which it has received."[23] The septet is written as a classical divertimento in six movements, including two minuets, and a set of variations. It is full of catchy tunes, with solos for everyone, including the contrabass.

Beethoven Septet, Op. 20

First movement

played by the Ensemble Mediterrain

In his 17 string quartets,[24] composed over the course of 37 of his 56 years, Beethoven goes from classical composer par excellence to creator of musical Romanticism, and finally transcends classicism and romanticism to create a genre that defies categorization. Stravinsky referred to the Große Fuge, of the late quartets, as "this absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."[25]

The string quartets 1 - 6, opus 18 were written in the classical style, in the same year that Haydn wrote his Op. 76 string quartets. Even here, Beethoven stretched the formal structures pioneered by Haydn and Mozart. In the quartet opus 18 no. 1, in f major, for example, there is a long, lyrical solo for cello in the second movement, giving the cello a new type of voice in the quartet conversation. And the last movement of opus 18 no. 6, "La Malincolia", creates a new type of formal structure, interleaving a slow, melancholic section with a manic dance. Beethoven was to use this form in later quartets, and it was adopted by Brahms and others as well.

In the years 1805–1806, Beethoven composed the three opus 59 quartets on a commission from Count Razumovsky, who played second violin in their first performance. These quartets, from Beethoven's middle period, were pioneers in the romantic style. Besides introducing many structural and stylistic innovations, these quartets were much more difficult technically to perform — so much so that they were, and remain, beyond the reach of many amateur string players. When first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh complained of their difficulty, Beethoven retorted, "Do you think I care about your wretched violin when the spirit moves me?"[26] Among the difficulties are complex syncopations and cross-rhythms; synchronized runs of sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth notes; and sudden modulations requiring special attention to intonation. In addition to the opus 59 quartets, Beethoven wrote two more quartets during his middle period — opus 74, the "Harp" quartet, named for the unusual harp-like effect Beethoven creates with pizzicato passages in the first movement, and Op. 95, the "Serioso."

The Serioso is a transitional work that ushers in Beethoven's late period — a period of compositions of great introspection. "The particular kind of inwardness of Beethoven's last style period," writes Joseph Kerman, gives one the feeling that "the music is sounding only for the composer and for one other auditor, an awestruck eavesdropper: you."[27] In the late quartets, the quartet conversation is often disjointed, proceeding like a stream of consciousness. Melodies are broken off, or passed in the middle of the melodic line from instrument to instrument. Beethoven uses new effects, never before essayed in the string quartet literature: the ethereal, dreamlike effect of open intervals between the high E string and the open A string in the trio of opus 132; the use of sul ponticello (playing on the bridge of the violin) for a brittle, scratchy sound in the Presto movement of opus 131; the use of the lydian mode, unheard in Western music for 200 years, in opus 132; a cello melody played high above all the other strings in the finale of opus 132.[28] Yet for all this disjointedness, each quartet is tightly designed, with an overarching structure that ties the work together.

Beethoven wrote eight piano trios,[29] five string trios, two string quintets, and numerous pieces for wind ensemble. He also wrote 10 sonatas for violin and piano and five sonatas for cello and piano.

Romanticism to 1850

As Beethoven, in his last quartets, went off in his own direction, Franz Schubert carried on and established the emerging romantic style. In his 31 years, Schubert devoted much of his life to chamber music, composing 15 string quartets, two piano trios, string trios, a piano quintet commonly known as the Trout Quintet, an octet for strings and winds, and his famous quintet for two violins, viola and two cellos.

About this sound Schubert Octet

D. 803, First movement

Performed on period instruments

Franz Schubert, "The Trout", D. 667

performed by the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society

Schubert: String Quintet in C, D.956

First movement

Recorded at the Fredonia Quartet Program, July 2008

Schubert's music,[30] as his life, exemplified the contrasts and contradictions of his time. On the one hand, he was the darling of Viennese society: he starred in soirées that became known as Schubertiaden, where he played his light, mannered compositions that expressed the gemütlichkeit of Vienna of the 1820s. On the other hand, his own short life was shrouded in tragedy, wracked by poverty and ill health. Chamber music was the ideal medium to express this conflict, "to reconcile his essentially lyric themes with his feeling for dramatic utterance within a form that provided the possibility of extreme color contrasts."[31] The String Quintet in C, D.956, is an example of how this conflict is expressed in music. After a slow introduction, the first theme of the first movement, fiery and dramatic, leads to a bridge of rising tension, peaking suddenly and breaking into the second theme, a lilting duet in the lower voices.[32] The alternating sturm und drang and relaxation continue throughout the movement.

These contending forces are expressed in some of Schubert's other works: in the quartet Death and the Maiden, the Rosamunde quartet and in the stormy, one-movement Quartettsatz.[33]

About this sound Mendelssohn

String quartet opus 13, third movement

by the Carmel Quartet

Unlike Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn had a life of peace and prosperity. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Hamburg, Mendelssohn proved himself a child prodigy. By the age of 16, he had written his first major chamber work, the String Octet, Op. 20. Already in this work, Mendelssohn showed some of the unique style that was to characterize his later works; notably, the gossamer light texture of his scherzo movements, exemplified also by the Canzonetta movement of the String Quartet, Op. 12, and the scherzo of the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49.

Another characteristic that Mendelssohn pioneered is the cyclic form in overall structure. This means the reuse of thematic material from one movement to the next, to give the total piece coherence. In his second string quartet, he opens the piece with a peaceful adagio section in A major, that contrasts with the stormy first movement in A minor. After the final, vigorous Presto movement, he returns to the opening adagio to conclude the piece. This string quartet is also Mendelssohn's homage to Beethoven; the work is studded with quotes from Beethoven's middle and late quartets.

Violinist Joseph Joachim and pianist Clara Schumann. Joachim and Schumann debuted many of the chamber works of Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and others.

During his adult life, Mendelssohn wrote two piano trios, seven works for string quartet, two string quintets, the octet, a sextet for piano and strings, and numerous sonatas for piano with violin, cello, and clarinet.

Schumann Op 44 Explained.OGG
Cyclic structure in the Schumann piano quintet.

Robert Schumann continued the development of cyclic structure. In his Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44,[34] Schumann writes a double fugue in the finale, using the theme of the first movement and the theme of the last movement. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn, following the example set by Beethoven, revived the fugue, which had fallen out of favor since the Baroque period. However, rather than writing strict, full-length fugues, they used counterpoint as another mode of conversation between the chamber music instruments. Many of Schumann's chamber works, including all three of his string quartets and his piano quartet have contrapuntal sections interwoven seamlessly into the overall compositional texture.[35]

The composers of the first half of the 19th century were acutely aware of the conversational paradigm established by Haydn and Mozart. Schumann wrote that in a true quartet "everyone has something to say... a conversation, often truly beautiful, often oddly and turbidly woven, among four people."[36] Their awareness is exemplified by composer and virtuoso violinist Louis Spohr. Spohr divided his 36 string quartets into two types: the quatuor brillant, essentially a violin concerto with string trio accompaniment; and quatuor dialogue, in the conversational tradition.[37]

Chamber music and society in the 19th century

The middle of the 19th century saw more changes in society and in musical tastes, which had their impact on chamber music composition and performance.

Home music-making in the 19th century. A painting by Jules-Alexandre Grün.

While improvements in instruments led to more public performances of chamber music, it remained very much a type of music to be played as much as performed. Amateur quartet societies sprang up throughout Europe, and no middling-sized city in Germany or France would be without one. These societies sponsored house concerts, compiled music libraries, and encouraged the playing of quartets and other ensembles.[38] Thousands of quartets were published by hundreds of composers; between 1770 and 1800, more than 2000 quartets were published,[39] and the pace did not decline in the next century. Throughout the 19th century, composers published string quartets now long neglected: George Onslow wrote 36 quartets and 35 quintets; Gaetano Donizetti wrote dozens of quartets, Antonio Bazzini, Anton Reicha, Carl Reissiger, Joseph Suk and others wrote to fill an insatiable demand for quartets. In addition, there was a lively market for string quartet arrangements of popular and folk tunes, piano works, symphonies, and opera arias.[40]

But opposing forces were at work. The middle of the 19th century saw the rise of superstar virtuosi, who drew attention away from chamber music toward solo performance. Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt presented "recitals" — a term coined by Liszt — that drew crowds of ecstatic fans who swooned at the sound of their playing. The piano, which could be mass-produced, became an instrument of preference, and many composers, like Chopin and Liszt, composed primarily if not exclusively for piano.[41]

Vilemina Norman Neruda leading a string quartet, about 1880.

The ascendance of the piano, and of symphonic composition, was not merely a matter of preference; it was also a matter of ideology. In the 1860s, a schism grew among romantic musicians over the direction of music. Liszt and Richard Wagner led a movement that contended that "pure music" had run its course with Beethoven, and that new, programmatic forms of music were the future of the art. The composers of this school had no use for chamber music. Opposing this view was Johannes Brahms and his associates, especially the powerful music critic Eduard Hanslick. This War of the Romantics shook the artistic world of the period, with vituperative exchanges between the two camps, concert boycotts, and petitions.

Although amateur playing thrived throughout the 19th century, this was also a period of increasing professionalization of chamber music performance. Professional quartets began to dominate the chamber music concert stage. The Hellmesberger Quartet, led by Joseph Hellmesberger, and the Joachim Quartet, led by Joseph Joachim, debuted many of the new string quartets by Brahms and other composers. Another famous quartet player was Vilemina Norman Neruda, also known as Lady Hallé. Indeed, during the last third of the century, women began taking their place on the concert stage: an all-women string quartet led by Emily Shinner, and the Lucas quartet, also all women, were two notable examples.[42]

Toward the 20th century

The Joachim Quartet, led by violinist Joseph Joachim. The quartet debuted many of the works of Johannes Brahms.

It was Johannes Brahms who carried the torch of Romantic music toward the 20th century. Heralded by Robert Schumann as the forger of "new paths" in music,[43] Brahms's music is a bridge from the classical to the modern. On the one hand, Brahms was a traditionalist, conserving the musical traditions of Bach and Mozart.[44] Throughout his chamber music, he uses traditional techniques of counterpoint, incorporating fugues and canons into rich conversational and harmonic textures. On the other hand, Brahms expanded the structure and the harmonic vocabulary of chamber music, challenging traditional notions of tonality. An example of this is in the Brahms second string sextet, opus 36.[45][46] Traditionally, composers wrote the first theme of a piece in the key of the piece, firmly establishing that key as the tonic, or home, key of the piece. The opening theme of opus 36 starts in the tonic (G major), but already by the third measure has modulated to the unrelated key of E flat major. As the theme develops, it ranges through various keys before coming back to the tonic G major. This "harmonic audacity", as Swafford describes it,[47] opened the way for bolder experiments to come.

Brahms sextet opus 36

played by the Borromeo Quartet, and Liz Freivogel and Daniel McDonough of the Jupiter String Quartet

About this sound Brahms Clarinet Quintet

Op. 115, first movement.

Performed by William McColl and the Orford String Quartet.

Not only in harmony, but also in overall musical structure, Brahms was an innovator. He developed a technique that Arnold Schoenberg described as "developing variation".[48] Rather than discretely defined phrases, Brahms often runs phrase into phrase, and mixes melodic motives to create a fabric of continuous melody. Schoenberg, the creator of the 12-tone system of composition, traced the roots of his modernism to Brahms, in his essay "Brahms the Progressive".[49]

All told, Brahms published 24 works of chamber music, including three string quartets, five piano trios, the quintet for piano and strings, opus 34, and other works. Among his last works were the clarinet quintet, opus 115, and a trio for clarinet, cello and piano. He wrote a trio for the unusual combination of piano, violin and horn, opus 40. He also wrote two songs for alto, viola and piano, opus 91, reviving the form of voice with string obbligato that had been virtually abandoned since the Baroque.

"The Seine at Lavacourt" by Claude Monet.Impressionist music and art sought similar effects of the ethereal, atmospheric.

The exploration of tonality and of structure begun by Brahms was continued by composers of the French school. César Franck's piano quintet in f minor, composed in 1879, further established the cyclic form first explored by Schumann and Mendelssohn, reusing the same thematic material in each of the three movements. Claude Debussy's string quartet, opus 10, is considered a watershed in the history of chamber music. The quartet uses the cyclic structure, and constitutes a final divorce from the rules of classical harmony. "Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity," Debussy wrote.[50]Pierre Boulez said that Debussy freed chamber music from "rigid structure, frozen rhetoric and rigid aesthetics."[51]

Debussy String Quartet

First movement

played by the Cypress String Quartet

Debussy's quartet, like the string quartets of Maurice Ravel and of Gabriel Fauré, create a new tone color for chamber music, a color and texture associated with the Impressionist movement.[52] Violist James Dunham, of the Cleveland and Sequoia Quartets, writes of the Ravel quartet, "I was simply overwhelmed by the sweep of sonority, the sensation of colors constantly changing..."[53] For these composers, chamber ensembles were the ideal vehicle for transmitting this atmospheric sense, and chamber works constituted much of their oeuvre.

Nationalism in chamber music

The Kneisel String Quartet, led by Franz Kneisel. This American ensemble debuted Dvořák's American Quartet, opus 96.

Parallel with the trend to seek new modes of tonality and texture was another new development in chamber music: the rise of nationalism. Composers turned more and more to the rhythms and tonalities of their native lands for inspiration and material. "Europe was impelled by the Romantic tendency to establish in musical matters the national boundaries more and more sharply," wrote Alfred Einstein. "The collecting and sifting of old traditional melodic treasures ... formed the basis for a creative art-music."[54] For many of these composers, chamber music was the natural vehicle for expressing their national characters.

Dvorak piano quintet opus 81

played by the Lincoln Center Chamber Players

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák created in his chamber music a new voice for the music of his native Bohemia. In 14 string quartets, three string quintets, two piano quartets, a string sextet, four piano trios, and numerous other chamber compositions, Dvořák incorporates folk music and modes as an integral part of his compositions. For example, in the piano quintet in A major, opus 81, the slow movement is a Dumka, a Slavic folk ballad that alternates between a slow expressive song and a fast dance.[55] Dvořák's fame in establishing a national art music was so great that the New York philanthropist and music connoisseur Jeannette Thurber invited him to America, to head a conservatory that would establish an American style of music.[56] There, Dvořák wrote his string quartet in F major, opus 96, nicknamed "The American." While composing the work, Dvořák was entertained by a group of Kickapoo Indians who performed native dances and songs, and these songs may have been incorporated in the quartet.[57]

Bedřich Smetana, another Czech, wrote a piano trio and string quartet, both of which incorporate native Czech rhythms and melodies. In Russia, Russian folk music permeated the works of the late 19th century composers. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky uses a typical Russian folk dance in the final movement of his string sextet, Souvenir de Florence, opus 70. Alexander Borodin's second string quartet contains references to folk music, and the slow Nocturne movement of that quartet recalls Middle Eastern modes that were current in the Muslim sections of southern Russia. Edvard Grieg used the musical style of his native Norway in his string quartet in G minor, opus 27.

In Hungary, composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók pioneered the science of ethnomusicology by performing one of the first comprehensive studies of folk music. Ranging across the Magyar provinces, they transcribed, recorded, and classified tens of thousands of folk melodies.[58] They used these tunes in their compositions, which are characterized by the asymmetrical rhythms and modal harmonies of that music. Their chamber music compositions, and those of the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, combined the nationalist trend with the 20th century search for new tonalities. Janáček's string quartets not only incorporate the tonalities of Czech folk music, they also reflect the rhythms of speech in the Czech language.

New sounds for a new world

The end of western tonality, begun subtly by Brahms and made explicit by Debussy, posed a crisis for composers of the 20th century. It was not merely an issue of finding new types of harmonies and melodic systems to replace the diatonic scale that was the basis of western harmony; the whole structure of western music — the relationships between movements and between structural elements within movements — was based on the relationships between different keys.[59] So composers were challenged with building a whole new structure for music.

This was coupled with the feeling that the era that saw the invention of automobiles, the telephone, electric lighting, and world war needed new modes of expression. "The century of the aeroplane deserves its music," wrote Debussy.[60]

Inspiration from folk music

Béla Bartók recording folksongs of Czech peasants, 1908.

The search for a new music took several directions. The first, led by Bartók, was toward the tonal and rhythmic constructs of folk music. Bartók's research into Hungarian and other eastern European and Middle Eastern folk music revealed to him a musical world built of musical scales that were neither major nor minor, and complex rhythms that were alien to western music. In his fifth quartet, for example, Bartók uses a time signature of \tfrac{3+2+2+3}{8}, "startling to the classically-trained musician, but second-nature to the folk musician."[61] Structurally, also, Bartók often invents or borrows from folk modes. In the sixth string quartet, for example, Bartók begins each movement with a slow, elegiac melody, followed by the main melodic material of the movement, and concludes the quartet with a slow movement that is built entirely on this elegy. This is a form common in many folk music cultures.

Bartok Op. 17, Second Movement.OGG
Bartók string quartet number 2, second movement, played by the Carmel Quartet.

Bartók's six string quartets are often compared with Beethoven's late quartets.[62] In them, Bartók builds new musical structures, explores sonorities never previously produced in classical music (for example, the snap pizzicato, where the player lifts the string and lets it snap back on the fingerboard with an audible buzz), and creates modes of expression that set these works apart from all others. "Bartók's last two quartets proclaim the sanctity of life, progress and the victory of humanity despite the anti-humanistic dangers of the time," writes analyst John Herschel Baron.[63] The last quartet, written when Bartók was preparing to flee the Nazi invasion of Hungary for a new and uncertain life in the U.S., is often seen as an autobiographical statement of the tragedy of his times.

Bartók was not alone in his explorations of folk music. Igor Stravinsky's Three pieces for String Quartet is structured as three Russian folksongs, rather than as a classical string quartet. Stravinsky, like Bartók, used asymmetrical rhythms throughout his chamber music; the Histoire du soldat, in Stravinsky's own arrangement for clarinet, violin and piano, constantly shifts time signatures between two, three, four and five beats to the bar. In Britain, composers Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Benjamin Britten drew on English folk music for much of their chamber music: Vaughan Williams incorporates folksongs and country fiddling in his first string quartet. American composer Charles Ives wrote music that was distinctly American. Ives gave programmatic titles to much of his chamber music; his first string quartet, for example, is called "From the Salvation Army," and quotes American Protestant hymns in several places.

Serialism, polytonality and polyrhythms

A painting of Pierrot, the object of Schoenberg's atonal suite Pierrot Lunaire, painted by Antoine Watteau.

A second direction in the search for a new tonality was serialism. Arnold Schoenberg developed the serial, or 12-tone, method of composition as an alternative to the structure provided by the diatonic system. The method entails building a piece using a series of the 12 notes of the scale, permuting it and superimposing it on itself to create the composition.

Schoenberg Quartet No. 2 4th movement.OGG
Arnold Schoenberg second string quartet, fourth movement, played by the Carmel Quartet with soprano Rona Israel-Kolatt. This is the first explicitly atonal piece.

Schoenberg did not arrive immediately at the serial method. His first chamber work, the string sextet Verklärte Nacht, was mostly a late German romantic work, though it was bold in its use of modulations. The first work that was frankly atonal was the second string quartet; the last movement of this quartet, which includes a soprano, has no key signature. Schoenberg further explored atonality with Pierrot Lunaire, for singer, flute or piccolo, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The singer uses a technique called Sprechstimme, halfway between speech and song.

After developing the serial technique, Schoenberg wrote a number of chamber works, including two more string quartets, a string trio, and a wind quintet. He was followed by a number of other serial composers, the most prominent of whom were his students Alban Berg, who wrote the Lyric Suite for string quartet, and Anton Webern, who wrote Five Movements for String Quartet, op. 6.

Serialism was not the only new experiment in tonality. Darius Milhaud developed the use of polytonality, that is, music where different instruments play in different keys at the same time. Milhaud wrote 18 string quartets; quartets number 14 and 15 are written so that each can be played by itself, or the two can be played at the same time as an octet. Milhaud also used jazz idioms, as in his Suite for clarinet, violin and piano.

Charles Ives used not only polytonality in his chamber works, but also polymeter. In his first string quartet he writes a section where the first violin and viola play in \tfrac{3}{4} time while the second violin and cello play in \tfrac{4}{4}.


The plethora of directions that music took in the first quarter of the 20th century led to a reaction by many composers. Led by Stravinsky, these composers looked to the music of preclassical Europe for inspiration and stability. While Stravinsky's neoclassical works — such as the Double Canon for String Quartet — sound contemporary, they are modeled on Baroque and early classical forms — the canon, the fugue, and the Baroque sonata form.

Hindemith String Quartet 3 in C, Op. 22

Second movement, Schnelle Achtel

played by Ana Farmer, David Boyden, Austin Han, and Dylan Mattingly

Paul Hindemith was another neoclassicist. His many chamber works are essentially tonal, though they use many dissonant harmonies. Hindemith wrote seven string quartets and two string trios, among other chamber works. At a time when composers were writing works of increasing complexity, beyond the reach of amateur musicians, Hindemith explicitly recognized the importance of amateur music-making, and intentionally wrote pieces that were within the abilities of nonprofessional players.[64]

Dmitri Shostakovitch String quartet no 8

Largo; Allegro Molto

played by the Seraphina String Quartet (Sabrina Tabby and Caeli Smith, violins; Madeline Smith, viola; Genevieve Tabby, cello)

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most prolific of chamber music composers of the 20th century, writing 15 string quartets, two piano trios, the piano quintet, and numerous other chamber works. Shostakovitch's music was for a long time banned in the Soviet Union and Shostakovitch himself was in personal danger of deportation to Siberia. His eighth quartet is an autobiographical work, that expresses his deep depression from his ostracization, bordering on suicide:[65] it quotes from previous compositions, and uses the four-note motif DSCH, the composer's initials.

Stretching the limits

As the century progressed, many composers created works for small ensembles that, while they formally might be considered chamber music, challenged many of the fundamental characteristics that had defined the genre over the last 150 years.

The music of friends: The idea of composing music that could be played at home has been largely abandoned. Bartók was among the first to part with this idea. "Bartók never conceived these quartets for private performance but rather for large, public concerts."[66] Aside from the many almost insurmountable technical difficulties of many modern pieces, some of them are hardly suitable for performance in a small room. For example, Different Trains by Steve Reich is scored for live string quartet and recorded tape, which layers together a carefully orchestrated cacophony of speech, recorded train sounds, and three string quartets.[67]

The conversational paradigm: How can the players of a string quartet conduct a conversation when they are flying over the audience in four separate helicopters? This is the case in the Helikopter-Streichquartett by Karlheinz Stockhausen. When the piece was performed in 1995, the players had earphones with a click track to enable them to play at the right time.[68] They could not hear the other players, and could barely hear themselves.[citation needed]

Leon Theremin performing a trio for voice, piano and theremin, 1924.

The relation of composer and performer: Traditionally, the composer wrote the notes, and the performer interpreted them. But this is no longer the case in much modern music. In Für Kommende Zeiten (For Times to Come), Stockhausen writes poetic, cryptic instructions to the performers, who must then improvise this new form of "intuitive" music. "Star constellations/with common points/and falling stars... Abrupt end" is a sample.[69]

Composer Terry Riley describes how he works with the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble devoted to contemporary music: "When I write a score for them, it's an unedited score. I put in just a minimal amount of dynamics and phrasing marks... we spend a lot of time trying out different ideas in order to shape the music, to form it. At the end of the process, it makes the performers actually own the music. That to me is the best way for composers and musicians to interact."[70]

New sounds: Composers seek new timbres, remote from the traditional blend of strings, piano and woodwinds that characterized chamber music in the 19th century. This search led to the incorporation of new instruments, such as the theremin and the synthesizer in chamber music compositions.