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Chamber music

Classical chamber music

During the Classical period (roughly 1750-1810) the harpsichord largely gave way to the piano. Many composers wrote sonatas for a solo instrument plus piano. Violin, cello, and flute sonatas were all popular. Mozart and Haydn both wrote violin sonatas and cello sonatas. To learn more about sonata form, read this revision bite.

Woman playing the violin

Violin player

The string quartet is the most familiar type of composition for a chamber group. It has two violins, a viola and a cello – all the parts are equally important. The two violins have the highest parts, the viola plays in the middle and the cello has the lowest part.

In the 18th century, Haydn was the first well-known composer to write string quartets. Since then most leading composers have written string quartets including Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Shostakovitch, John Cage and Stockhausen. Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (1993) was composed for 'four string players in four helicopters flying in the air and playing'.

Most string quartets are in four movements. The standard Classical form is:

  • 1st movement: Allegro (fast) in sonata form
  • 2nd movement: Slow
  • 3rd movement: Minuet and Trio
  • 4th movement: Allegro

Listen to the final movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat, Op.33, No.2. It is marked presto (very fast). Notice how all the instruments have independent parts.

The string quartet was by far the most popular chamber music combination during the Classical and Romantic periods. Some composers wrote string quintets which are string quartets plus an extra viola, cello or double bass. One of the most famous string quintets is Schubert’s String Quintet in C which has two cellos.

Schubert’s Trout Quintet is a piano quintet written for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. It is known as 'the Trout' because the fourth movement is based on his lied (song) Die Forelle (The Trout).

Listen to the opening of the first movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Notice how the themes are divided between the instruments.

Back to The western classical tradition index

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