Thought by most to be "music written for a small ensemble," this definition is correct, but incomplete.
A form of classical music, chamber music is generally written for a small group of instruments,
with no two parts doubled and no conductor in sight. Initially created for performances in a
bedroom or palace "chamber," the artform gained fashion as an intimate activity among friends.
Some of history's greatest composers used chamber music as a vehicle to create
their most profound and important works. Others used the medium as an outlet for fun and lighthearted
entertainment. The best composers often did both. Many string quartets of Haydn and Mozart were
cheerful and humorous, intended for intimate groups, of which they were each a member. Beethoven
had a different agenda altogether, creating in his late years some of the most challenging music
for string quartets in the history of the genre.
Although the art form takes its name from those early performances in "chamber"
settings, it was eventually elevated to the concert hall. While the works of Haydn or Mozart
could often be undertaken (if less than professionally) by amateurs and were well suited for
the private homes of friends, Beethoven's works were much more technically complex.
The Ariel Quartet on stage
Individual parts became difficult even for professional musicians and nearly
impossible for the amateurs that had once championed the medium. Although it remained an intimate
medium, chamber music gravitated to the concert halls, bringing a new level of musicianship to the
works of the great masters.
Spanning four centuries, chamber music, as we understand it began in the
Baroque era with early trio sonatas (pieces written for two solo instruments and a basso
continuo line) by Bach and Telemann. The Classical era saw the expansion of chamber music with the development of the string quartet - attributed to Haydn.
Although string quartets overshadow other chamber music combinations in their
popularity, there are a tremendous variety of instrumental groupings. String trios (violin, viola and cello),
piano trios (violin, cello and piano), and piano quartets (violin, viola, cello and piano) are but a
few of the additional string combinations.
Many combinations also exist for winds and strings, including a clarinet trio
(violin, clarinet and piano) by Mozart and one by Beethoven, flute quartets (violin, viola,
cello and flute) by Mozart and a clarinet quintet (two violins, viola, cell and clarinet) by Brahms.
Bassonist Victoria King and hornist Bryan Kennedy perform Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Winds
The 20th Century saw the rise of chamber music combinations for woodwinds and
brass. Works range from trios such as Poulenc's masterpiece (trumpet, horn, and trombone) to
woodwind quintets (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon) by Carter, Neilson, and Schuller
and brass quintets (two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba) by Arnold, Dahl, and many others.