Private Passions

Mark Wigglesworth
Monday, September 5, 2011

I've often felt composers are at their most inspired when writing chamber music. Apart from those who haven't composed any significant chamber pieces at all, the greatest works by the greatest composers seem to be those that need the fewest number of people to perform them. If I could listen to only one piece by Beethoven, it would be a string quartet; if it was Brahms, I’d choose a violin sonata; Schubert, a piano trio; Schumann, a song. Even 20th-century composers like Bartók, Shostakovich, and Debussy are at their most profound when not engaging in the larger-scale practicalities of a concerto, symphony, or opera. 

Orchestras require the most public of buildings for the most public of statements, but a private chamber is all you need for the more inwardly expressive medium of chamber music. It's a space for thoughts not speeches, a baring of souls too personal to be articulated 'out-loud'. Even Hamlet's soliloquies seem declamatory in comparison. Originally not meant to be listened to at all, at least not by anyone other than the musicians themselves, and played by amateurs as much as professionals, chamber music is essentially an active, rather than passive pastime. Written for social as well as musical interaction, it allows you to express emotions that you might not otherwise share with people you don't know. The absence of an audience creates an experience as private as the relationship between novelist and reader. Listening to great chamber music performances, one feels like a privileged intruder, only a little bit aware that perhaps one shouldn't really be eavesdropping.

Some chamber pieces have been turned into orchestral ones. But I wonder if Mahler's reworkings of Schubert and Beethoven quartets don't lose more than they gain. The extra power of the larger versions somehow diminishes the inner strength of the original and the loss of individual personality that solo groups provide can work against the music's inherent identity. Conversely, though there are moments in the chamber version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde where you miss the weight of a full orchestra's sound, the extra subtlety and sensitivity reveals the essence of this work's fragile sensibilities. When Mahler himself said that he didn't know how it could be conducted, perhaps he was unconsciously admitting that he'd actually written a piece of chamber music. Was he acknowledging that the very presence of a conductor potentially acts against the chamber music qualities of an orchestral piece?

Chamber music is a delicate sound world held together by the ability of musicians to connect with each other. There's no reason why the heightened intensity and greater flexibility that this creates should not be possible in all music. Conducting does not have to inhibit interaction between players. I certainly know that when I'm able to encourage that internal communication, it's as near as I come to being involved with the essence of chamber music, and as a consequence the closest I get to sharing in the highest achievements of the greatest composers.

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