The Story of Chamber Music

May 1, 2023

The Joachim Quartet, founded by violinist Joseph Joachim

Chamber music – sometimes called “the music of friends” – is one of the most intimate genres of classical music. In its ideal form, a handful of musicians – professional or amateur – play together in a private space for a small audience. There is no orchestra, no conductor, no soloist. In The Story of Chamber Music, you can read about its rich history and hear some of its music, thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenberg.

The author of The Story of Chamber Music, Nicholas Kilburn (1843-1923), was himself an amateur musician – his “day job” was running a locomotive repair company – with a music degree from the University of Cambridge. In his spare time, he was actively involved with a variety of British amateur musical groups as a conductor, pianist, organist, and cellist. Kilburn made a point of supporting the music of British composers, becoming a close friend of Edward Elgar. He was also an ardent disciple of Richard Wagner and wrote two books about his music.

Published in 1904, The Story of Chamber Music traces the origins of chamber music back to medieval times in Europe, when musicians entertained kings in private palace chambers. Noblemen took up the practice and used chamber music at their banquets “as a stimulus and a cover for conversation, a practice not even yet quite obsolete,” as Kilburn notes.

From these early times, Kilburn takes us to the 17th Century, when both private and public concerts of chamber music became popular entertainments. Two famous diarists of the era, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (both of whose diaries are available at Project Gutenberg), mention attending chamber concerts, with Pepys so transported by a wind ensemble that he “remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musique hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me.”

Kilburn then shows how the musical giants of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic Eras – Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and others – further refined chamber music into the brilliant form we know today. The Story of Chamber Music was written at the tail-end of the Late Romantic Era, so Kilburn included studies of chamber music by later composers like Dvořák, Richard Strauss, and Bruckner. There is a chapter devoted to chamber music by Russian composers such as Glinka and Tchaikovsky. And he concludes with a chapter on contemporary chamber music, selecting for inclusion “[o]nly what is thought may prove acceptable and useful to earnest amateurs.” Kilburn speaks admiringly of the black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and highlights the work of several other British composers.

The Story of Chamber Music contains over 75 music notation excerpts from string quartets and other chamber works. The e-book version at Project Gutenberg enhances the enjoyment of it by including audio files in MP3 format to accompany these excerpts. Distributed Proofreaders has a Music Team devoted to transcribing music notation and creating audio files using music software. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a Mozart string quartet, cited by Kilburn on page 67 and transcribed by a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer:

The e-book version also includes MusicXML files for the music excerpts – a standard open file format designed for sharing music notation. If you’re a musician, you can download MusicXML files into your favorite notation software for your own use.

Kilburn’s enthusiasm for chamber music is apparent on every page of his book. As he put it in his introduction:

[W]e may ask ourselves which of the great forms of musical composition we would plead for in case all the rest were doomed to destruction. Music for the orchestra, with its vivid colours, its strength and delicacy; the vast range of choral music; works for the organ, that huge modern plexus of pipe and reed;—these and others no doubt have strong claims on our musical affections. But, if forced to such a choice, it is certain that many a musician would, without hesitation, pledge himself to uphold the claims of Chamber music, for who can measure the almost infinite variety and charm which it affords, and that, too, with the slenderest means?

The Story of Chamber Music lets us read and listen to some of the “infinite variety and charm” of this lovely musical genre.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

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