'Chamber Music': A Prelude


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Prairie Fire asked Charles Bethea to prepare this overview essay about chamber music. We have invited several prominent chamber music groups to prepare future essays on their special approach to the production and/or performance of chamber music. By Charles Henry Bethea Mention “chamber music” in any gathering and the responses will range from loving sighs to a race for the exit. No musical category evokes such a range of reactions except maybe opera. Chamber music is classical music for a small group of performers played and sung in a “chamber” - like a living room, billiard room, parlor or any smaller space. Music has been written for two to 10 musicians in varied combinations, including, more recently, the jazz combo. Fear of chamber music stems from misperceptions: it is old-fashioned, boring, for old people, too complicated, for the elite, requires an “education,” or is hard to understand. A closer examination is in order. It is true that this musical form has been around awhile. Instrumental duos (harpsichord and almost any other instrument) have existed since the Baroque - roughly 1600–1750. But chamber music is being created every day. William Bolcom’s Trio for Soprano, Viola and Piano, “Let Evening Come” was written in 1994 - hardly old-fashioned. The most popular form, the string quartet, was created by Franz Joseph Haydn in the late 1750s and has been going strong ever since. Contemporary quartets (the group) have works in their repertoire starting with Haydn and running through almost every major composer. On most concerts, you can hear a string quartet that is less than 10 years old. And some of the most recognizable classical music around comes from chamber music. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet (KV 452) for clarinet and string quartet may not ring a bell by name or number, but even casual listeners will recognize some of its melodies. One of the better-known chamber works is a composition by Franz Schubert commonly called the Trout Quintet, utilizing an uncommon instrumentation: violin, viola, cello, string bass and piano. For a guy who lived only 31 years (eight less than Mozart), Schubert cranked out a lot of music - much of it chamber music and much of that for singers. He really knew how to write a good parlor song. So, what’s the easiest way to get acquainted with chamber music? Start by just listening. And that isn’t as daunting as it seems. Of course, you can pick up a CD, tune in NET Radio, download a tune on your personal listening device or (take deep breaths) attend a performance. Fortunately for Nebraskans, live chamber music is fairly easy to find. Performances abound in several communities, world-class artists visit regularly and one of the top string quartets in the country, the Chiara, is in residence at the UNL School of Music. And live performance really is the best way to enjoy this rich musical experience, because part of the fun is watching the players. Actually, a Chiara Quartet concert would be perfect. Football and volleyball have nothing on these musicians when it comes to teamwork. Listening to the music, you realize how much they depend on each other. Eye contact, body English, and other forms of nonverbal communication are essential to every note or phrase. The mood is heightened, the emotion more vivid and a sense of anticipation grows. Cellist Greg Beaver sways and turns through a lush phrase, glancing right to violinists Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon, passing the lead to them. They lean into the music as violist Jonah Sirota, sitting across, raises his eyes in acknowledgment and pulls long on his bow, sitting up straight as the sound grows. It is classical music beautifully choreographed in sight and sound, and it pulls you in. You realize what distinguishes this music from other forms. You can hear each line, each player and you can actually see the music being made, all parts added to create the whole. It is a grand, heady experience. So, if you are one of those who looks for the exit when chamber music comes up, you might reconsider. The next time you have an opportunity, slip into a concert and find out for yourself. Because chamber music requires individual effort and achievement, it is perfect for a personal listening experience. You can take it in measured moments, appreciate the talent and passion of each player as well as the whole group, and you don’t have to know a lot about the music to enjoy it. The very idea of chamber music - small group of players in an intimate setting - makes it easier to experience and more fun. Try it. You might find that you like it.

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