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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Big Chamber Music: for six, seven and eight

Australia is a big country and we seem to be obsessed with big things. Locations around the nation aim to attract visitors with their own "big" specialities. A quick internet search revealed the big banana, pineapple, buffalo, cow, egg, elephants, rocking horse, koala, lobster, merino, orange, penguin, prawn, rolling pin, Murray cod, bottle, olive, miner, shell, wicket, apple, platypus, tennis racquet, tenpin, thumbs up, dragon, playable guitar, trout, Tasmanian devil, cherries...and wool bales.

The Big Banana, Coffs Harbour, NSW

Given our predilection for size, Australian music lovers should feel right at home in the subject I've chosen for this post and the next: Big Chamber Music.

Mention the term "chamber music" and we tend to think of trios and quartets, and it's true that piano trios and string quartets are the backbone of the chamber music repertoire. Quintets aren't far behind, whether they're piano quintets, wind quintets or string quintets. But once you get bigger than five, the combinations become more varied and less-standard, meaning that there are fewer groups devoted to larger chamber music repertoire and their performance is more the exception than the rule.

In these two articles I want to explore chamber music for groups larger than five players, just to open up this vast part of the repertoire a bit and hopefully whet your appetite to explore further on your own.

The term "sextet" can apply to any combination of six instruments, or indeed voices, but in chamber music it's the music of Brahms which comes most readily to mind in this context. He wrote two string sextets in the 1860s, scored for two violins, two violas and two cellos, and these works immediately established this combination as the standard line-up for the string sextet. [listen]

Brahms's wasn't the first such string sextet - Louis Spohr wrote one in 1848 [listen] - but the Brahms sextets really put such a combination in the spotlight, and many composers subsequently wrote works for this combination, including Rimsky-Korsakov and Dvořák. Tchaikovsky used the string sextet for his Souvenir de Florence in 1890, as did the young Schoenberg in Verklärte Nacht in 1899; Frank Bridge and Max Reger also contributed to the genre. In 1932 Bohuslav Martinů wrote his string sextet in less than a week as his entry in the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Medal competition. It won. [listen]

Bohuslav Martinů (1945)

Another form of the sextet predated even the Spohr string sextet of 1848. This was for piano, string quartet and double bass which had a brief spell of popularity in the early part of the 19th century. Very often in these works the piano had a concertante part, meaning that it functioned like a soloist in a concerto. Ferdinand Ries, a pupil of Beethoven, wrote a sextet for this combination in 1820 [listen], and four years later Mendelssohn adapted the instrumentation slightly for his Op 110, using one violin and two violas. [listen]

Ferdinand Ries

An unusual but very clearly defined sub-genre in sextets involving the piano is the sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet. Aaron Copland wrote such a work in 1934, and in 1919, Sergei Prokofiev used this combination of instruments for his Overture on Hebrew Themes. [listen]

Chamber music for piano and wind instruments is not unknown but it seems to be less common than that involving strings. Mozart's quintet for piano and winds is a trend setter here but as a quintet it's outside the scope of this survey. Perhaps the most famous example of a sextet for piano and wind is that written in the 1930s by Francis Poulenc. In this the piano is combined with the standard wind quintet: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. [listen]

Like sextets, septets have developed one or two standard combinations as well as manifesting themselves in some more unusual line ups. Chamber music involving wind instruments in the late 18th century - the period of Mozart and Haydn - was almost always in the serenade tradition. By that I mean it was music designed for social events, as background music, and not as concert music intended for close listening. As is always the case, there are works which cross these boundaries, and the early Septet of Beethoven is a perfect example. Composed in the late 1790s, this is scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass. It's in six movements, as serenades often were, and at first hearing can come across as a fairly lightweight work, obviously one of the reasons for its immense popularity during Beethoven's lifetime.

But Beethoven imbues the work with a far more serious nature than a mere serenade would require, one of the reasons for its continued fascination for music lovers and scholars. It therefore crosses over from the serenade world into the concert music world, and it really is magnificent. [listen]

The popularity of Beethoven's septet led to many other composers writing for the same combination of three winds and four strings, including Beethoven's pupil, the Archduke Rudolph. Another of Beethoven's younger contemporaries, Ignaz Moscheles, wrote a septet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano in the 1830s. It was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London and it was immensely popular in its day; these days it's almost completely forgotten. [listen]

Ignaz Moscheles (from a portrait by his son, Felix, c. 1860)

Louis Spohr further varied the septet line up with his Op 147, written in 1853. It calls for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello and piano, thus shifting the aural balance away from the strings and more to the winds. [listen]

One of the more unusual septet combinations came from the pen of Camille Saint-Saëns in 1881. In addition to a string quartet it requires trumpet, piano and double bass. It was written for a group with this specific instrumentation and is one of the famous Frenchman's cheekier pieces. [listen]

Igor Stravinsky composed a septet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano in the 1950s, right at the turning point between his neoclassical and serial periods [listen], while a few years before (in 1948) Paul Hindemith wrote that rare thing, a septet for wind instruments only - flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn and trumpet - or if you prefer, a wind quintet augmented by bass clarinet and trumpet. Cast in five short movements it seems to draw its inspiration from the 18th century serenade tradition, although as always with Hindemith, the composer places his own modernist stamp on a traditional framework. The bustling fugue of the finale has the trumpet quote an old Swiss march over the scampering music in the other parts. [listen]

Paul Hindemith (1923)

Like septets, octets can appear in several guises, and as you might imagine, the larger the number of instruments, the more varied the instrumental combinations tend to become. The fame of Beethoven's septet I referred to earlier encouraged Franz Schubert to go one better - literally - and write an octet for the same combination of instruments, with the addition of an extra violin. The Schubert octet is massive. Again it seems to take its inspiration from the serenade tradition but the composer expands it into a monolithic structure; the six movements take over an hour in performance. It also requires incredible virtuosity from the players. [listen]

Just as many composers imitated Beethoven' septet instrumentation, so after the appearance of Schubert's octet in 1824, this too became an instrumental template imitated by others. But there were other octet combinations favoured by composers in the early 19th century.

Beethoven's pupil Ries wrote an octet in 1816 scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano [listen], but this wasn't the first such octet to involve the piano. Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia, who lived from 1772 until 1806, was an acclaimed piano virtuoso. He was also an active composer but his gifts in that field weren't really appreciated until after his death. His unusually-scored piano octet was composed in 1800; in addition to piano it calls for clarinet, two horns, two violas and two cellos. [listen]

Mosnier: Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia (1799)

In addition to octets involving piano, eight-instrument combinations involving strings and winds were used by composers as diverse as Louis Spohr and Anton Reicha in the 19th century, and Paul Hindemith in the 20th.

A completely separate tradition of string octets seems to have been spawned by the phenomenal success of the 16-year-old Mendelssohn's octet in 1825. Scored for four violins, two violas and two cellos, the Mendelssohn octet - quite apart from being a prodigious miracle - is one of the most challenging, exhilarating and rewarding works to perform. [listen]

The Danish composer Niels Gade wrote a string octet in 1849, one of the two Romantic string octets regarded as worthy successors to that of Mendelssohn. The other was written in 1900 by the Rumanian violinist and composer George Enescu. Enescu was only 19 when he wrote his octet, the fruits of his study at the Paris Conservatoire with the renowned counterpoint teacher André Gédalge. [listen]

George Enescu (1930)

The string octet spawned in its own way a similar but very different form, the double quartet. The true octet, like Mendelssohn's, treats the eight string instruments as a single ensemble, working together. The double quartet, on the other hand, although it uses the same instruments, is constructed in a completely different way, with two string quartets working antiphonally, as two separate units. Louis Spohr wrote four double quartets - marvellous works [listen] - but in the 20th century Darius Milhaud took the idea of a double quartet to a remarkable extreme. His catalogue of more than 440 opus numbers includes 18 string quartets. Quartets nos 14 and 15 are written in such a way that they're playable separately, as regular quartets, or they can be performed simultaneously, as an octet. [listen]

Darius Milhaud (1923)

We'll finish this survey of sextets, septets and octets by mentioning octets for winds without strings. Two such works were written in 1923 and both in their own way hark back to the wind serenade tradition of the late 18th century. Edgard Varèse wrote his Octandre for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass. The inclusion of the double bass means it's not strictly for winds alone, of course, but using a double bass for extra support was a common practice in classical era wind serenades, so this is an example of a kind of deference to an earlier age. But there's nothing about Varèse's style which can be said to be derived from Mozart or anyone else from that time. Octandre is in three very short movements. [listen]

Edgard Varèse (1936)

In the same year, 1923, Stravinsky wrote his wind octet, one which very much shows its 18th century inspiration in the early stages of the composer's neoclassical period. Scored for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and two trombones, its three short movements are clearly based on forms and structures of the 18th century, but dressed in Stravinsky's own characteristic spikiness of rhythm and harmony. It's a standard work of 20th century chamber music and one of my favourite Stravinsky pieces. [listen]

In the next post I'll explore even bigger chamber music: nonets, dectets and even larger combinations.

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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