“Chamber music” is a special category in the broad spectrum of classical music. Simply put, it is music designed to be performed in a chamber, such as a room in a house, rather than in a large concert hall. Consequently, there is a constraint on the number of instruments and performers that can be accommodated in the relatively small space in which the music is played. Usually this space limitation necessitates a group of three to eight musicians, although sometimes as few as two can be present.
Chamber music is usually applied to instrumental music, although it can also apply to vocal. The mix of instruments can be almost anything, up to and including a piano, but there is no conductor to direct the proceedings.
In recent years, an increasing interest in “ancient music” and in works composed prior to 1600 has broadened the spectrum of chamber music. Additionally, the classical guitar also frequently appears on the contemporary chamber music scene.
Originally “invented” by Franz Joseph Haydn–who composed over 100 such works–the string quartet has dominated chamber music over the centuries, primarily because of the enormous body of works by Haydn, Beethoven, Shostakovic, and Bartok. Nearly all composers of significance have written works, and played them, in the string quartet idiom, as well as in the second most popular form, the piano trio.
Indeed, classical music lovers have long noted that many composers reserved their finest creative efforts for the chamber music format. Few would argue that among the greatest classical music of all time are the string quartets of Beethoven, the piano trios of Brams and Schubrt, and Mozart’s glorious quintet for piano and woodwinds.
Newcomers to chamber music may wonder how chamber musicians manage to stay together without a conductor. While it is difficult, the key to success in this endeavor is contained in the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! Practice! Practice!” And remember, once upon a time, orchestras did not have conductors. Entrances are cued by one of the performers, commonly the first violin (though not always). The players don’t “follow” someone; they play together, and each has to anticipate when the next beat is coming and when his or her instrument is to join the flow. This requires careful and constant listening to what each of the others is doing.
It has been frequently remarked that chamber music audiences, other than those attending music-school concerts, are generally older than patrons at symphonies, band concerts, and other musical events. This may result from the generally lower decibel level of chamber music and the greater comfort such audiences have with the often quieter and more contemplative nature of these works.
Age aside, it is safe to say that all who come to know chamber music eventually grow to love it and long for more!
Taken with edits from: