Bach to Basics III: Chamber Music

The final installment in this round of our Bach to Basics series dips its toes into the wide world of chamber music.  Read closely if you want to ace next week’s quiz…


In contemporary usage, chamber music refers to works composed for small groups of musicians, each performing their own individual partTraditionally the ensembles needed to be small enough to fit into a “chamber” (room) in a private home. Early in the genre’s history, the performers were often skilled amateurs, though professional chamber ensembles began to be established quite early on.

chalkboard listing types of chamber music ensembles

Chamber music encompasses a huge variety of different types of ensembles, with composers free to select combinations of instruments that suit their creative needs (and take advantage of the musicians at their disposal!). Let’s take a look at three of the most common, plus a few of the important ideas associated with chamber music…


The smallest unit of chamber ensemble is the sonata, which calls for an instrumental soloist (most frequently a string instrument) and a pianist. While certain sonatas treat the soloist as star and the pianist as accompanist, others give both musicians equal footing.

Take a walk through sonata history with these three playlists…

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Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas, 1798–1812
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Brahms’ String Sonatas, 1862–1886
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Twentieth-Century Sonatas


1790 painting of Haydn playing string quartets
Joseph Haydn playing string quartets, anon. circa 1790.

During the late eighteenth century, chamber music (particularly the string quartet) was closely linked to intellectual gatherings known as salons. The art of conversation was highly valued; democratic dialogue and refined repartee were crucial characteristics of the period.

These concepts were regularly applied to chamber music, with each performer taking part in a sort of musical conversation. Haydn’s first quartets were even published in Paris as “quatuors dialogués” (dialogued quartets).

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Haydn and Mozart are particularly associated with the art of musical conversation. Keep this in mind as you listen to two emblematic quartets: Haydn’s “Emperor” and Mozart’s “Dissonance!

▶️ Click here to watch the Amadeus Quartet perform both pieces!

One hears four rational people conversing with one another and believes he gains something from their discourse while learning the peculiarities of the instruments.   – Goethe on the string quartet


By far the most common trio configuration, the piano trio adds a second instrumental soloist into the mix. The genre’s history traces the technical developments of the instruments (particularly the piano) and performers. We also regularly find trios featuring wind instruments rather than strings.

play button with piano trioA trio of trios! Immerse yourself in the early Romantic piano trio, performed Daniil Trifonov, Ilya Gringolts, and Truls Mørk.

▶️ Click here to watch them perform Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms!


During the early nineteenth century, chamber music began to move outside the private “chambers” it had traditionally been performed in. The repertoire was becoming increasingly challenging and professional chamber ensembles began to form.

In parallel, this period marked a crucial transition in the ways musicians earned their living, with many moving from the patronage system (in which they were sponsored by the aristocracy) to earning wages for engagements. More and more musicians—and chamber music—entered the concert hall.

Beethoven played a key role in chamber music’s transition to the professional realm. His chamber music often featured notoriously demanding passages, taking genres like the string quartet in particular to new (sometimes controversial) heights. Let’s take a look at his eerie Ghost Trio in a landmark filmed concert from Christopher Nupen…

▶️ Click here to watch Jacqueline Du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, and Pinchas Zukerman perform the entire trio! 


The string quartet has long been heralded as one of the most “democratic” musical forms, with each of the four parts attributed equal importance. Haydn is generally thought of as “the father” of the string quartet and his 68 quartets helped establish the genre as we know and love it today.

play button with stockhausen string quartetModern composers have taken the genre to new (often unexpected) heights. In Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet the musicians perform in separate helicopters…

▶️ Click here to a fascinating documentary about it!

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Stretching across several centuries, the repertoire for string quartet is extremely varied.

▶️ Click here to discover the masterworks of the genre with our essential string quartet playlist!

playlist button with 8 cellistsAnd a final bonus to finish up our very quick overview of chamber music: a playlist of works for larger chamber ensembles! Quintets, sextets, octets, and more…

▶️ Click here to check out the playlist

Just joining us? Catch up on the two previous episodes of the Bach to Basics series here: The Symphony, The Concerto. Make sure you study up! There will be a quiz in a few days…

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