If you are a casual fan of orchestral music, but want to try something a little more intimate, there's a vast universe of chamber music just waiting for you to explore. Once you've grasped the basics, then you can start exploring on your own and then impress your acquaintances with your new-found knowledge.
It's called chamber music because originally it meant music suitable to a palace chamber instead of a great hall or other large space, with just a few musicians instead of dozens. Each musician's part is distinct, whereas in orchestral music generally each part is played by multiple musicians together, e.g. the first violins or the horn section. Even now, public performances of chamber music are most often heard in the smaller recital halls rather than large concert halls. And of course, most musicians and composers -- professional and amateur -- play chamber music at home with friends.
Given the vastness of the chamber music universe, we're going to start with some of its most popular works and forms. Chamber music is as varied as orchestral or solo keyboard music. It can follow the basic three- or four-movement sonata form or be a suite or a single dance or character piece or other form. There are prescribed groupings of instruments, such as the string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello); the piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, cello); the piano trio (piano, violin, cello), and the wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn). There are also many instances of composers writing for more unusual combinations, usually as a result of a commission or having a specific set of musician friends, but combinations also are often the result of whimsy. One of Schumann's chamber music pieces is a set of variations for two pianos, two cellos, and horn!
What follows here is a brief look at some of the most popular forms and works in all of the chamber music repertoire, ordered by number of performers.
It is extremely difficult to pick examples of chamber music for just two performers, given the seemingly endless possibilities of what's available, from music for two violins (Bartok's 44 Duos), to music for flute and harp (Entr'acte from Ibert's Le médecin de son honneur). The most common pairing is a solo instrument and piano, with the piano providing an accompaniment to the melody of the solo instrument, and the duo sonata is a common form. As with most of the sets of works in Beethoven's entire output, his 10 violin sonatas represent a pinnacle of their form. Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47, named "Kreutzer" after its dedicatee, was described by Beethoven himself as being like a small-scale version of a violin concerto. Violin sonatas alone would provide enough material for another article, but as for those for other instruments, the clarinet sonatas of Brahms are popular representatives of the form. They are often performed by violists as well. Frequently, a sonata written for one instrument becomes admired enough that it is transcribed for other instruments. There are also thousands of character pieces and other types of works for two players, from Kreisler's Liebesleid for violin and piano to Piazzolla's L'histoire du tango for flute and guitar.
András Keller, Janos Pilz, violins - Bartok: 44 Duos, "Erdélyi" tánc / Transylvanian Song
Emmanuel Pahud, flute; Mariko Anraku, harp - Ibert: Entr'acte
Augustin Dumay, violin; Maria João Pires, piano - Beethoven: Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47 "Kreutzer", 1. Adagio Sostenuto-Presto
Sabine Meyer, clarinet; Lars Vogt, piano - Brahms: Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 120/1, 1. Allegro appassionato
Joshua Bell, violin; Paul Coker, piano - Kreisler: Liebesleid
Patrick Gallois, flute; Goran Söllscher, guitar - Piazzolla: L'histoire du tango, 1. Bordel 1900
Trios may not be as numerous as duos, but there are still plenty to choose from. The combinations of instruments encountered vary timbres and textures by not only mixing string instruments with piano or wind instruments with piano, but mixing a string and a wind with the piano. Again, it's Beethoven providing a charming example with the "Gassenhauer" Trio, Op. 11. It's an early work, written for clarinet, cello, and piano; and sometimes heard with violin, cello, and piano. Schubert's Piano Trio in B flat major, D. 898, with its lovely Andante movement, and Haydn's Keyboard Trio in G major, H. 15/25, with its Gypsy rondo, are a more standard combination of piano, violin, and cello. Less standard, but extremely effective is the way the flute, viola, and harp blend in Debussy's Sonate en trio, L. 137.
Dieter Klocker, clarinet; Guido Schiefen, cello; Olaf Dreßler, fortepiano - Beethoven: Trio No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 11 "Gassenhauer", 1. Allegro con brio
Trio Wanderer - Schubert: Piano Trio in B flat major, D. 898, 2. Andante
Vienna Piano Trio - Haydn: Keyboard Trio in G major, H. 15/25, Rondo
Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Joshua Smith, flute; Cynthia Phelps, viola - Debussy: Sonate en trio, Interlude
As for quartets, string quartets are the core of the chamber music universe, being the starting point for nearly every composer who endeavors to write for more than two performers (and another subject for another day). Again, the specter of Beethoven looms large. The depths of expression reached in the late quartets -- particularly Nos. 12 through 16, and the Grosse Fuge, which was originally meant to be the finale of No. 13 -- still often baffle and astonish performers and listeners after nearly 200 years. Opera composer Giacomo Puccini's only chamber music is for string quartet and includes the beautiful elegy Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums). The piano quartet is another standard grouping of four players, with those by Brahms, Mozart, and Fauré being some of the most often heard. Mozart also wrote four quartets for flute, violin, viola, and cello, very enjoyable works even though he professed not to like the flute. Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano is an example of a work written for specific performers -- himself and three fellow prisoners of war.
The Lindsays - Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130, Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo
The Lindsays - Beethoven: Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133
Leipziger Streichquartett - Puccini: Crisantemi
Antoine Tamestit, piano; Trio Wanderer - Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15, 1. Allegro molto moderato
Renaud Capuçon, violin; Gérard Causse, viola; Gautier Capuçon, cello; Nicholas Angelich, piano - Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, 1. Allegro
Mozartean Players - Mozart: Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat major, K. 493, 1. Allegro
William Bennett, flute; Grumiaux Trio - Mozart: Quartet for flute, violin, viola & cello No. 1 in D major, K. 285, 1. Allegro
Matthew Schellhorn, piano; soloists of the Philharmonia Orchestra - Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps, 1. Liturgie du cristal
There are customary combinations for quintets, although literature for five players is not as abundant as for two, three, or four players. Put a piano with a string quartet and you have the piano quintet. Dvorák's Piano Quintet in A major, B. 155, is one of the most striking of its kind. A variation on this combination is found in the Schubert evergreen, the "Trout" Quintet: piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. Throwing in the wind instruments, Mozart produced the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 "Stadler" (clarinet plus string quartet) to show off the skills of his friend, Anton Stadler, and the Quintet for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, K. 452. Wind quintets, like that of Carl Nielsen, are an accepted form, but brass quintets are a little more varied in instrumentation -- two trumpets or cornets, one French horn, one trombone or euphonium, and one tuba or bass trombone -- and are not heard as frequently, probably because the big, bright sound isn't thought of as being well-suited to more intimate spaces. In fact, most of the chamber works written natively for brass come from just the last 120 years, although there are numerous ceremonial works going back to the Renaissance era.
Frank Braley, piano; Ensemble Explorations - Dvorák: Piano Quintet in A major, B. 155, 1. Allegro ma non troppo
Beaux Arts Trio, Samuel Rhodes, viola; Georg Maximilian Hortnagel, double bass - Schubert: Quintet in A major, D. 667 "Trout", Andantino (Tema con variazioni)
Dieter Klöcker, clarinet; Leopolder-Quartett - Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581 "Stadler", 1. Allegro
Emmanuel Pahud, flute; Sabine Meyer, clarinet; Jonathan Kelly, oboe; Radek Baborák, french horn; Stefan Schweigert, bassoon - Nielsen: Wind Quintet, FS 100 (Op. 43), 1. Allegro ben moderato
The Wallace Collection - Ewald: Brass Quintet, No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 5, 1. Moderato
The relation between number of players and number of existing compositions is an inverse one, and the available recorded and published world of chamber music for two to five players could easily keep a person occupied for a lifetime. However, there are several well-known pieces for more than five players that anyone who's trying to familiarize himself or herself with chamber music should know.
The few notable sextets suggested here are all for strings only. Brahms wrote two sextets, with the first edging out the second in popularity. That first one, although written at the height of the Romantic era, has very Classical bones. The second was a way for him to work out his feelings over a failed relationship. Tchaikovsky named his sextet Souvenir de Florence because that was where he was able to focus his ideas for it, during an 1890 visit. Given Tchaikovsky's way of writing with an orchestral scope, it is frequently heard performed by full string orchestra. Finally, Schoenberg's early Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, remains one of his most popular works. It is at its essence a tone poem inspired by a poem from Richard Dehmel's Weib und Weit.
L'Archibudelli - Brahms: Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 18, 1. Allegro ma non troppo
L'Archibudelli - Brahms: Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36, 1. Allegro non troppo
Raphael Ensemble - Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, 3. Allegretto moderato
Les Dissonances - Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
One septet worth knowing is the Introduction and Allegro for the combination of harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet by Maurice Ravel. Naturally, it appeals to harpists because there is little enough music written for them to begin with, but it is a beautiful mini-concerto that anyone can enjoy. In 1799, Beethoven composed a septet for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass in the style of a multi-movement serenade, such as those written by Mozart. It was so popular that it was quickly published in arrangements for other instrumental combinations, with Beethoven making his own version for clarinet, cello, and piano three years after the septet was first published.
Isabelle Moretti, harp; Michel Moragues, flute; Pascal Moragues, clarinet; Quatuor Parisii - Ravel: Introduction and Allegro
Melos Ensemble - Beethoven: Septet in E flat major, Op. 20, 5. Scherzo
Along those same congenial lines, one of Dvorák's more famous compositions is the Serenade in D minor, B. 77. It's often referred to as the Serenade for Winds, but it does include parts for a cello and a double bass to help round out the lower range of sound with the original two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, and contrabassoon. It's another one of those works, like the Schoenberg and the Tchaikovsky, that is often performed by larger ensembles because of its orchestral-like dimensions.
Sabine Meyer Wind Ensemble - Dvorák: Serenade for Winds, B. 77, 1. Moderato
Lastly, but by no stretch of the imagination leastly, anyone who wants to learn more about chamber music should listen to Felix Mendelssohn's Octet, Op. 20. Not only is it lushly, warmly, and humorously written, there is the fact that it marked Mendelssohn as a fully mature composer even though he was only 16 years old! It's believed that Mendelssohn wrote it for a family Sunday morning musicale, as a gift for his violin/viola teacher. He later said it was "my favorite of all my compositions."
Yamei Yu, Matthias Wollong, violins; Hartmut Rohde, viola; Michael Sanderling, cello; Leipziger Streichquartett - Mendelssohn: Octet in E flat major, Op. 20, 3. Scherzo
This should be enough to get you started down the multitude of pathways in the world of chamber music. Follow the links to learn more about the pieces mentioned here and to see what else is out there. And don't let the predominance of Beethoven deter you; he was a master of most chamber music forms from whom others learned. There's plenty of their music to choose from. You're bound to find a few things you'll like, and maybe some you'll love and want to share with others.