Chamber Music: 300 Years and Going Strong
...But what IS chamber music?
For those of you (like myself prior to researching for this article), the phrase "chamber music" may evoke images of men and women in powdered wigs and frilly sleeves - basically the entire cast of Amadeus. And while most of us can kinda sorta describe what chamber music might be, we have a hard time putting a strong definition to it. Well, according to this online source, chamber music is "a form of classical music that is composed for a small group of instruments - traditionally a group that could fit in a palace chamber or a large room...a small number of performers, with one performer to a part [or instrument]."
Ah, yes! Like string quartets and such, correct? Correct. Don't be fooled by the stereotypical images attached to this genre, though. Chamber music isn't boring, stuffy classical pieces you listen to at the doctor's office or in your Arts in Western Civilization class in college. Chamber music, from its inception during the Medieval period all the way to its "golden years" with Haydn, Mozart, and the classical composers, was used as a reflection of modern technology and the society around it. It was the cutting edge of the sounds and melodies of the music industry. Not only that, but it was the first creation of an intimate conversation (musically speaking) between instruments. Violin would play phrase one, cello would respond with phrase two, etc. It was Joseph Haydn who championed and established this conversational style which then took over chamber music for another 200 years.
And while the bones and structure of chamber music today still reflects that classic Haydn formula, it has evolved with society to provide audiences with a new, connective experience with music.
"Chamber Music Concerts are one of the more intimate ways you can experience music. With just a few musicians, Chamber Music allows the listener to really focus in and feel what each individual musician and composer is trying to convey. In today's world, with all the distractions we have in our busy lives, Chamber Music gives us a special opportunity to stop, focus, and connect."
- Kayla Seabrook, Iris Orchestra
Chamber music is the only form to be described as "the music of friends." Audience members are invited into the musical conversation being held by the intrumentalists and/or vocalists without the pressure or necessity to speak - like friends. They can sit and listen without feeling excluded or isolated. It's the most direct indirect connection between musicians and listeners, so subtle that listeners may not realize it is happening until it is over and they leave feeling emotionally full and psychologically engaged. While early chamber music reflected advances in technology by embracing it into the instruments, one could argue that today's chamber music reflects technology by decidedly rejecting it and pulling people away from it.
Another way chamber music has evolved to reflect today's society is within its performance venues. Orginally this music was performed in homes or the chambers of palaces. Over time it moved into concert venues and performance halls. Now chamber music is joining the leagues of "guerilla style" performance art with pop-up concerts in shopping centers, coffee shops, even street cars. Some of the more innovative groups adopting a go-to-the-people performance style include Classical Revolution, Simple Measures of Seattle, and The Providence String Quartet (who offer impromptu concerts out of a storefront in one of Providence's poorer neighborhoods). Audiences can't always make it to concert venues because of personal, financial, or geographical restrictions. These groups bypass those restrictions by bringing the music to the audience instead of trying to entice the audience to come see the music.
Even other performing arts groups are evolving to include chamber music, bringing it to new audiences and demographics and showcasing the versatility of this musical form. Opera Memphis premiered a brand new chamber opera, As One, this past August with Crosstown Arts during their Continuum Arts Festival. Featuring four string players and two vocalists, this opera challenges modern societal views with a transgender protagonist and the telling of her journey from adolescence into adulthood, an intimate story beautifully reflected in the intimate string quartet instrumentals.
Well, I need to get some of this chamber music in my life! What do I do now? Easy-peasy. Memphis has its own chamber music group - The Beethoven Club - which was established back in the early 1800's! You can also look into upcoming performances by local symphonies, orchestras, and musical groups like Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Iris Orchestra, and The University of Memphis School of Music. Periodically they will offer chamber music programs, all at very reasonable prices. Need a chamber music fix RIGHT NOW? Join Opera Memphis and Iris Orchestra for Words + Music, an intimate concert featuring the Iris Artist Fellows and the Handorf Company Artists. For only $25/ticket, this program will give you a nice dose of chamber pieces, vocal performances, and instrumental showcases from four rising musicians in the classical field. Tickets for Words + Music can be purchased HERE.