Music at its most aristocratic - and democratic

25th February 2000 at 00:00
WE tend to think of classical music in terms of either virtuoso pianists or else massed ranks of blowers, beaters, and scrapers, but until the late 18th century, concert halls as such did not exist: orchestral concerts took place in churches and theatres, and the gargantuan bands which composers such as Bruckner and Mahler took for granted were therefore unimaginable.

The term "chamber music" means music to be performed in an intimate setting - but that setting was never precisely defined. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was often a royal chamber, as at the court of King Philip V of Spain. The only thing that lifted him out of his melancholy was music, and he had the good fortune to attract top-notch musicians to his aid. Day after day, Domenico Scarlatti played him the harpsichord sonatas he was composing, and since he wrote 565 of them the choice was huge. On the other hand, Farinelli, the star castrato of his time, serenaded the king daily with his favourite four songs.

Many grand houses had their resident musicians, who played before, during, and after meals. And gradually musical forms developed which suited this intimate environment: the trio, the quartet, the quintet - any instrumental combination in which each player acted as a solo "voice".

Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all become fascinated by the potential of such ensembles, and wrote some of their greatest works for them.

Since then, composers have tended to separate out into those who want s massive a sound as possible - Tchaikovsky, Strauss - and those who prefer to work in a relatively miniature format, such as Britten and Poulenc.

The Romantic symphony orchestra is outmoded: fewer and fewer composers are writing for it. This is partly because big orchestras are economically problematic, but partly also because their sound is inevitably cruder than that of a small ensemble.

Chamber music is purer, and intellectually more bracing. It may be music in its most aristocratic form, but it is also music at its most democratic, in that much of it is expressly designed for amateur players - though 18th-century amateurs were formidably good.


CAVATINA Chamber Music Trust was launched in 1998 at a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London, with the aim of attracting young people to chamber music concerts by offering reduced price tickets and arranging concerts and talks by musicians in schools and small venues.

All the musicians involved in the Cavatina scheme are professionals. The children are encouraged to participate in the performances and question-and-answer sessions.

The Trust, which initially concentrated its efforts on the South - east, is now offering schools and ensembles the opportunity to participate in the scheme nationwide. It will provide guidelines on how to set up and run a Cavatina scheme and assist in choosing suitable ensembles for school's concerts.

Tel: 020 7435 8479 Fax: 020 7431 2737.

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