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Size is Everything: A Beginner's Guide to Chamber Ensembles

Terminology is the bug-bear of much of classical music. Part of this is to do with so much of the music we love originating in countries where the language is not English. Some of the problem is just the technical nature of a lot of what we talk about and at times, it must be said, this can all get in the way of just enjoying the music.


There’s a lot of terminology related to the ensembles which play chamber music. In fact, the term “chamber music” itself can be a barrier to some. So today we’re going to dive in and sort out the descriptive terms used in chamber music and hopefully remove some of the linguistic barriers which can arise.


The term “chamber music” is used to describe music which is designed for small ensembles to play. It’s usually used to describe instrumental music although the term “vocal chamber music” is also used. It’s normal that each part will be played (or sung) by a single performer, unlike the string sections of an orchestra where you have a number of violinists playing the first violin part, for example.


The “chamber” part of the title comes from the fact that such music was generally designed for private performance, rather than for public concerts. Publishers in the 18th and 19th centuries often expressly designed their publications of music for small ensembles for the domestic market, for people to play at home in the evenings, or for use at special clubs or other private environments. Chamber music was included in public concerts more and more throughout the 19th century, but the term has remained as a useful descriptor to differentiate such music from orchestral music. It’s also usual to think of chamber music as separate from sonata repertoire. Here the lines are more blurred but a sonata for, say, cello and piano, isn’t usually called “chamber music”. The sonata repertoire is kept slightly separate by virtue of its content and intent, but it must be admitted that this varies a lot in usage. For example, Francis Poulenc wrote a trio for horn, trumpet and trombone which he called a sonata. Most people would call this piece chamber music. [listen]


Instrumental combinations of two instruments - apart from sonatas - are usually called duos or duets. Here the crossover with sonata is strongest, especially when a piano is involved, but the terminology is very flexible. Even in sonatas involving a piano, the two instruments are on equal terms; there’s usually no sense that one is subservient to the other. This is one of Bartók’s 44 duos for two violins. [listen]


Trios, in which three instruments are used, are where we start to hear terms which quote the name of one of the instruments involved. For example, the “piano trio”. A novice could be forgiven for thinking that a piano trio is a trio for three pianos; it’s a very logical assumption. (A colleague recently told me that a venue in which his piano trio wanted to perform was very apologetic about the fact that they only had two pianos available…) The piano trio is, usually, a trio for piano, violin and cello. The odd instrument out (in this case the piano because it’s not a string instrument) is usually the instrument chosen to label such an ensemble. The piano trio became established as a regular ensemble in the mid 18th century. This trio by Haydn dates from the mid-1790s. [listen]



By extension, when a less-regular instrument was added then that instrument usually got mentioned in the title. The best example of this is the Brahms “horn trio” which is scored for horn, violin and piano. Some composers wrote trios which seem to extend and vary the piano trio instrumentation, but these are not called piano trios. I’m thinking here of Mozart’s trio for clarinet, viola and piano, or this piece, Bartók’s Contrasts, for violin, clarinet and piano. [listen]


The string trio - scored for violin, viola and cello - is an ensemble which has been used by many composers. Mozart’s great six-movement Divertimento for string trio is a magnificent work and clearly inspired some of Beethoven’s earlier works in this form (such as his Op 9 set). In the 19th century string trios seem to have been largely neglected, with the string quartet being preferred. In the 20th century, though, the clarity of the three-voice texture of the string trio attracted composers as diverse as Webern, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Martin, Roussel, Schnittke and Krenek. This is a string trio by Schubert. [listen]


A term one often hears which can be very confusing is that of “trio sonata”. This applies to music written in the Baroque period (that is, between roughly 1600 and 1750) to chamber music which is in three parts but which requires four (or sometimes even more) players. This can be very confusing to audience members!


In the Baroque, a bassline part was usually called a “continuo” line. The composer wrote the line for a bass instrument but as often as not didn’t specify the actual instrument to be used. In chamber music this was usually, but not exclusively, the cello. However, the continuo part needed not only to be played; it needed to be realised. Realising a continuo part means filling it out with chords to flesh out the harmony implied by the bassline. Often this was suggested by numbers written under the bassline (called a figured bass) which told the realising player what these chords were. The part was realised by a second player playing a chordal instrument. Usually this was a harpsichord, but it could just as easily have been an organ or a lute.


So in the trio sonata, the bassline, or continuo part, was normally played by two musicians. Above this were normally two treble parts: a violin and flute, for example, or two violins, or any one of a number of combinations. So the composer wrote three parts in the trio sonata (two treble parts and the bassline) but the bassline, being a continuo part, required two players to fully perform it (hence the need for four musicians). This trio sonata by Telemann has violin and oboe as the treble instruments, with the continuo part played by cello and harpsichord. Three parts, four players. [listen]


And if circumstances permit, you can have more than two players on the continuo line. This performance of another Telemann trio sonata uses cello and harpsichord with the addition of a theorbo (a large form of lute) for the continuo part. To make matters more interesting, the theorbo player switches to guitar for the last movement. These are all completely acceptable options for the Baroque period, and actual practice usually depended on who, and what instruments, were available at the time. [listen]


By the end of the 18th century the string quartet was not only an established ensemble, it was without doubt the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble. It’s true that the combination of two violins, viola and cello is a miniature version of the orchestral string section, but composers who write well for string quartet do so for an ensemble of soloists, and their textures and technical demands are very different.



Haydn and Mozart, and a host of lesser composers, helped establish the string quartet as the queen of chamber music ensembles by the end of the 18th century. Beethoven wrote string quartets throughout his career but used this ensemble as the pre-eminent medium for his most individual expression in his last works in the mid-1820s. Schubert’s quartets are also masterful, and this set the tone for later composers, especially in the Austro-German tradition, to use the string quartet as the means for some of their finest utterances. In the 20th century composers like Benjamin Britten provided magnificent additions to the quartet repertoire, but the six quartets of Béla Bartók and the fifteen of Dmitri Shostakovich stand with the paintings of Picasso and the plays of Arthur Miller as some of the greatest art of the century. This is the third movement of Shostakovich’s first string quartet. [listen]


Of course composers can write for quartets of other combinations. Here, as in trios, the naming of such ensembles often focuses on the “odd instrument”. Mozart’s flute quartets, for example, are scored for flute plus a string trio (violin, viola and cello). His oboe quartet is for oboe and string trio. Such wind and string combinations in quartets were rare in later composers, although the Finnish-Swedish clarinet virtuoso and composer, Bernard Crusell (who was roughly contemporary with Beethoven) wrote a number of clarinet quartets. [listen]


The piano quartet seems to have been invented by Mozart as part of a commission for works commissioned by a publisher for the domestic market. The two such quartets (for piano and string trio) which Mozart produced are anything but simple; they rank among his most serious and intense works. Piano quartets were very popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and by the middle of the 19th century the combination was well-established as a serious chamber music ensemble. Dvořák’s two piano quartets were important additions to the genre. This the second, composed in 1889. [listen]


Once we get into quintets the horizon opens enormously. There are a number of chamber music combinations for five instruments which have been favoured by composers over the years and which have led to some magnificent additions to the repertoire. Mozart wrote a number of quintets for various combinations. Among his greatest works are the six string quintets, the first written in his teens, the last in the months before his death. These are scored for 2 violins, 2 violas and cello and all the evidence points to Mozart finding the string quintet much more satisfying for him as a composer than the string quartet. The quartets, by his own admission, cost him a lot of effort; the quintets seem to have flowed more easily. [listen]


Three very different quintets can also be found in Mozart’s output. The horn quintet has the unusual scoring of horn, violin, 2 violas and cello. In this the horn is given a very prominent role, almost like a concerto soloist. A similar prominence, this time given to the piano, is evident in the quintet for piano and wind instruments (the winds being oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn). And finally, one of Mozart’s loveliest and most popular works is a quintet, the clarinet quintet, scored for clarinet and string quartet. (A recent post in this blog was devoted to the Mozart clarinet quintet.)


Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the piano quartet was the piano quintet, comprising piano and string quartet. Because of its smaller scoring the piano quartet was much more popular in terms of sheer numbers in the 19th century, and there seems to have been a perception that as string trios were deemed to be lighter or less serious than string quartets, so piano quartets were less serious than piano quintets. It’s amazing the difference a second violin makes!


Many composers wrote piano quintets in the 19th century, the most famous examples being those by Schumann and Brahms. In the 20th century all manner of composers wrote piano quintets, from Goossens and Shostakovich to Schnittke and Morton Feldman. This is part of the piano quintet of Sir Arnold Bax, composed before and during the first world war. [listen]


The other standard form of the quintet has been the wind quintet, using flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. As a standard grouping, the wind quintet became established around 1800, coinciding with technical developments which were taking place in the construction of all wind instruments at the time. A number of composers experimented with the combination but it was only with the 24 wind quintets written by Anton Reicha after 1811, and the nine quintets of Franz Danzi written in the 1820s, that the ensemble really became widely accepted and written for. The later 19th century showed less interest in the wind quintet, but in the 20th century some of the biggest names in the business have written for the ensemble, including Hindemith, Nielsen, Milhaud, Barber, Henk Badings, Stockhausen and Ligeti. This is part of one of Danzi’s wind quintets, from the early 1820s. [listen]



An offshoot of the wind quintet in more recent times has been the brass quintet, usually scored for 2 trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba, or sometimes with a second trombone instead of a tuba. It was really only in the years following the second world war that this combination became firmly established, although music of the late 19th and early 20th century brass band repertoire - as well as music of earlier periods, even going back to the Renaissance - has been arranged for the modern brass quintet. Many modern composers have written new works for the brass quintet, in a wide range of styles. This is Virgil Thomson’s Family Portrait, for 2 trumpets, horn and 2 trombones, written in 1975. [listen]



Two unusually-scored quintets can be found in the music of Schubert and they are among the greatest works of any sort in the repertoire. The quintet for piano and strings has the unusual scoring of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass; the use of the double bass as a solo instrument, and by extension as a chamber music instrument, is very rare. This is the famous “Trout” quintet, so called because one of the movements is a set of variations on Schubert’s song, “The Trout” (Die Forelle). Schubert’s other quintet is the magnificent string quintet in C, scored again for a more unusual combination of 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos. [listen]


Once we get into larger chamber ensembles, the standard naming of groups becomes less and less precise, often requiring the instrumentation of a particular work to be mentioned in or after its title. An exception is the string sextet, which is usually accepted as being 2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos. Brahms really set the scene with his two marvellous string sextets; Dvořák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Erich Korngold and Bohuslav Martinů (among others) followed. Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence is scored for string sextet. One of the most important historically is the string sextet written by Schoenberg called Transfigured Night. [listen]



Beyond this standard grouping for the string sextet there is no other commonly-used sextet scoring. Poulenc’s sextet for piano and wind quintet [listen] is a work which shows the extent to which the wind quintet had become firmly established in the 20th century, and there have been composers who have written piano sextets (adding a double bass to the piano quintet scoring). But other sextet combinations are more varied. Likewise beyond this, septets, octets, nonets... There is much more individuality and no real standard grouping for larger ensembles which can be said to cover large periods as, say, the string quartet or piano trio do.


Septets were influenced greatly by 18th century serenade writing, and Beethoven’s op 20 septet of 1799 [listen] clearly reflects the influence of lighter works of earlier times. However it is also a very thoroughly worked-out piece, much more than background music, and it was immensely popular. This popularity is reflected in the fact that its scoring - clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass - was used by a number of other composers. Schubert added a second violin to this for his octet of 1824 [listen] and in turn influenced many other composers to write for this combination.


The other octet combination which was sometimes used was the string octet comprising 4 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos. Mendelssohn’s amazing string octet of 1825 (written he was just sixteen!) [listen] inspired a host of similarly-scored works by others. Slightly different in concept are the works for the same combination of instruments by Louis Spohr. These are true double quartets, in which two string quartets perform as antiphonal ensembles, as opposed to a single octet group as envisaged by Mendelssohn. [listen]


It’s worth mentioning here the oddity in this respect in the music of Darius Milhaud. Milhaud wrote 18 string quartets between 1912 and 1950. Nos 14 and 15 are playable as string quartets, or they can be played simultaneously as an octet. That’s what I call efficient! [listen]


It seems that Spohr was the first to specifically call a chamber work a nonet, in his nonet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass, written in 1813. [listen] Nonets are not common, but were particularly favoured in the Czech Republic with a number of Czech composers in the 19th and 20th centuries composing for this particular combination of instruments. A notable all-string nonet was written by Aaron Copland in 1960. [listen]


Other composers in recent times have written works for nine instruments but not actually called them nonets. Terms like “chamber symphony” or just “Kammermusik” (the German word for chamber music) have commonly been used, such is the diversity of music for larger ensembles. It’s very rare for works for larger ensembles to have specific grouping titles. An exception to this is again in the music Milhaud, whose miniature symphonies for ten instruments are subtitled with the French word dixtour; in English we’d probably say a “dectet” but the word is rarely used. Milhaud’s miniature symphonies take only a few minutes to play. The dixtour for wind is a good example, using piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and 2 horns. [listen]


There are so many variants in terms of chamber music terminology but I hope this survey has given you a few pointers. It’s certainly covered a wide range of music!


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2007.

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