chamber music

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chamber music

chamber music, ensemble music for small groups of instruments, with only one player to each part. Its essence is individual treatment of parts and the exclusion of virtuosic elements. Originally played by amateurs in courts and aristocratic circles, it began to be performed by professionals only in the 19th cent. with the rise of the concert hall. In the broadest sense it existed as early as the Middle Ages. The ricercare and the concerted canzone of the 16th cent. are properly chamber music, although unlike later forms they were not for specific instruments but were usually performed by voices and whatever instruments were at hand. During the baroque period the chief type was the trio sonata. About 1750 the string quartet with its related types—trio, quintet, sextet, septet, and octet—arose. As developed by Haydn and Mozart the quartet became the principal chamber-music form. It was used by Beethoven and Schubert, whose quartets are the last of the classical period, and by the chief composers of the romantic period—Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Franck, d'Indy, and Reger. In the early 20th cent. the coloristic possibilities of the quartet were exploited by Debussy and Ravel. More recently the different forms of chamber music have been used extensively for experiments in atonality, percussive rhythms, and serial techniques by such composers as Schoenberg, Bartók, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky, Sessions, and Piston.


See D. F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music (1944, repr. 1989); W. W. Cobbett, ed., Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (3 vol., 2d ed. 1963, repr. 1987); H. E. Ulrich, Chamber Music (2d ed. 1966); M. Berger, Guide to Chamber Music (1985); J. M. Keller, Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide (2010).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Chamber Music


a specific type of music differing from that performed in theaters and concert halls; chamber works are designed to be performed in small halls and for domestic or “room” use (hence the name). Compositions of this type are written for small instrumental groups (from a single soloist to a chamber ensemble). The music is characterized by economy and subtle and detailed expressive effects; it has great potential for conveying lyrical emotions and spiritual nuances. Chamber music originated in the Middle Ages. Until the end of the 16th century the term was applied only to vocal genres; in the 17th century it was extended to instrumental music as well. In the 16th—18th centuries the term “chamber music” gradually came to mean secular music as opposed to church music (chamber sonata versus church sonata).

The modern forms of the instrumental chamber ensemble— sonata, trio, quartet, quintet, and so on—developed in the works of the Viennese classicists Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who created profound and perfectly formed models. With its rich expressive possibilities, the instrumental ensemble (especially the string quartet) attracted the attention of nearly every composer; it reflected all the basic trends of music of the 18th-20th centuries. The romantics (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann) and later composers (Brahms, Dvorak) paid tribute to it. High artistry distinguishes the chamber music of such Russian composers as Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Glazunov, whose traditions have been carried on by the Soviet composers N. Ia. Miaskovskii, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.

Vocal chamber music was prominent in the late 18th century and particularly in the 19th. Schubert, Schumann, and other romantic composers created the art song, a new genre with great expressive possibilities. The art song was richly developed in Russia by M. I. Glinka, A. S. Dargomyzhskii, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmanin off. The genre of instrumental miniatures (character pieces, pieces in dance forms) also acquired great importance in that period.

Chamber-music concerts were given, mostly in small concert halls, in the 19th century, leading to the formation of societies of lovers of chamber music and numerous performing chamber ensembles.


Vasina-Grossman, V. A. Russkii klassicheskii romans. Moscow, 1956.
Vasina-Grossman, V. A. Romanticheskaia pesnia XIX veka. Moscow, 1967.
Vasina-Grossman, V. A. Mastera sovetskogo romansa. Moscow, 1968.
Raaben, L. Instrumental’nyi ansambl ’ v russkoi muzyke. Moscow, 1961.
Raaben, L. Sovetskaia kamerno-instrumentaVnaia muzyka. Leningrad, 1963.
Walthew, R. H. The Development of Chamber Music. London-New York [1909].
Mersmann, H. Die Kammermusik, vols. 1–4. Leipzig, 1930–33.
Kilburn, N. Chamber Music and Its Masters.London, 1932.
Ulrich, H. Chamber Music, 2nd ed. New York-London, 1966.
Coeuray, A. La Musique de chambre. Paris, 1953.
Richter, J. Fr. Kammermusik-Katalog. Leipzig, 1960.
Cobbett, W. W. Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, 2nd ed., vols. 1–3.London, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

chamber music

music for performance by a small group of instrumentalists
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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