• Graham Abbott

Big Chamber Music: for nine, ten and more

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

In my last post I started by mentioning Australia's obsession with "big things" as tourist attractions. The idea that something big - in fact, oversized - can be used to get our attention is a fundamental principle of advertising, among other human pursuits. But in the realm of music, while we might remember gargantuan orchestral works (think Mahler's 8th Symphony or Schoenberg's Gurrelieder), large-scale chamber music has tended to get far less publicity.

The Big Lobster, Kingston SE, South Australia

To that end, I started in my previous instalment to explore the idea of "big chamber music". While the mainstream chamber music repertoire consists of trios, quartets and quintets, in that article I looked at works for bigger ensembles: sextets, septets and octets. It rapidly became clear that the larger the ensemble, the less "standard" an instrumentation can be. While there are more popular combinations for works involving six, seven or eight instruments, there seem to be just as many works for these numbers of players which use unusual line ups as well.

In this instalment that whole concept - non-standard groupings of instruments - gets completely and deliciously out of hand, because now we're going to go beyond octets to chamber works for nine, ten or more instruments. Even the names for such ensembles aren't standardised, but there are some terrific pieces out there which rarely see the light of day...and they should.

Serenades in the later 18th century often used larger numbers of players; for example, Mozart's famous Gran Partita, K361, calls for 13 players. Chamber works from around 1800 onwards started to grow beyond quintets very early on, and music for nine players soon came to the fore.

In 1813, Louis Spohr - who seems to have written for almost every conceivable number of instruments in his chamber music - wrote a work for nine instruments. His title, "nonetto" (or "nonet"), was the first appearance of this term, but the piece was such a hit that not only did other composers start to write nonets of their own, they wrote them for the instrumental grouping Spohr had devised. The group comprised a wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn) plus violin, viola, cello and double bass. This ensemble allows for full-bodied sounds which border on something like that of a chamber orchestra, as well as providing the possibility of contrasting string and wind sonorities. The result is a very rich tonal palette, which Spohr characteristically exploits to the full. [listen]

Louis Spohr (self portrait)

I devoted an entire post to Spohr earlier in this blog. You can find it here.

Muzio Clementi, a generation older than Spohr, wrote two nonets for the same combination of instruments but these were unpublished and can't be accurately dated. Many other composers wrote nonets during the 19th century. George Onslow - an exact contemporary of Spohr - wrote his A minor nonet in 1848. He was a prolific French composer of English parentage and he dedicated his nonet to Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. [listen]

George Onslow

Two English composers of later generations who wrote nonets were Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Parry's nonet of 1877 is entirely for winds (flute, oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns), while Stanford's mixes strings and winds (flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass). Written in 1905, the Stanford nonet is actually called a serenade, as many chamber works for large ensembles were, reflecting not only the 18th century origins of such works but also the fact that titles like "nonet" were far from universally-used.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1921)

In 1959, the last year of his life, the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů wrote a wind-and-string nonet scored for the same instruments as Spohr's 1813 work. He completed the work in less than a month and it was designed to mark the 35th anniversary of a well-known ensemble, the Czech Nonet. This group gave the premiere in July 1959 at the Salzburg Festival, a month before the composer's death. (Read more about Martinů here.) The work is short - its three movements last a little over a quarter of an hour - but it breathes the air of Czech music and culture past and present. [listen]

While there are many octets for strings alone, nonets for strings are rare indeed. The best-known is the one written by Aaron Copland at the start of the 1960s. It was premiered in the same house - Dumbarton Oaks - in which Stravinsky's neo-Baroque concerto of that name was premiered in 1938. Copland's nonet is scored for three violins, three violas and three cellos and it seems to fall between his popular and austere styles. For this reason it's a work which is not widely-known, but it's rich, darkly-hued and very satisfying. [listen]

Aaron Copland (1970)

When we start getting to these sorts of numbers - nine, ten or more players - we enter an area which comes very close to the size of a chamber orchestra. So it's not surprising that many composers in the 20th century wrote works for what on the surface seem to be chamber ensembles, but which in their form and structure resemble small-scale symphonies or concertos. There is in fact a huge grey area here, part of the endless fascination these sorts of groups can exert.

The ever-inventive Darius Milhaud lived from 1892 to 1974, and while he's usually remembered for his association with the group known as "Les Six" in 1920s Paris, his career spanned much more than that. He wrote a huge amount of music, including six miniature symphonies which are actually chamber works for large ensembles. The first of these, the chamber symphony no. 1, Op 43, was written in Brazil in 1917 and bears the title Le Printemps (The Spring). In three movements, it lasts barely four minutes; these miniature symphonies are all very brief. But Op 43 is also a nonet, scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, two violins, viola and cello. This is the entire symphony. [listen]

Other composers from the early 20th century, such as Egon Kornauth, Ernst Krenek and Bruno Stürmer also wrote works which are nonets, but express an almost orchestral ambience. Better known than these is Anton Webern, whose Op 21 Symphony from 1928, and Op 24 Concerto written in the 1930s, are also scored for nine instruments.

Anton Webern (1912)

The Concerto Op 24 is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, violin, viola, trumpet, trombone and piano. As with larger chamber works involving piano from earlier times, the piano is treated more as a soloist than an equal member of the ensemble. The Concerto was completed in 1934 and dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg on his 60th birthday. The whole work takes barely seven minutes; this is the first movement. [listen]

When it comes to ten instruments, the actual name for such a group becomes a matter of opinion and personal preference. Terms used in English included decet, dectet, decimette or even tentet; French composers tend to favour "dixtuor". One of the earliest post-classical chamber works scored for ten instruments was a decet composed by John Henry Griesbach. But the 19th century German composer Joachim Raff wrote a Sinfonietta for ten winds in 1873 which was published as his Op 188 the following year. [listen]

Joachim Raff (1878)

Darius Milhaud used groups of ten instruments in two of his other miniature symphonies. The fourth in the set, Op 74, is for ten strings: four violins, two violas, two cellos and two basses. It's an example of Milhaud's tongue-in-cheek approach, mixing Baroque gestures with crunching discords caused by the music being in several keys at once. [listen]

Milhaud's next miniature symphony is a companion piece to the dectet for strings: a dectet for winds. Scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons and two horns, here the faux Baroque sentiment gives way to a far more aggressive mood. The English translations of the titles of the three tiny movements are: Rough, Slow and Violent. [listen]

Far more serious in intent, and the work of a young man seeking to make an impression, is the Op 1 Sinfonietta of Benjamin Britten. Dating from his student days in the early 1930s, the Sinfonietta in its original version requires ten instruments: wind quintet plus string quartet plus double bass. The composer also authorised its performance with multiple strings to make it a more strictly "orchestral" work, but it certainly doesn't need the extra players to make an impact. This is the finale, a tarantella. [listen]

Our final examples of music for ten instruments bring us to the ensemble known as the double wind quintet. The wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn) when doubled instantly becomes the wind section of a classical orchestra, so orchestral-sounding chamber works for winds alone are possible with this combination of instruments.

In 1898 the American composer Arthur Bird wrote his Serenade Op 40 for a double wind quintet. It won the 1901 Paderewski Prize as the best chamber work by an American composer and it very clearly harks back to the wind serenade tradition of the 18th century. [listen]

George Enescu, whose octet was included in my previous post, wrote a decet for winds as well, dating from 1906. Like the octet it's a reasonably early work, and it's scored for a variation on the double wind quintet. This work has pairs of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, but instead of two oboes it uses an oboe and a cor anglais. [listen]

Once we get to groups of eleven or more instruments, especially with wind ensembles, the borderline between chamber music and orchestral music becomes very blurred. When does a large ensemble of wind instruments become a wind orchestra? Wind orchestras, like chamber groups, usually have one player per part, so the distinction is not always clear. Mendelssohn and Reger both wrote works for a dozen wind instruments, and Richard Strauss's earlier works include two for 13 winds (the Suite Op 4, and the Serenade Op 7). These are strictly chamber works but they are also in the domain of the wind orchestra, and, like many larger chamber works, often require a conductor. This is part of the Strauss Suite, composed in 1884. [listen]

Richard Strauss (1886)

I want to finish by mentioning three 20th and 21st century works for large chamber ensembles. The first is Arnold Schoenberg's first Chamber Symphony Op 9, composed in 1906. In its own way this work was a turning point in western music history, a reaction to the massive symphonies of Mahler and the huge operas and tone poems of Richard Strauss. In it Schoenberg writes a four-movement symphony lasting nearly half an hour using only 15 instruments: ten winds and five strings. This is quite apart from the atonal harmonic language the composer used, but there is still something intrinsically intimate and romantic about the work. [listen]

Near the end of the 20th century - in 1992 - the American composer John Adams wrote his own chamber symphony for 15 instruments, which draws part of its inspiration from Schoenberg's. The other inspiration - typically - was cartoon soundtracks from the 1950s, and the result was a three movement work which includes a synthesiser, percussion, trumpet and trombone in its line up. This is the last movement, called "Roadrunner". [listen]

Many people mistakenly call John Adams a minimalist. His music has some elements of minimalism, but it's far too...well, maximised to be really minimalist. One of the most famous American minimalists of the modern era is Steve Reich, and in 2007 he wrote a chamber work in twelve parts, a Double Sextet. This piece was composed for the ensemble Eighth Blackbird, a sextet comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano. Not keen to write for so small an ensemble, Reich decided to structure his piece so that the performers pre-recorded one sextet's part, and played the other sextet's part live against this, making twelve parts in all. Of course, the piece can be performed live by twelve musicians, as in this video. [listen]

Steve Reich (2006)

There's an enormous amount of music from the past 200 years or more for large chamber ensembles, yet another part of the vast treasure store of music which deserves our attention. These two posts have barely scratched the surface, but I hope they've given you some ideas for further exploration, and maybe these works will be performed more often in future. We can always hope!

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2015.

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