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Chamber music

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Chamber music

Piano trio | String quartet | Clarinet-violin-piano trio | Furniture music | Piano quartet | Piano quintet | String quintet | String sextet | String trio | Wind quintet

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Chamber music is a form of classical music, written for a small group of instruments which traditionally could be accommodated in a palace chamber. Most broadly, it includes any "art music" that is performed by a small number of performers with one performer to a part. The word "chamber" signifies that the music can be performed in a small room, often with an intimate atmosphere. However, it usually does not include, by definition, solo instrument performances.

hi instruments, but there is no theoretical upper limit to the number of instruments. In practice, chamber works for more than five instruments are unusual, and works scored for more than eight are rare. A piece composed for ten or more players, is generally considered a work for small (chamber) orchestra.

Chamber works exist for many different combinations of instruments, with the string quartet often thought of as the most important. Popular combinations other than the string quartet include the string trio, the piano trio, the piano quintet and the string quintet. In the Baroque period, many works were written for two violins and keyboard (usually with incidental cello accompaniment). Woodwind instruments and brass instruments are used less often. Several composers have written works for mixed groups of wind and strings, and some have written for wind instruments alone, but with the exception of the horn, brass instruments are very rarely used. This is probably in part due to the fact that at the time chamber music was first being written, brass instruments did not have valves, and so could only produce a limited number of notes. Note that there are important exceptions to the above with at least one splendid work composed for nine mixed instruments (Louis Spohr, Nonette, Op. 31) and another which includes a trumpet (Camille Saint-SaŽns, Septet in E flat, Op. 65).

While chamber music is frequently performed in public, the performance venues tend to be halls of smaller size than those used for orchestral concerts. The more intimate acoustics of a smaller space, imitating the drawing rooms in which such music was originally played, are more suitable for a small group of instruments.



While the term is most often applied to instrumental performances, the madrigals of the Renaissance period in the 16th century may be considered chamber music.

The most prominent Baroque form of this type is the trio sonata. In the Classical period, new forms were developed, most importantly the string quartet. These pieces were often written for amateurs, and not intended to be played in public. Many of the string quartets of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, were written to be played for fun and in private, by a string quartet of which they were both members.

One of the composers responsible for bringing chamber music to the concert hall is Ludwig van Beethoven. He wrote chamber music for amateurs, such as the Septet of 1800, but his last string quartets are very complex works which amateurs would have struggled to play. They are also seen as pushing the boundaries of acceptable harmony of that time, and are regarded as some of his most profound works. Following Beethoven in the romantic period, many other composers wrote pieces for professional chamber groups.


Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, edited by Walter Willson Cobbett in 1923, and updated and reprinted in 1963, is a comprehensive guide to chamber music compositions and composers up to that time.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey, British pianist and musicologist, wrote many insightful essays on the subject of chamber music, some of them available in the volume of his Essays in Musical Analysis that he devotes to it.


Many classical musicians enjoy playing chamber music. In most cases, chamber music is performed without a conductor, so each performer has greater artistic freedom. For organizing a performance, the expense is lower and the logistics simpler than that for even a modest orchestra. While the repertoire is not suitable for beginners, there are pieces within the technical and artistic capabilities of most serious amateurs.


This is a partial list of the types of ensembles found in chamber music.

Number of Musicians Name Common Ensembles Instrumentation Comments
2 Duo Piano Duo 2 pno
Instrumental Duo any instrument and pno Found especially as instrumental sonatas; i.e., violin, cello, viola, horn, bassoon, clarinet, flute sonatas).
Duet Piano Duet 1 pno, 4 hands
Vocal Duet voice, pno Commonly used in the art song, or Lieder.
Instrumental Duet 2 of any instrument
3 Trio String Trio vln, vla, vc
Piano Trio vln, vc, pno
Clarinet-violin-piano trio cl, vln, pno Largely a 20th century invention, but growing in popularity; famous compositions by Milhaud and Khachaturian.
4 Quartet String Quartet 2 vln, vla, vc
Piano Quartet vln, vla, vc, pno
vln, cl, vc, pno Rare; famous example: Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps; less famous: Hindemith (1938), Walter Rabl (Op. 1; 1896).
5 Quintet Piano Quintet 2 vln, vla, vc, pno
vln, vla, vc, cb, pno An uncommon instrumentation used by Franz Schubert in his Trout Quintet.
Woodwind Quintet fl, cl, ob, bsn, hrn
String Quintet 2 vln, vla, vc with additional vla or vc
Brass Quintet 2 tr, 1 trm, 1, tuba, 1 hrn
6 Sextet String Sextet 2 vln, 2 vla, 2 vc Important among these are Brahms' Op. 18 and Op. 36 Sextets.
Piano Sextet 2 vln, vla, vc, cb, pno
Piano and Wind Quintet fl, ob, cl, bsn, hrn, pno Such as the Poulenc Sextet.
  cl, 2 vln, vla, vc, pno An example is Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes Op. 34.
7 Septet   cl, hrn, bsn, vln, vla, vc, cb Popularized by Beethoven's Septet Op. 20.
8 Octet   cl, hrn, bsn, 2 vln, vla, vc, cb Popularized by Schubert's Octet D. 803, inspired by Beethoven's Septet.
String Octet 4 vln, 2 vla, 2 vc Popularized by Mendelssohn's String Octet Op. 20.
Double Quartet 4 vln, 2 vla, 2 vc Two string quartets arranged antiphonically.
Wind Octet 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 hrn, 2 bsn
9 Nonet    
Index: vln - violin; vla - viola; vc - cello; cb - double bass; pno - piano; fl - flute; ob - oboe; cl - clarinet; bsn - bassoon; hrn - horn; tr - trumpet; trm - trombone

The standard repertoire for chamber ensembles is rich, and the totality of chamber music in print in sheet music form is nearly boundless. See the articles on each instrument combination for examples of repertoire. Bold text


  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians (ed. Stanley Sadie, 1980)

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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