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The Beauty of the Small: Music in Our Chambers

by Andrew Swensen

When we think of “classical” music, we tend to think of orchestras performing grand pieces like a symphony or concerto, but the truth is that this is not the way that most people would have heard Schubert or Schumann, Beethoven or Brahms in their own day. We hear such works far more often than anyone of that time, because of the wonders of modern technology. Yes, we have radio stations, CDs, and MP3 files; and some of us may even remember that now antiquated technology, the record album.

Yet in former days, there was no such thing as recording. If you wanted to hear music, it had to be performed, and then as now, it was not easy to assemble 50 or more musicians and find someone who had the chops to take on a Chopin piano concerto. On the other hand, music was ever present in the living room…in the form of chamber music.

Now, I love symphonic music. My heart soars at the opening bars of Grieg’s piano concerto, and my soul stirs with the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. But let’s take a moment to stand up for the small guys. For the Schubert songs and Haydn sonatinas. Let’s pause to savor these works that are every bit as lyrical, passionate, stirring, troubling and exalting. The world of literature has room for the novel, the short story, and the poem; so too does music call for an appreciation of its works of more minimal nature.

A number of recent performances have provided some of my most powerful musical experiences, made all the more poignant by the intimacy of the setting. Many musicians are still playing in chambers, so to speak, in small contexts sitting beside their audience. One trio’s performance once moved me to tears by their tender interplay of cello, clarinet and piano. On another day while sitting in a living room on Pittsburgh’s North Side, I listened to a Baroque ensemble of winds and harpsichord just a couple of feet away, and I felt as if the oboe were playing just for me.

So many organizations have regular performances around town. I encourage you not to miss the next one. Virtuosos in the next seat over.

For related articles from The Muse Dialogue:

Vol. 1, No. 2: Chamber Music Table of Contents

A Tale of Two Kreutzer Sonatas

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