Classical music has evolved such that it is performed on parallel pathways – the big symphonic concert and the small chamber performance.
The difference between the two used to be public performance versus party performance, but now we pay good money to hear both symphonies and quartets.
Some composers are better known for one or the other but most put eggs in both baskets. The difference in style between the two can be instructive. So I decided to spend two hours spotlighting composers’ chamber music cheek-by-jowl with their orchestral stuff.
If any broad statement can be made about the difference between the two, we can perhaps argue that chamber music tends to reflect a composer’s more advanced conceptions, if only because of the belief that the chamber audience will be more hip. I don’t know that this is the case today but in the 1800s it was so.
Mozart and Beethoven both nurtured reputations as concert pianists as well as composers. Mozart wrote two dozen piano concertos and Beethoven made five, while Beethoven also composed the finest collection of piano sonatas of any composer to this day.
Schubert and Schumann were better known for their chamber works, even though Schubert wrote nine symphonies and Schumann did all he could to put his four symphonies before the public.
Brahms’ four symphonies were all late works, after decades of composing mostly chamber music, but his craftsmanship and gift for harmony can be found in both.
Dvorak’s nine symphonies have fared well, most particularly the last three, but aficionados of chamber music put Dvorak in the top rank on the strength of his quartets alone.
Tchaikovsky is honored more for orchestra works, which means his excellent chamber music is often a pleasant surprise to someone who knows mainly the symphonies, ballets and tone poems.
In the 20th century Shostakovich is of particular interest, because he told his dissident friends that he wrote three kinds of music: music for money, music for the Soviet censors, and music “for the desk drawer,” which we understand to mean, chamber music that is more personal, more dissident, more heart wrenching than some of his orchestra works.
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