The modern conception of chamber mus. may be said to date from Haydn. For a century and more before his time nearly all mus. was supplied with a figured bass guided by which a harpsichordist extemporized a background: in earlier times we find something more like our idea of chamber mus. in 16th-cent. mus. for viols.
Most composers have contributed to the now abundant repertory of chamber mus., and so far have we departed from the early 19th-cent. idea of the meaning of the term that ‘chamber concerts’ are common. Such concerts date effectively from the 1830s when the Müller Brothers Str. Qt. began touring Europe with a fine classical repertory. Since that period there have been many world-famous str. qts., pf. trios, and other groups. Despite much concert-room perf., however, chamber mus. still retains some right to its name, since it is often treated as ‘the music of friends’ and is much practised privately.
The term Chamber Music (Kammermusik) was used by Hindemith for 7 comps. between 1921 and 1927; these incl. a pf. conc., vc. conc., va. conc., viola d'amore conc., and org. conc., the orch. in most cases comprising at least 12 players, sometimes more. His wind quintet, 1922, he called Kleine (Little) Kammermusik.
chamber music, ensemble music for small groups of instruments, with only one player to each part. Its essence is individual treatment of parts and the exclusion of virtuosic elements. Originally played by amateurs in courts and aristocratic circles, it began to be performed by professionals only in the 19th cent. with the rise of the concert hall. In the broadest sense it existed as early as the Middle Ages. The ricercare and the concerted canzone of the 16th cent. are properly chamber music, although unlike later forms they were not for specific instruments but were usually performed by voices and whatever instruments were at hand. During the baroque period the chief type was the trio sonata. About 1750 the string quartet with its related types—trio, quintet, sextet, septet, and octet—arose. As developed by Haydn and Mozart the quartet became the principal chamber-music form. It was used by Beethoven and Schubert, whose quartets are the last of the classical period, and by the chief composers of the romantic period—Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Franck, d'Indy, and Reger. In the early 20th cent. the coloristic possibilities of the quartet were exploited by Debussy and Ravel. More recently the different forms of chamber music have been used extensively for experiments in atonality, percussive rhythms, and serial techniques by such composers as Schoenberg, Bartók, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky, Sessions, and Piston.
See D. F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Chamber Music (1944, repr. 1989); W. W. Cobbett, ed., Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (3 vol., 2d ed. 1963, repr. 1987); H. E. Ulrich, Chamber Music (2d ed. 1966); M. Berger, Guide to Chamber Music (1985); J. M. Keller, Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide (2010).