Involving small groups of players without a conductor, chamber music falls in a specific niche between orchestral and solo playing. Chamber music finds its roots as far back as the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when small groups of instrumentalists were often used as accompaniment for singers. Other early examples of chamber music were the “sonata de camera” (literally, chamber sonata) and “sonata de chiesa” (church sonata). As the name suggests, chamber music was originally composed to be performed in a large room or “chamber”, as opposed to a concert hall.
With Franz Joseph Haydn, master of the Classical era, came numerous key advances in the composition of chamber music. Often called the “Father of the String Quartet”, Haydn standardized the form of the string quartet (perhaps the most ubiquitous of chamber ensembles) into a four-movement structure. Consisting of an opening movement in sonata form, a second lyrical and often slow movement, a minuet or scherzo third movement, and a fast finale movement, this form has remained the standard for centuries.
Hadyn’s quartets were also extremely conversational in nature. Themes and motifs are passed between the players in the quartet, and the interplay between the voices proves the most defining quality of Haydn’s writing. While hundreds of composers have written thousands of chamber works in the centuries since Haydn, this interplay between voices remains one of the most characteristic features of great chamber writing.
On a personal note, I have always found chamber music to be my most gratifying channel of artistic expression. Different forms of music making provide distinct experiences for both audiences and performers. In solo playing, the individual is given free reign in making their own personal artistic decisions - the soloist is at the top of the hierarchy. In orchestral playing, sections of musicians work to blend their sound and experience the interplay of voices across the orchestra, but the conductor is at the top of the hierarchy, guiding the musical decisions. By comparison, chamber music then seems the most egalitarian avenue of music making: enough freedom to come to artistic decisions together as a group, while still emphasizing the interplay of equal, distinct voices: the perfect balance of personal expression without losing the communal experience of playing music with other people.
I also see an enormous value in chamber music as one of the most accessible mediums for the casual musician. Musical expression should be a creative outlet available to all - and not just as consumers, but as active participants. There was a time before TV, video games and social media when music making was a pastime of the masses - when a group of friends might unwind at the end of a busy day by spontaneously playing chamber music together.
As a teacher, I fully expect for the majority of my students to pursue careers unrelated to music (although I trust that the work ethic and sensitivity they learn through their musical study to guide all of their life endeavors). This being said, my greatest hope for all of my students, whether they become brain surgeons, teachers, lawyers or astronauts by day, is to forever also remain musicians - to spend time not only enjoying hearing great music, but actively participating in it. To experience the very same intellectual stimulation, social camaraderie and spiritual renewal that I myself find in chamber music.