Chamber Music Forms

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Baroque Chamber Music: Trio Sonata and Solo Sonata

Chamber music is a general term for music to be played (or, more rarely, sung) by small groups-in practice, from two to nine musicians. A string quartet or a woodwind quintet are familiar examples from later periods. The slow movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. .5, for flute, violin, and harpsichord, is in effect a chamber-music interlude within a larger, orchestral piece. The main chamber-music genre of the Baroque
period was the sonata; there were two types, the trio sonata and the solo sonata. Originally the term "sonata'' simply meant "sounded'' - "a piece that is sounded '' as distinct from "cantata'' - "a piece that is sung" In the
Baroque period, the sonata was a chamber-music piece for one to half a dozen instruments, consisting of several short movements in a variety of different forms. In later historical periods, the term "sonata" was used in a different sense, as we shall see.

Trio Sonata and Solo Sonata

The Baroque trio sonata was written for three main instruments, usually two equal-range treble instruments and a bass. And since all music of the time relies on the basso continuo, a trio sonata also includes a keyboard
player, who performs the usual necessary but subsidiary function of filling in harmonies at the harpsichord or organ. The Baroque solo sonata, too, nearly always includes a bass part with continuo that is subsidiary to the
single main solo instrument (though Bach provided some superb exceptions in his sonatas for violin alone and for cello alone). The names of these sonatas can be deceptive, then. A Baroque trio sonata requires four players - three main players and one other, the continuo keyboard playerwhile a solo sonata usually requires three. By far the most common trio-sonata combination was two violins plus cello. We have heard this combination in Vivaldi's "La folia'' Variations. Other possibilities were two oboes plus bassoon, two flutes plus cello, or flute and violin plus cello (as in Brandenburg No. 5) - all plus harpsichord. Bach wrote trio sonatas for the organ: right hand and left hand plus pedals. Baroque solo sonatas were composed for all the instruments that were popular at the time: violin,
recorder, flute, oboe, bassoon, and cello.


Form in the Baroque Sonata

The same formal principles apply to the trio sonata and the solo sonata, though in the matter of form, too, simple definitions are hard to formulate. Once again, any formulation has to take history into consideration. Early in the Baroque period, the sonata was essentially improvisation and amorphous in form. Later it was standardized into
two distinct types, or prototypes:

  • The sonata da chiesa
    - church sonata, containing a number of short slow movements running into fast movements. Fast movements are often in a loose fugal style. A common plan is slowfast-slow-fast.
  • The sonata da camera
    - chamber sonata, containing a series of distinct, unconnected movements in dance form. Essentially, this kind of sonata was simply a chamber music suite (see below).
  • By the time of Bach and Handel, however, the distinction had largely broken down. Most sonatas from the late Baroque period include elements from both of the two prototypes.

String Quartet

The most important of all the chamber music forms was the string quartet, for two violins, viola and cello. Haydn occupies the same central position in its early development as he does in that of the symphony. He wrote his first string quartets in the 1750s, his last in 1802-3; there are about 70 altogether. containing much of his most subtle and refined music. He had great influence on Mozart (24 years his junior), who composed 26 string quartets and indeed dedicated six of the finest of them to Haydn. All these are four-movement works, usually fast-slow-minuetfast, though sometimes the minuet is placed second and the slow movement third. Sonata form is virtually always used in the first movement, and often in the Slow movement and the finale (the latter is often a sonata-rondo). Variation form works well for the string quartet combination and composers often used it, generally for slow movements or finales - rarely in a first movement, where the intellectual ''arguing'' nature of sonata form seems to be needed in this genre, always regarded as a serious and intimate one designed for a knowledgeable audience. Beethoven wrote 17 string quartets, much expanding the form - from the 25minute scale of the Haydn-Mozart era to 40 minutes or more. The searching, profoundly original quartets of his last years mostly abandon the four-movement pattern ; one has as many as seven, played without a break. That is exceptional; the composers of the next generations nearly always wrote four-movement quartets. Almost all the major composers used the form : Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann,
Brahms, Dvorak, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartok, Shostakovich, to name a few of the most important. Its central classical tradition was enlarged by the delicate, French-style textures of Debussy, and powerful powerful, dynamic writing and folksong-based rhythms.

Works for string trio, quintet, sextet or even octet follow essentially the same history as the string quartet but with different textures. There are string trios by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, but for nineteenth-century composers the trio sound was too thin and it was not until the twentieth, with Hindemith, Schoenberg and Webern, that the form was again seriously used. The string quintet has a richer history. Boccherini, an Italian contemporary of Haydn's, was the first prolific user of the form : he wrote over 100 (as well as a similar number of quartets), mostly for two violins, viola and two cellos. Mozart wrote six quintets - two are among his very finest works - with a viola rather than a cello as the extra instrument: Schubert's single quintet, one of his supreme achievements, has two cellos (and a resulting fulness of sound). Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvorak are others to have written string quintets ; Brahms, with his love of thick, rich textures, wrote two sextets for two each of violins, violas and cellos, and Mendelssohn wrote an octet (four violins, two each of violas and cellos). Less central to the repertory are the miscellaneous works that have been written for wind instruments. A quantity of flute quartets (flute, violin, viola and cello) comes from the late eighteenth century; but the clarinet's particular beauty of tone and ability to blend with strings drew fine quintets from Mozart, Weber and Brahms. Mixed groups (clarinet, bassoon, horn and strings) are used in the Septet of Beethoven and the Octet of Schubert, following an eighteenth-century ''divertimento'' tradition of lightweight chamber music. For wind instruments alone there is a considerable eighteenth-century repertory of serenade-type music for the band ensembles of the time, for example two each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns; Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven wrote for such groups. Later, the wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn) was popular with minor composers and with twentieth-cenruty French ones.


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