Why aren't Romantic composers more well known for their chamber work?

Edited: February 14, 2020, 10:55 PM · ...Aside from Brahms, who is a very "Classical" romanticist, there are fewer romantic chamber works that are canonized and oftenly played than the vastly more common Classical, Modern, and last but not least, Baroque works.
Asides from Sonatas for Piano + solo instrument, you rarely see chamber works being mentioned as Romanticists masterpieces alongside the endless Concertos and Symphonies etc.

I know there are great works by them, cause I've listened to a bunch, I wonder why they are fewer than other epochs, and less regarded as well.

Bonus question: What is your favorite Romantic string quartet?

Replies (20)

Edited: February 14, 2020, 11:47 PM · Isn't Mendelssohn also best known for his chamber music? I think one big reason is that a number of major Romantic composers wrote little or no chamber music. I'm thinking of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Rachmaninoff in particular. I do think the chamber music of Tchaikovsky and Grieg is underplayed, especially in comparison to their own other works.

My favorite Romantic string quartet is Borodin No. 2, closely followed by Brahms No. 2 and Dvorak "American". (In fact, they are three of my top four string quartets at the moment, along with Shostakovich No. 3.) But I might be one of the rare people here whose preferred chamber genre is NOT the string quartet; I greatly prefer string quintets (either viola or cello) and piano quartets and probably know the string quintet and piano quartet/quintet literature much better than the string quartet literature.

February 14, 2020, 11:50 PM · True! But funnily enough Mendelssohn is also considered "old school"!

Brahms n2 is so good! Dvorack is a classic, and Borodin's is great as well, great picks!

Piano Quintet is also one of my favorite formations, although in the wrong hands(composer's AND performers) the Piano's very VERY different tone and set of tricks(articulation and sounds possible on it) can feel quite disjointed, or overwhelming, and vice versa.
Talking about that, one of my "top 10" favorite pieces of all time is precisely Shostakovich's Piano Quintet, as clichê as it may be, specially his own recording with the amazing Beethoven Quartet.

February 14, 2020, 11:51 PM · I think you are overstating the situation; there are also Schumann, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, all of whom have written several to many chamber pieces. Some of those are generally seen as "masterpieces". The romantic repertoire is in fact so large that it is hard to come up with ONE favorite string quartet from the era.

However, it is true that the more "progressive" composers, Wagner, Berlioz, mostly focussed either on symphonic music or on opera and produced very little chamber music if any.

Edited: February 15, 2020, 3:46 AM · As Albrecht says, those romantic composers who fell on the Brahms side of the great Wagner/Brahms divide (i.e. those who espoused "pure" as distinct from programmatic music) wrote a huge quantity of chamber music. I counted more than 700 composers who published string quartets in the 100 years following Beethoven. Most, of course, are now unjustly or justly neglected but plenty are well worth hearing and playing, e.g. those by Draeseke, Gernsheim, Brandts Buys, Straesser, Reinecke, Godard, Wetz, Berger (his piano quintet). My favourite "unsung" work from this period, which I think definitely ranks alongside enduring masterpieces by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Smetana, Verdi is the string octet by Herman Graedener. Epic!
February 15, 2020, 6:27 AM · In a number of chamber music competitions, the division between classical and romantic periods is by year, 1810, which technically includes some of Beethoven's late chamber music. So much chamber music written after 1810.
February 15, 2020, 6:52 AM · Don't overlook the chamber music written by Rossini!
February 15, 2020, 8:03 AM · And Schubert
February 15, 2020, 8:11 AM · I would classify most of Janacek, Martinu, Smetana, Franck, and Suk as romantic. I believe they all wrote some things for chamber ensembles.

I also think it just happened that two of the most amazing composers of the romantic era -- Chopin and Liszt -- composed mainly for the piano.

Edited: February 15, 2020, 8:15 AM · Probably Brahms 1. The Verdi quartet and Dvorak 10
February 15, 2020, 8:57 AM · Ivo,

"Why" is the interesting part of the topic. While "Chamber Music" has a larger following than it used to have, it is still a niche market. Like all niche markets it has to appeal to the limited audience. To be sure, the chamber audience is largely more musically aware and has more amateur musicians in the audience.

To make a living, the musicians have to have a rep. that will get a paying audience. That means a program of music that most of the audience wants to hear again-and-again-and-again,... Some chamber groups add one unfamiliar piece to a program in attempts to broaden the scope, but all-too-often that is a modern work for the uber-sophisticated audience members.

Add to that, the simple fact that "classical music" in general is considered to be elite music with "Chamber" seen as the most elite. That is not as it was originally intended - for groups of musicians to play for themselves, and perhaps a few family members and friends.

That being said, we are seeing more quartets playing at weddings and other events (with the ubiquitous Pachelbel* Canon). Yet Chamber is not as popular as Andre Reiu or even large symphony orchestra that seem to be doing a lot of Movie Music now.

The real answer to your question is found in entertainment economics not in the interest in music.

* Almost funny that Pachelbel gets an spelling underline and if you click for spell check you get "Bellyache" which, if you have been to too many weddings, is hilarious.

Edited: February 15, 2020, 10:37 AM · Are you comparing the ratio of well-known chamber vs. symphonic works between eras, or are you comparing the total number of well-known chamber works between eras?

What are examples of “canonized” chamber works from the Baroque and Classical periods? I can think of many chamber music "masterpieces" from the Romantic era (starting from middle/late Beethoven). But if you're counting all of Haydn's 60+ string quartets then that gives the Classical period a big head start in numbers.

Edited: February 15, 2020, 1:58 PM · Chamber music, in general, is a niche market, with a much smaller paying audience compared to symphonies and operas. I'll probably provoke someone, but my opinion about much of 19th cent., romantic era quartets is that the composers were trying to imitate the big sound of a string orchestra. Instead of just adding a bass, they added a lot of double stops to the mix, which gives a muddled, thick sound. Mozart and Beethoven and the moderns, have a greater clarity.
Edited: February 15, 2020, 1:09 PM · Joel - not my feeling at all! Maybe you could cite some examples. In my view one deficiency of many early romantic composers is that they slavishly follow the "rules" of sonata-form structure. Melodic invention is also sometimes in short supply. Occasionally textures do get too dense (some of Dvorak's quartets can be criticised on this point) but I'm frequently impressed by the ingenuity of the part-writing. These works were usually intended for performance by amateurs or in small venues, and I regret that there's currently a tendency to inflate them to concert-hall dimensions.
February 15, 2020, 12:56 PM · We've had good audiences locally for the St. Lawrence Quartet and the Emersons but the local (regional) orchestra's Holiday Pops concert sells out months in advance. Joel has a point.
February 16, 2020, 12:31 AM · Wow! So many great responses, so in order...

Albretch, of course I am overstating it, it's not like it's an issue or anything, but rather something I observed and wanted to start a discussion on, for no other purpose than to discuss and learn more!

Steve! Amazing additions to the discussion! I'll be humble and say I haven't listened to about three fifths of the composers you mentioned, but I'll make it my priority to do it, as my initial goal with this post was precisely to get to know more romantic chamber masterpieces!

Stan, to make it clear, I personally consider Beethoven a classical musician by definition, and although he gave birth to Romanticism, no doubt about that, he is to it like a father is to a son, he is not the son itself, although integral to it's existence. Much like, for instance, Jesus was a Jew, and not a Christian, etc etc.

[Just for the record, Beethoven is for me the undisputed king of String Quartets, specially his later period ("romantic") work!]

Paul, very interesting thought, indeed virtuosity was a big part of Romanticist aesthetics, and this led to a lot of composers, specially those who were also players, to focus on their own instruments, From Paganini's and Sarasate's violin works to Chopin's and Liszt's piano work etc et al

Mark, all on my top favorites as well!

George, indeed I'm sure there are economic, material and historical reasons for it, and it's interesting to see that the formation is seeing somewhat of a comeback, as for maybe the material conditions that contributed for the (apparent) lack of interest or devotion to chamber works, I'll develop more on that on my next reply.

Frieda, to clarify, I'm comparing "the ratio of well known" and more popular romantic chamber pieces, but specially groups like Strings or winds, and not a mathematical quota of amount of compositions, in which case the classical boys would win by miles, with some ridiculously prolific composers like Haydn tipping the balance ofc. As for Beethoven I clarified my view above.

I agree Joel, quartet music excels in contrapuntal lines and well crafted leading, inventive melodic writing and smart use of harmony and texture, monophonic melodies over blocks of chords or orquestral sound sure isn't it's strongest points, although it can do it all right.

Steve, yes you make a great point, I think one of the biggest mistakes in quartet playing, as was probably true during the late romantic period as well(more on that later); and what could perhaps contribute to it's diminished popularity/proliferation is the rather unflattering venues to which quartets(and chamber works in general) are made to play on, alien to their acoustic necessities and purpose.

I'm off to bed but I'll add some more interesting things I was thinking about later.


Edited: February 16, 2020, 6:49 AM · Since nobody has mentioned them yet, I might add that my favourite romantic string quartets are those by Ravel, Debussy and Elgar. And @Ivo's last post, I think the main disadvantage of playing romantic chamber music in large venues isn't that they are unflattering but that it discourages the intimacy and tenderness that should be vital elements of the performance. But I know I'm swimming against a strong tide here.
February 16, 2020, 7:36 PM · I'm currently working on the Brahms Op. 114 Trio (viola, cello, piano), and while it's a very unusual instrumentation, it's beautiful in an understated, dark way.
Edited: February 17, 2020, 6:38 PM · Emma, I know you may not love me for this, but have you worked out yet which limerick to fit to the third movement?
February 17, 2020, 6:37 PM · Since no one has mentioned it, I do rather like the Bruckner string quintet.
The Cesar Franck is one of my two favourite piano quintets (the other's the Schumann). Unless you call the Trout classical, the piano quintet doesn't seem to have made much of an appearance before the romantic period.
It may not be saying that much, but I think Dohnanyi's piano quintet is probably his best work.
Do people call Schubert classical or romantic (I needn't say more, I think everyone knows what I mean)?
Wagner did, of course, write ONE piece of chamber music (even though it was first performed in the open air OUTSIDE a chamber!).
And then there's HW's Italian Serenade.
I really like the Fauré string quartet, too, and I am told his quintets are also excellent.
Edited: February 17, 2020, 9:47 PM · "From Paganini's and Sarasate's violin works to Chopin's and Liszt's piano work etc et al"

Quite a range of musicality there. There is more musical content in the B Minor Piano Sonata of either Franz Lizst or Frederic Chopin than there is in all of the compositions of Pablo Sarasate combined.


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