Music with Friends: The Evolution of Chamber Music — Alexandra Burns MA.B. Mus -19th August 2019

Our Speaker this week was a freel­ance musical mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional, journ­al­ist, teacher  and trum­peter. She was much involved with local brass bands and in the wider Sheffield musical scene.  Alex was to give our senses a treat, giving a pre­cise present­a­tion of her sub­ject spiced by an accom­pani­ment of musical clips and visu­als.


Alex com­menced her talk by defin­ing what is under­stood about Chamber Music.  It was a form of clas­sical music com­posed for a small group of instruments-traditionally played by a group that could fit, typ­ic­ally, into a palace cham­ber or in private houses as “the music of friends”.  During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (up to about 1600) instru­ments were used primar­ily as an accom­pani­ment to sing­ers.

 Our speaker con­tin­ued by tra­cing the devel­op­ment of this style of music from the Baroque period (1600–1750) to modern times. She noted the con­tri­bu­tions of major com­posers such as Bach (1685–1750) to Shostakovich (1906–1975).  Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was gen­er­ally cred­ited with cre­at­ing the modern form of cham­ber music as we know it.  His many works were to estab­lish the con­ver­sa­tional style of com­pos­i­tion and form that was to dom­in­ate over the next two cen­tur­ies.  But it was Mozart (1756–1791) who was to help seal its pop­ular­ity with his pro­lific output of mas­ter­pieces such as his six  quar­tets.

During this musical jour­ney we paused to listen to around ten samples from the mas­ters.  These included Haydn’s piece for string quar­tet Op 76 ‘Emperor’, Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’ and Schubert’s ‘Trout’ com­posed in 1819. The latter was an unusual piece for the time being writ­ten for the piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.

Throughout the 18th Century, a com­poser was nor­mally an employee of a king or aris­to­crat and worked for the pleas­ure of their court or house­hold. Haydn, for example, was an employee of Nikolaus 1.  The turn of the 19th Century saw dra­matic changes in soci­ety and in music tech­no­logy which had far reach­ing effects on the way cham­ber music was com­posed and played.  With the decline of the aris­to­cracy, its pat­ron­age and the rise of new social orders through­out Europe, com­posers increas­ingly had to make money by selling their com­pos­i­tions and per­form­ing con­certs.  Moving ‘from ‘home to hall’ they often gave  sub­scrip­tion con­certs or ‘recit­als’, rent­ing a venue and taking receipts. Increasingly, they wrote cham­ber music not only for rich pat­rons, but for pro­fes­sional musi­cians play­ing for a paying audi­ence.

It was Johannes Brahm’s  (1833–1897)  music which provided a bridge between the clas­sical to the modern, expand­ing the struc­ture and har­monic vocab­u­lary of cham­ber music.   A good example was his second string sextet Op.36. As we moved into the 20th Century, com­posers began to intro­duce an ele­ment of ‘nation­al­ism’ into their work. Dvorak (1841–1904 ) for example, drew on both the folk music of his native  Bohemia as well the emer­ging American style and thus chal­len­ging the tra­di­tional genre.

Our speaker then moved on to explain how tech­nical changes, includ­ing the avail­ab­il­ity of new raw mater­i­als, had influ­enced the pro­duc­tion and range of instru­ments and in turn, the musical pos­sib­il­it­ies.  After 1700, the Harpsicord gradu­ally fell out of favour giving way to the piano­forte. (Its iron frames allow­ing greater robust­ness and offer­ing a wider range of tone due to the higher ten­sions now pos­sible).  List and Chopin were to devote most of their works to the instru­ment. Changes also applied to the whole range of string and wood­wind instru­ments such as the violin, cello, flute and cla­ri­net (new woods, the intro­duc­tion of thicker metal repla­cing gut strings).  Other devel­op­ments included the intro­duc­tion of the ‘chin rest’.  Ergonomics is not a new sci­ence!  Such changes were not always wel­come and led to dis­agree­ments in musical groups over such mat­ters as style and present­a­tion. The greater volumes now pos­sible allowed Chamber music to move over the years from ‘music with friends’ in the front par­lour to the con­cert hall and now back again into typ­ic­ally small aud­it­oria.  In Alex’s view, Chamber music did not lend itself well to modern amphli­fic­a­tion. 

 While the rise of pop­ular­ity in sym­phonic and vir­tu­oso music con­tin­ues, Alex thought Chamber Music will always have a place among those who play an instru­ment and like to enjoy music among friends.  And we should not forget the silent audi­ence who listen via digital media.

Alex con­cluded her most enter­tain­ing ses­sion by invit­ing ques­tions and com­ments from mem­bers. These included the future of music in Sheffield schools, the where­abouts of the Lindsey String Quartet, the appar­ent lack of English  and women com­posers, the best musical fest­ivals , the  must hear’ ten pieces to listen to, (see sep­ar­ate post) and sev­eral more.  All this revealed a number of active musi­cians in the audi­ence. Our venue is a small aud­it­or­ium. Perhaps they could get together and give us a treat?