Chamber music was one of three general classifications of music at the beginning of the 17th century—the others being church music and theater music (the wellspring for opera and symphony). Each had its own conventions of style and function. At the time, “chamber” referred to ensemble music for voices and instruments performed at small gatherings, usually at court or at home.

By the mid-18th century, under the impact of classicism, chamber music came to signify many of the characteristics it has today:
• music for a small instrumental ensemble (usually 2 to 9 players, one person to a part)
• performed in an intimate setting by amateurs or professionals
• stressing personal expression and the conversation among players, rather than virtuosic display or leadership by a conductor.

Of the various configurations that evolved for chamber groups, the string quartet became the most popular for several reasons. It proved the ideal exponent of the four-part harmonic language that had developed by this time, while maintaining intimacy and cohesion in texture. And since stringed instruments were considered the closest in quality to the human voice, they became a favorite choice for composers wishing to express their deepest emotion without using words.

Josef Haydn is generally acknowledged to be the father of the modern string quartet. The patronage of the Esterhazy family, for whom he served as composer-in-residence, allowed Haydn to indulge his playful nature and gave him freedoms he would not have enjoyed had he had to compose for his supper. (Arguably, universities have replaced regal houses in freeing artists-in-residence from the tyranny of the concert tour.) Affectionately called “Papa Haydn” by the orchestra he led at the Esterhazy court, Haydn defined and directed the conventions that made the string quartet a complex, meaningful structure attracting the most gifted composers of the time, Mozart and Beethoven among them.

Older than Mozart by 20 years and Beethoven’s senior by 40, Haydn encouraged both, fighting in particular to bring Mozart’s genius to public recognition. The two enjoyed playing string quartets together, Haydn on first violin and Mozart on viola. In 1785, Mozart dedicated a series of six quartets to Haydn.

Beethoven studied with Haydn and was influenced by his teaching, but Beethoven’s iconoclasm clashed with Haydn’s classicism and they soon parted ways. Beethoven elevated the string quartet genre to a new level, wherein setting, form, counterpoint and harmony combine to create a magnificent musical experience.

The chamber music literature attracted performers, composers and audiences who understood and participated in the conventions of the style. Stanford Professor of Music Emeritus Albert Cohen explains that without training in the structure of the genre coupled with development of aural memory, today’s audiences risk losing the meaning of the literature. This sentiment was demonstrated during a lunchtime concert capping off the 2004 Summer Chamber Music Institute hosted by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, when musician and composer Rob Kapilow taught the audience what to listen for in Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. An enthusiastic crowd learned to identify five different basic phrases and their transformations before hearing the second movement in its entirety.

Kapilow explained that composers play listeners’ expectations for laughs and thrills, but this assumes sufficient musical training to know what to expect. Only then do concerts become edge-of-the-seat experiences. He quipped, “Audiences used to have great love for music, but little respect; nowadays they have great respect but little love.”