When you mention classical music, the mental image most of us conjure up is formal attire, large orchestra and dramatic, grand musical compositions. In reality, classical music offers listeners so much more. It’s a diverse and emotive genre with one offshoot – chamber music – creating an especially intimate experience between the musicians and their audience.
How does chamber and orchestral music differ?
So what is the difference between chamber and orchestral music? Put simply, it comes down to size and scope. If you’re in a large concert hall enjoying the combined forces of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion (100 performers or more) playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, you’re at an orchestral performance. Take it down a notch and you’ll find yourself in a smaller space enjoying the delicate sounds of chamber music, for instance, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
The term ‘chamber’ comes from the French word, chambre, basically meaning, room. Chamber music therefore originated from small-scale performances in private settings. When referring to chamber music we’re talking about music written for a small instrumental ensemble. The more common combinations are duets, trios, quartets and quintets but a chamber ensemble can feature up to 15 performers. As opposed to a full orchestra, there’s usually no conductor in a chamber ensemble. Each member works jointly together to shape the sound, tempo, balance, phrase and interpretation of the piece.
Individual artistic expression
Chamber music offers performers a channel to make music in a fun and expressionistic manner. Pieces are carefully crafted to showcase the intimate setting and individual expression of the performing artists. This embracing of individuality allows the performers to engage in a musical conversation, as well as a further conversation with the audience. With no conductor directing the group, the ensemble works off each other, listening and following each member’s interpretation, and bringing it back together as succinct, moving piece.
Chamber music has evolved over the centuries. During the Baroque period (1600-1750) trio sonatas, written for two violins and a harpsichord, were popular. This changed in the Classical period (1750-1810) as the piano replaced the harpsichord. Composers such as Mozart and Haydn wrote violin and cello sonatas that were accompanied only by the piano. Haydn then went on to create the first string quartets. This grouping of two violins, viola and cello is the most widely known when it comes to chamber music.
What should we listen to?
Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is an excellent starting point, then move on to Brahms’ Piano Quintet. Beethoven’s Archduke Trio brings together the piano, violin and cello while Schubert’s Trout Quintet features the unusual combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.
Listening is one thing; experiencing these pieces in a live setting is another thing altogether. Over April the Singapore Symphony Orchestra is presenting a series of chamber music performances in the Victoria Concert Hall. On April 15, pianist Christian Blackshaw takes to the stage to perform Mozart’s Sonata No. 14 in C minor, then Schumann’s Fantasie in C major and ending the recital with Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major. Blackshaw returns on April 17, with members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, to perform Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat major for winds and piano, and Schubert’s stunning Trout Quintet.
Pick up your tickets to Christian Blackshaw in Recital and Schubert’s Trout Quintet today and enjoy chamber music in the intimate setting it was created for.
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