What is chamber music? Traditionally, it is a form of classical music that is composed for small groups of instruments, normally three to four players. The idea was that the ensemble could fit in a palace chamber (small room) and only one instrument would be assigned to a specific musical line. Chamber music has often been described as the ‘music of friends’ because of its intimate nature. Since the music tends to adapt to the personality of the players, the music is often likened to listening to people having a friendly conversation.

The intimate, exposed and solo-like quality of chamber music can create an intricate and often risky balance for the players. They constantly have to listen for balance, ensemble (how together they are) and intonation (accuracy of note pitches) among many other external factors. How do the players manage to do all this and still create beautiful music? This is simply just part of the job! However, to help the ensemble stay together, one player will take the lead. Generally, this is the highest voiced instrument (first violin or flute) however, within the context of the piece, the leader can shift to a different player. In performance, the leader’s job is to give starting and ending cues. While in rehearsal, their job might be to focus the ensemble and help create a clear vision for the overall shape of the music.

The most popular type of chamber music composition is the string quartet which comes from the classical period (1775-1825). It consists of two violins, viola and cello with all parts being equally important. Below is an example of chamber music in the form of a string quartet.

Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, “The Joke”:

The conversation between players is easily visible through their body language and visual interaction with each other. Who do you think the leader is in this quartet? Looking at the video, cues would lean bias towards the first violin, the woman farthest left in the black dress. This is because of the way she uses her head to gesture to the other players how she is interpreting the piece, entrances, cut offs – essentially she is literally conducting the ensemble with her head!

An article published by Peabody magazine in 2007 discusses the art of chamber music from the perspective of an educator, musician and just a regular person trying to make a living! It also speaks to the evolution of chamber music from its early form to the current ‘golden age’ of unique, vibrant and excelling chamber music ensembles. Read the article to find out more about the art of creating a chamber ensemble.

Join us on Wednesday February 25 at Hamilton Artists Inc. for the third concert of our Gallery Series. Drop by at 7:30pm to enjoy chamber music in an intimate and soulful setting.