In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chamber Music

  • Introduction
  • Early History
  • History Since the Late 18th Century
  • Reference Works
  • Brass

Music Chamber Music
John Baron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0011


Chamber music is music for a small ensemble of solo instruments that is sophisticated and performed in an intimate setting. This excludes almost all vocal music, unaccompanied solo music, symphonic music, and music that is primarily virtuosic. While solo violin and violoncello music is sometimes regarded as chamber music, it lacks the ensemble component. The core repertory originated in Europe from the 17th century to the present, but increasing contributions have come from other areas of the world. The use of the term “chamber music” as defined here is specific for a type of music since the early 19th century, and this definition is applied retroactively to music of the previous two centuries; earlier uses of the term “music for the chamber” (musica da camera or Kammermusik) often include types of music that do not fit into this definition. Although most early chamber music is for bowed string instruments, winds and keyboard instruments have participated from the beginning, and since the onset of the 20th century percussion instruments have also been accepted in chamber music. Electronic instruments, in conjunction with traditional string and wind instruments, are also frequently found in chamber music since the mid-20th century. Technically, traditional jazz is also chamber music, but discussion of this genre belongs to another entry.

Early History

Historically, as pointed out in Baron 1998, the most important aspect of chamber music is “intimacy.” From about 1550 to 1750, music was characterized by the location of its performance: outdoors, on stage, in church, or in private quarters (i.e., chamber music). At this time, several scoring types were popular in the chamber, especially the trio sonata in England, Italy, and Germany. Apel 1990 gives an extensive list of the Italian contributions, Allsop 1992 summarizes the development of the Italian trio sonata, and Jensen 1972 investigates the terminology used at the time for various versions of the Italian sonata. Daverio 1985 shows how the Italian trio sonata developed from English chamber music through German composers to the chamber suite (sonata da camera). The English consort suite was the source for the Germans, as defined and traced by Meyer 1982 and Field 1992. Ashbee and Holman 1996 concentrates on the works of one of the most important English composers of chamber music, John Jenkins, and in the process gives us a broad view of the English development in general. Brewer 2011 presents the Central European styles of late-17th-century chamber music.

  • Allsop, Peter. The Italian “Trio” Sonata: From its Origins until Corelli. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    The author gives us a comprehensive history of the Italian trio sonata and a survey of the known examples of this type of chamber music. This is a readable yet scholarly book.

  • Apel, Willi. Italian Violin Music of the Seventeenth Century. Translated and edited by Thomas Binkley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

    Apel names virtually every 17th-century Italian violinist-composer who wrote sonatas and describes their pieces. A series of nine articles in German from 1973 to 1981 in Archiv für Musikwissenschaft presents the material differently. Originally published in German as Die italienische Violinmusik im 17. Jahrhundert (Beihefte zum Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 21; Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1983).

  • Ashbee, Andrew, and Peter Holman, eds. John Jenkins and His Time: Studies in English Consort Music. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

    Thirteen scholarly essays on Jenkins, an important composer of English chamber music in the 17th century, on his contemporaries, on the ambiances for such music, on the training of performers, on the compositions themselves, on the importation of foreign and local popular music into chamber music, and on the preservation of the original sources.

  • Baron, John H. Intimate Music: A History of the Idea of Chamber Music. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon, 1998.

    This is a sociological presentation of the history of chamber music. The author considers the situations that led composers and performers to create chamber music from c. 1550 in England to the 1990s in Europe and America. There is no other book-length history of chamber music covering the equivalent period.

  • Brewer, Charles E. The Instrumental Music of Schmeltzer, Biber, Muffat and their Contemporaries. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

    Brewer analyzes in detail the chamber music of Schmeltzer in Vienna, Biber, and Muffat in Salzburg, and an array of lesser-known composers in Kromĕříž, Bohemia, in the late 17th century. These composers, under the influence of Athanasius Kircher, made a clear distinction between “sonata” (stylus phantasticus or instrumental music in free form and style) and dance music (stylus hyporchematicus or instrumental music in binary form and regularized rhythms). In turn, the conception of chamber music of these composers influenced the chamber music of the next generation in Italy, North Germany, Sweden, and England.

  • Daverio, John. “In Search of the Sonata da Camera before Corelli.” Acta Musicologica 57 (1985): 195–214.

    DOI: 10.2307/932745

    Before the 1630s, canzona was the popular term in Italy for a one-movement instrumental piece subdivided into several sections. The term sonata da chiesa (“church sonata”) replaced it by the 1630s. Later in the century a collection of dances became known as sonata da camera and, the author argues, this transformation came to Italy from England through Germany.

  • Field, Christopher D. S. “Consort Music, I: Up to 1660.” In The Blackwell History of Music in Britain, Vol. 3, The Seventeenth Century. Edited by Ian Spink, 197–244. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

    In England “consort music” meant chamber music. A “whole consort” consisted of instruments from the same family (for example, five sizes of viols or recorders), while a “broken consort” consisted of instruments from different families (for example, a mixture of viols and recorders). The author describes five kinds of consort music: fantasia, works based on a cantus firmus, variations, dances, and fantasia-suites.

  • Jensen, Niels Martin. “Solo Sonata, Duo Sonata and Trio Sonata: Some Problems of Terminology and Genre in 17th-Century Italian Instrumental Music.” In Festskrift Jens Peter Larsen 1902 14.VI 1972. Edited by Nils Schiørring, Henrik Glahn, and Carsten E. Hatting, 73–101. Copenhagen: Wilhelm Hansen Musik-Forlag, 1972.

    The 17th-century terminology for chamber music was based on the number of performers without considering the keyboard player. The keyboard player is merely an accompaniment. For example, a trio sonata is a piece for three melody instruments accompanied by the keyboard; the violoncello is a melody instrument to be counted.

  • Meyer, Ernst Hermann. Early English Chamber Music: From the Middle Ages to Purcell. 2d ed. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982.

    A Marxist, the author presents this history in its social context. He shows that “the main stylistic developments of chamber music from Jenkins to Purcell are the slow evolution from polyphony to homophony, and the final victory of dramatic and lyrical, of subjectively emotional elements.” The first edition, published in 1946, was reprinted by Da Capo Press in 1971.

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