Chamber music is nothing more than a traditional vein of classical music, which defines any type of music intended for a limited group of performers, with its own forms, called chamber music, composed for instruments only, for voices or mixed. For this reason, depending on the number of members, the ensemble is called duo, trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, septet, octet, etc., up to compositions for larger groups such as the chamber orchestra. In fact, it differs from the symphonic one precisely because of the reduced number of instrumental ensembles.
The origins of the chamber orchestra are rather ancient. It is natural to think that there was no locution indicating the group of performers, but the need to play and sing with other people has always been present in man since the dawn of time.
What we want to do in these short lines is to show you the essential steps that have made this type of composition so important in the history of music through the centuries.
Prehistory and ancient history
From the various texts or encyclopaedias of music history we learn how the Egyptians, for example, accompanied the sacred offices with singing, dancing and the sistrum instrument, or how the players, in other festive circumstances, gathered in small formations in which a player performed the melody (the main theme) and the others its variations. Definitely a first approach to what will become chamber music. On the other hand, moving to Mesopotamia, we have Jewish synagogue singing, dating back to about 1000 BC.
In this case a choir, made up of numerous elements, was accompanied by a team of twelve instrumentalists. From the history of Roman music we learn instead of the “pantomime”, that is, a sort of mimic-orchestral realization of scenes with a mythological or historical background and involving solo dancers accompanied by a choir or an instrumental team. Surely the companies did not far exceed the elements that then characterized the subsequent chamber orchestra.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, in the middle of the chivalric era, the figure of the poet-musician was born. He belonged to the highest social class and dedicated himself above all to the composition of love lyrics accompanied musically by instruments of the period. Examples are the viella or the seven and more strings harp played by a jester or minstrels. Well, troubadours and troubadours, accompanied by a jester or minstrel, could be considered a first group of chamber music: the duo.
The fifteenth century
The fifteenth century is certainly the time of the French-Flemish composers and their school, given by three generations of composers who have helped to enliven the Italian music literature in all its fields. In the profane one they devoted themselves above all to the composition of the “chanson”. It was nothing more than the monodic chant of troubadours and troubadours and soon became polyphonic at the hands of the Flemish. It must be said that, in addition to their polyphonic version, there was also a transposition of monodic singing accompanied by musical instruments that made the lower parts: another primordial example of chamber music.
The sixteenth century
As far as the sixteenth century is concerned, if we wanted to look for an affinity with the concept of chamber music, we could cite a type of musical model of the period: the madrigal. It expressed, in its various styles, the most aristocratic ideals of the Renaissance, both for the refinement of the poetic texts and for the elaboration of the writing. Performed by a few soloists who sat around a table reading the various parts on the appropriate librettos, the madrigal was not intended for listening in large rooms, but was performed for the pleasure of the singer and a few chosen listeners. Considering that it was precisely in this century that the first compositions began to be transcribed, the need was felt to transport some vocal compositions on polyphonic instruments, such as the lute, the organ and the harpsichord. All this led to the creation of forms intended from the beginning for instruments, such as the toccata or the prelude, which are stylistically autonomous from the vocal models. These two models can very well be considered the first examples of compositions for single players in the field of chamber music.
The seventeenth century
In the seventeenth century a strictly musical form developed: the sonata. It was distinguished, depending on the place in which it was performed, by a church or chamber sonata. It should also be pointed out that this form had two components: sonata a due and the sonata a tre, for one or two violins and an instrument that served as a continuous bass, such as the harpsichord or organ, essentially trios and duets.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the style of chamber music began to be distinguished from that of orchestral music, that is, between a musical ensemble where each part was played by a single instrument and a whole where each part was played by several instruments, and so began the first compositions dedicated exclusively to this musical style.
The eighteenth century
In the eighteenth century, the difference between orchestral music and chamber music acquires a very precise meaning. Alongside the operatic splendour and the expansion of the orchestral staff in the great courts and chapels, a new poetic emerges in the name of the galanterie, more inclined to pleasantness and delicate elegance and rather oriented, at least tendentially, towards the harpsichord and the small formations. In the field of vocal music, and as an example of chamber music, the cantata flourishes, with one or two voices and a continuous bass made by the harpsichord, even though there were attempts to expand the discourse by involving one or more obligatory instruments, i.e. those in dialogue with the voices. In the field of instrumental music, on the other hand, the first musical forms historically included in the genre of chamber music are created: the quartet, the quintet, the trio. Thanks to composers such as Franz Joseph Haydn, the father of the symphony and perhaps more precisely of the quartet. But it is impossible not to mention the quartets of the Italian Luigi Boccherini and those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The nineteenth century
In the early 19th century, composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert composed numerous quartets and other forms of chamber music, among others. Schubert, in particular, devoted himself to the composition of lied, for voice and piano, which occupied an important place in the activities of almost all composers of the nineteenth century.
The style of chamber music was not congenial to many romantic composers, on the one hand because it lacked the intimate and personal expressiveness typical of piano pieces or lied, and on the other because it did not have the bright and disruptive colours of orchestral music. It is therefore not surprising that romantic composers par excellence, such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, did not write chamber music and that the best works of the nineteenth century in this field were instead those of those composers who had more affinity with classical tradition, such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartoldy, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, although to a lower degree.
The twentieth century and the present day
The musical twentieth century is quite varied. Composers no longer speak a language common to a whole age, but each one adopts different compositional methods, often highlighted in the production of a single author or in a single composition. Although considered a time of change, mutation and experimentation, the twentieth century has given numerous pages of compositions falling within the line of chamber music and finally, in this period, more composers begin to integrate into the structural fabric of the composition percussion instruments. Thus sonatas were born with unusual organics, sometimes without historical precedents, such as the original version of Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schönberg (1902) or the Settimino by Igor Stravinskij (1954) or even the trio for piano, violin and cello by Maurice Ravel (1914). Although there are echoes of the Viennese school or of the classicism of the past, it is clear that chamber music is undergoing a strong change in this century and in ours. An example of how chamber music has still fascinated modern composers is the chamber repertoire of Luciano Berio, avant-garde composer, with his “Synchronies” for string quartet (1964) or his “Line” written for two pianos, marimba and vibraphone (1973). In conclusion, chamber music, first relegated to elitist environments, has undergone a strong mutation into something that can transcend more esoteric and that generates more intimate feelings that the symphony orchestra or other models are not able to achieve.