The pieces played by string quartets and other similarly-sized ensembles today got the name for their genre back in the 18th century when private performances in small halls or private chambers was much more common than the large-scale classical concerts we hear today. Austrian composer Joseph Haydn is often referred to as “the father of chamber music” because he established the string quartet as the most common ensemble for these chamber performances and also composed music which was stylistically distinct from other ensemble music. Among other compositions for chamber-sized ensembles, Haydn composed 83 string quartets during his lifetime.
While it is not without its challenges, chamber music often holds a place close to the heart of most instrumentalists. Each part is composed in a way that makes every instrument important, meaningful, and absolutely essential. Chamber ensembles do not have — nor do they have a need for — a conductor, and the chamber ensemble is historically older than the symphony. The absence of a clear artistic director can present challenges in rehearsal and performance, but most musicians find their added responsibility and contribution to the music they produce to be exhilarating. Every musician contributes to the rehearsal by offering suggestions and insight. They ask questions when their musical role or contribution is unclear, and they listen to the music from their own unique perspective in order to match the style, dynamic level, tempo, and phrasing of their colleagues. Musicians in a chamber ensemble communicate while they are performing through the breath they draw, eye contact, and — in the case of string players — location of the fingers or bow on the string.
I have never liked performing chamber music even though attending chamber music performances is something I will never tire of. Rehearsing as part of a chamber ensemble is enjoyable and exciting at times, but for reasons I can’t fully justify, I could easily do without my performance of these works. The best explanation I can come up with is that when you have good social and musical relationships with your chamber ensemble colleagues chamber music becomes a set of secrets. There are memories and conversations, stressors and pleasures, histories and any number of personal connections hidden in the music of a string quartet, and to ultimately perform all of this onstage seems to me just as awkward and inappropriate as reading your diary aloud to a room of eager strangers. However, as an audience member, I think some of the most interesting and enjoyable performances are chamber works because they give me the impression that I am being told special secrets about the players and their music because those players I’m listening to exude a perfect mix of talent and confidence.
I am probably in the minority of musicians when it comes to my point of view on performance, but I almost entirey attribute this to ongoing anxiety problems I face as a performer. Regardless of my discomfort, I try to play chamber music whenever I can, wherever I can. I’m happy to play either violin part or even the viola if necessary, and I find great pleasure in sight reading new works with colleagues.
At the American Institute of Musical Studies this summer I had the privilege of playing second violin in a quartet of talented musicians from around the United States. In our first meeting, we read through a number of works for string quartet including William Grant Still’s Panama Dances and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 1 before agreeing to focus our rehearsals on Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in a minor, Op. 13. When it comes to string writing, Mendelssohn has hit after hit, and his Op. 13 quartet is no exception. It is one of those pieces that you can return to year after year and still make something new out of the old notes. As if this wasn’t treat enough for me, I got one final quartet “hurrah” this afternoon when I was invited to fill in as second violinist for a sight reading session with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It never ceased to be terrifying, but life doesn’t get much better than reading Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Mozart with members of one of this country’s best orchestras on a summer afternoon.