When I first heard chamber music, it seemed an acquired taste, and subsequently a taste I acquired. So I will recite some personal history without any illusion that it matters because it was my experience. On the contrary: I think the story I know could be related to everyone’s exploration of music, because however you learn about the treasures of music, you explore a web of relations.
As I recall, the first chamber music I ever heard was a recording of the six Bartók string quartets on three LPs in a boxed set given to me by Susan Combs, herself a gifted singer as a soloist and in choirs, and although that was many moons ago, I have heard that she is still a fine singer to this day. And I know that she is still a friend in high regard to this day.
But I knew something about chamber music before I ever heard it, because I read with gusto—or even with what John Simon once called “struthious esurience”—books about music history and magazines about recordings. So I absorbed information that let me know that some of the most imposing musicians had reputations that were structured in multiple parallels. Mozart is a particularly outrageous example of this, but even he is not unique in that regard. There is a lot of Mozart that could disappear without much damage to his musical reputation, and I don’t mean simply negligible works. Would Mozart’s be a familiar name if only his operas survived to us? Or if only his symphonies survived to us? Or piano concertos? I think the answers to these hypotheticals are obvious. Mozart’s exploitative father thought that if his son had not been so lazy, he would have been the best violinist there was. And we remember that the violin concertos of Mozart have early Kochel numbers. Fine pieces, those—the kid had a way about him.
But in the hypothetical vein (as distinct from the hypodermic one), we might also consider a question about Beethoven: Would he be remembered today if he had died young? My answer is yes, indeed. From the beginning Beethoven wrote superbly in various combinations of instruments and had made his mark even before he separated himself from others. The first symphony, the first piano concerto, the early sonatas for piano and violin (as he labeled them), the six string quartets of Op. 18—these are of prime quality in themselves. Or to cut the cake the other way, if Beethoven had written only piano sonatas or even only sonatas for piano and violin, he would still have a big reputation. I can’t say the same for the operatic side, however.
What I am getting at is that if a composer has a certain appeal, then a vetting of his chamber music is definitely and highly recommended. When I was a kid, I heard mostly standard symphonic and piano repertory, and that was it. But when I learned that Schumann’s Piano Quintet was a superior composition even as compared with the familiar masterpieces, I was struck and realized that I had some homework to do—work of the most delightful kind. Strangely enough, the audition was by way of Ossip Gabrilowitsch and the Flonzaley Quartet—I had been connected to the son-in-law of Mark Twain, who was also the first conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And I was soon to find out that such musical experience paid dividends while watching and listening to the best of the Karloff/Lugosi joint appearances in The Black Cat (directed by Edgar Ulmer in 1934). It’s a small world.
Or to take another example, it’s rather easy to enjoy various compositions of Tchaikovsky—symphonies, concertos, ballet suites—but we miss something vital if we have not come across the outrageous Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50, the most formally daring of his major compositions and, I would say, even his greatest. So we begin to understand that chamber music is not to be neglected for any reason. There is nothing subordinate about it. Do we have a prejudice against chamber music because it is not “concert music”? The best place to hear chamber music is in a private house, and I have enjoyed that experience. But of course, the most obvious access today is the concert hall. So if we listen at home, over the radio or from recordings, that is not inappropriate. The point is that chamber music is sometimes the best work of the best composers, and for that there is no acceptable substitute. By not writing any chamber music, Hector Berlioz is an outrageous exception to this truth, whereas other major French composers, such as Franck, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, are not.
Beethoven himself declared his String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131, to be his greatest composition, and he had cogent reasons for thinking so, as attention will confirm. I have had various sets of the Beethoven String Quartets, one of which (by the Guaneri Quartet) I gave to a golfing buddy who loved those compositions. Today, when I listen to those pieces, I do so mostly to the Busch Quartet and to others of their recordings as well. Adolf Busch shares with Joseph Szigeti the distinction of playing the violin with a studied refusal of obvious appeal. And those old recordings stand up staunchly today.
From Adolf Busch and his relatives and even an in-law, I learned something about Schubert’s chamber music. Take away from Schubert his symphonies, songs, impromptus, and piano sonatas, and you still have a tremendous achievement by the man who died at 31. The octet, the two piano trios, the Fantasy for violin and piano, the “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet and others, the “Cello Quintet” in C major—the inspiration is intimidating, profoundly stirring, and indispensable. Mozart was commissioned to write a Requiem at the end of his life, and somehow Schubert was, too—or so it seems.
You might suppose reasonably enough that since he wrote consummate works including a perfect concerto and a perfect symphony, Felix Mendelssohn would have been satisfied. Or that he wrote the finest composition ever penned by a 16-year-old, the Octet, which I believe is, technically speaking, a double quartet, but no less a masterpiece for that. But no! I have been ambushed by Felix more than once over the radio, blundering into the presence of his string quintets, and they are grand, though one of them was written when he was aged 17. So we see as with several others, that their measure can only be taken if we look at the entirety of their contribution. Or, in the case of Felix, underrated even today, their use-by date. But the chamber compositions I have mentioned hardly exhaust what he gave us.
But to cover the ground, I have to move on to insist that the mighty composer of four symphonies and four concertos that everyone knows Brahms by would be even better known by his chamber music. There are famous chamber aspects of the second piano concerto and of various symphonic movements, and in one case, the situation was reversed by Schoenberg’s bold transcription for orchestral forces of the first piano quartet, as first heard in Los Angeles in 1937, conducted by Otto Klemperer. Culture does get around! Brahms’s first string quartet, or a part of the first movement, shows up in Kiss Me Deadly (directed by Robert Aldrich, 1955), to remind us that we wouldn’t want to be high-hatted by Mike Hammer, as if he paid any attention. Besides, there are so many other appealing compositions, the Piano Quintet being only one, that the realization starts to sink in: The whole Brahms shtick is essentially a chamber thing.
And if we can deal with that, then it’s easier to accept it from the other Brahms, the one Brahms recognized. Dvorák is a chamber-music artist as well, even if he did write nine symphonies and all those tone poems for orchestra and the three concertos. There is so much good or even great chamber music by Dvorák that it’s rather a stretch to take it all in—and a great pleasure as well. Did the great Czech ever write anything more pleasing than the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, or the last two of his Piano Trios? Another man of great gifts, Leos Janácek, is perhaps known as the greatest operatic composer of the 20th century; and if not, he ought to be. Even so, if we neglect his two string quartets, we will have lost touch with him. Those, and his Sinfonietta, are as essential to his identity as anything he ever wrote. When we think of Sibelius, there are the seven symphonies, the violin concerto, and all the tone poems and mythological pieces—but we would expect a mature string quartet, and he gave us nothing less in his Opus 56, the “Voces Intimae.”
So circling back around to the beginning, today I listen to the Bartók string quartets as rendered by the Emerson Quartet, and I am far from alone in doing so. And just as Brahms was aware of the Beethovenian precedence, so was Bartók. And his quartets are probably the greatest response to that precedence that we know. That particular dialogue or dialectic among giants is at an exalted level, but the point about the necessity of chamber music writes its own ticket, and sometimes surprisingly. Obsessed with Mozart pourri, Hummel wrote a lot of chamber music. Obsessed with practicing, Henselt wrote a piano trio. Obsessed with the piano, Chopin wrote a piano trio and a sonata for cello and piano. Obsessed with opera, Verdi studied chamber music and wrote a string quartet. Obsessed with obsession and Wagner, Bruckner wrote a string quintet. Later to be obsessed with symphonic gigantism, Mahler wrote (at age 16) the first movement and part of the scherzo of a piano quartet. Didn’t everybody? It’s more a case of Who Didn’t? rather than Whodunit. When so many films flaunt Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major and Barber’s Adagio, it’s past time to explore the world of chamber music.