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Chamber Music Fundamentals

People originally thought of chamber music as a specific kind of classical music, mainly played in smaller sized rooms by ensembles with no conductor. In modern times, it’s not much different. Typically, a chamber orchestra is made up of no more than 40 members or less. Because of their smaller size, each musician’s role in an ensemble is of equal significance. In fact, chamber music is normally played by a single member in each part.

Below are some examples of chamber music pieces that every string teacher should demonstrate to their pupils.

Pastorale for Flute, Cello Obbligato, and Basso Continuo Opus 13, No.4 by Antonio Vivaldi (Kalmus, dist. by Warner Bros.)
A pastorale can be performed as a vocal piece or as an instrumental piece. Constructed to mimic the music of shepherds, shawns, and pipes, a pastorale is usually Vivaldi, which can be described as the pleasant, powerful lines that, when combined, create beautifully calm chamber music. Notably Larghetto, similar to a lullaby and composed in a 6/8 or 3/8 pattern, these grade-three level pieces flow gracefully in the key of A major, and are very often satisfy both beginners and those listening.

In certain parts of these pieces, the cello lightly emulates the emotionsnormally conceived by a flute. A bass player with a considerable amount of experience can perform the part of the cello. In fact, when it comes to performing this section, most skillful musicians are more than happy to give it a shot. The role of the piano is taken up by the Basso Continuo, and the solo can be executed with a violin, flute or oboe. The flute is impeccable for delivery, while cello is superb for phrasing. During the piece, the cello stays in bass clef.

At any complete orchestra recital, this selection provides a fantastic shift in variety, and any ensemble’s most gifted member would certainly be given their chance to shine. For great examples, YouTube “Pastorale by Vivaldi”, and witness versions for 46 School Band and Orchestra, March 2011 flute and piano, and for flute, cello and piano.

Sonatine by Maurice Ravel (1875- 1937) arranged by Philip Gordon (Carl Fischer)
Even though this piece is called “Sonatine” instead of “Sonata”, the title is actually in reference to its length, which is quite short compared to other pieces. This arrangement is designed for strings of the first movement of this piano work, and can be quite difficult to play if attempted by a non-experienced player. Grade four rated, this piece needs to be listened to attentively in order to figure out the extremely well composed harmonies and tones.

Scored for three violins, viola, cello and string bass, this vibrant piece can also include an additional piano, which normally doubles the viola, cello, and bass parts along the way to further enhance the low register. Two players are appointed to the third violin part, known as divisi. A charming piece in F# minor (Aeolian mode) marked moderato, and carefully constructed in a 2-2 meter, this attractive work is also in sonata-allegro form. The opening theme of the first movement can shift in style, with alterations in the second and third movements also being quite common– an art perfected by Liszt.

Because of the quiet and slightly held back voices, this song should be played very calmly, with careful attention to dynamics, and the delicate melody, which is played legato. The emphasized upbeats, crescendos and diminuendos should be given plenty of concentration. In a classroom setting, this piece is a perfect example to use when teaching tone color and expression.

There are a lot of different chords and progressions used in these pieces as well, including the use of minor 7th with a flatted fifth, ninth chords minus the fifth (a skill used commonly by impressionists like Debussy, especially when these 9th chords move alongside one another), various chromatic progressions, and D major triads that change to C major triads. Every once in a while, a major seventh chord places the root and the major seventh in a neighboring tone, so a minor second dissonance is created. Occasionally for some string players, intonation becomes an issue, especially if they’re not familiar with these kinds of dissonances.

Try and play this with a fair amount of rubato, complete with short pauses before going back into the main theme. To add a nice change of pace during a concert, it can also be used as a “color” piece. While recommend greatly for moderately advanced string players, you can also find some great videos on YouTube of this piece performed on piano.

Suite and Light (Stringsets): Four Jazzy Originals by Tony Osborne (Faber Music Limited)
By delving into syncopation and rhythmic contrast, a string section can be boosted greatly. Written with a jazz feel and various syncopated figures, the four movements below are scored for two violins, viola or violin three, and cello. Bass parts are also optional:

  1. "Thoroughly Modern Varnish" (in the key of C major). A colorful and upbeat piece similar to a 1920s Charleston style. The following syncopations are used:
    Thoroughly Modern Varnish
  2. "Soap on a String" (in the key of F major and modulates to Bb major). Performed softly with expression, this carries an elegant, delightful theme that evolves over seventy-five measures. The internal sections offer sleek voice leading and engaging lines. The syncopated figures are:
    Soap on a String
  3. “Woody Waltz” (in the key of G major). Played in a streaming, rhythmic pattern, this melodic piece in the mixolydian mod, and contains the following syncopated characters:
    Woody Waltz
  4. “Groovy Strings” (in the key of C major). Perform this with exuberance and plenty of spirit. Early in the movement, two noticeable grand pauses (GP) will take place. This will create a factor of shock and wonder. Bluesy and in the mixolydian mode, the following syncopated figures are used:
    Groovy Strings

Performers at any kind of skill level will find this piece challenging, mainly due to its jazz characteristics and being in the abnormal keys of C and F. For these reasons, it’s considered a grade level three piece. When teaching these kinds of syncopated jazz figures, students should learn through vocal phrasing and plenty of physical movement. As a teacher, here are some useful techniques to use in the classroom:

  • On your board, write out various rhythmic patterns, then get your pupils to clap and sing them out loud. When better understanding syncopated figures, this “ear to eye” learning style is quite effective.
  • Get your students to perform different rhythmic patterns in octaves, or in unison. Repeat the pattern over and over until your student understands the pattern. Then, in the key of the composition, have them perform rhythmic patterns on the scale tones.
  • Using scrambled cue cards, ask pupils to sing, clap or play what they see on the cue card they’re looking at. The goal here for each student to quickly recognize syncopated patterns that are used frequently.

Music for Piano Quartet (Hal Leonard)
An EditioMusica Budapest collection, this offers music from Beethoven, Pleyel, Schubert, Mozart, Mazas, Gebauer, Weber and Hauptmann.

Piano quartets contain a piano and three other instruments. The other instruments used in this musical ensemble are commonly string trios and include violin, viola and cello. Written for beginners, these beautiful arrangements of the works from classic composers are all written in first position so they’re easier to understand.

There’s a good reason as to why these songs are considered to be grade three level. They contain syncopated rhythms, sixteenth notes, slurred eighth notes, dotted eighth notes followed by a sixteenth, and the violin parts contain a few double stops, as well as one or two double stops in the cello. In this collection, the main keys used are G, C, A, Gm, and D. For beginner string players, any retreat from the key of D will prove to be a challenge. As well in some cases, the piano parts can prove to be as difficult to learn as the string parts.

While these pieces are definitely challenging, the technicality of each piece also makes them quite fun to undertake.

Bonus Collections for Chamber Groups

Album of Easy String Quartets, Volume One (Kalmus Music)
This collection includes legendary composers such as Mozard, Haydin, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bach, Cherubini, Handel, Schumann and Masse. Although these selections are collected under the moniker “Album of Easy String Quartets”, they aren’t as simple as one might think. In fact, this assortment of pieces is at a grade level of three to four, most of which are grade level four. The pieces consist of off-beat syncopations, single and double grace notes, and dotted quarter succeeded by a pair of sixteenths. Each quartet is expressed in the keys of C, G, Eb, Gm, Bb, F, and A. Every string teacher should have their collection, however, since each selection is considered a classic.

Easy Pieces for Three Violins, Volume One (Belwin Mills Publishing Co.)
This grade level three collection consists of four pieces, ranging from Kinder Suite, Intrada in allabreve meter, with a Gigue in 6/8, Fugue and Finale in 6/8. The keys contained throughout these pieces include G and E minor, and sometimes delves into A, C and D minor. Of the three violin parts, the first violin is the most active from a rhythmic standpoint, and can be a challenge to undertake for even the most experienced players.

12 Little Duets for Two Violins by Mazas Op 38 (Ed. by Henry Schradieck, Schirmer)
Rated grade level three, these unique duets are most certainly a challenge. In the keys of C, G, D, A, F, Dm, and Bb, bowing indications are also included to aid players. Both violin parts include double stops, and the first violin part even includes a few triple stops as well as a quadruple stop. Articulations should be approached with ease.

Sonata in A Minor by Antonio Vivaldi
Composed for solo cello (or viola) with piano, this piece can prove to be quite a challenge. A string quartet or string orchestra can be added as well. In four movements, the sonata includes passages that expand into the tenor clef. All string parts are at grade level four except for cello part, which is a grade level five, making this piece a fantastic endeavor for any cellist to attempt.

Concerto in B Minor, Op 3 No. 10 by Antonio Vivaldi, (Arr. by Ralph Matesky, Wynn Music)
Designed for four violins with the added bonus of piano, a string orchestra can also undertake this incredible piece. Vivaldi’s violin parts are considered to be quite a challenge, which is why this piece is worthy of a grade six level rating.


Vince Corozine

Vince Corozine has served as director of Music for the Peekskill, New York City schools, associate professor of Music at the King's College in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and director of Music Industry Studies at Elizabeth City State University in Elizabeth City, N.C.

He performed and arranged for the USMA Band at West Point and served as music director for the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia, PA for WPVI-TV (ABC-Disney) for 10 years.

Vince is the author of Arranging Music for the Real World, (Mel Bay). He records professionally in New York, Toronto, Philadelphia, Hong Kong and China, and currently teaches 12 usic arranging courses online. www.vincecorozine.com

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