Great small form – The state of chamber music and Lieder in Germany

Even in today’s classical music, categories like the string quartet, the piano trio, and the song are of particular importance. In Germany more and more musicians dedicate themselves the “small form”.

Kammermusiksaal Beethovenhaus Bonn; Kammermusiksaal Beethovenhaus Bonn; | Copyright: Michael Sondermann Chamber music is the most concentrated form of music making; it is reduced to its essentials. However, the term itself is ambivalent. It designates a musical genre reserved for a small number of players while simultaneously referring to the location where it is traditionally rehearsed. Chamber music originally owes its name to the courtly "chamber" that in feudal times served both private and political purposes and thus required musical representation. Chamber music dates at least as far back as the Renaissance and underwent a surge of popularity in the 19th century, where the salon was its primary venue, but has since developed a double life: as of today it is played in small groups at home as well as in concert halls.

With the advent of music as a profession, chamber music has become a public affair and the spaces in which it is heard have taken on ever greater proportions. Needless to say, the intimacy of the genre threatens to be lost within the huge modern concert houses in which it was not intended to be heard. However, there are successful examples of contemporary architecture that are specially tailored to the dimensions and acoustic requirements of this delicate art form: the Chamber Music Hall in immediate vicinity to the Berlin Philharmonic and the Beethoven-Haus Bonn are just two such venues. The full enjoyment of chamber music most certainly demands the appropriate ambiance.

Since the First Viennese School several instrumental arrangements have been established as fixed forms, including the sonata for piano and stringed instrument, the piano trio, the string quartet and the brass quintet. Moreover, it is the sheer inexhaustible bandwidth of instrumental arrangements that gives the genre some of its charm, from the sonata for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach to Louis Spohr's nonet. The Lied with piano accompaniment also became respectable with the famed Schubertiades. Although at the time of the First Viennese School such vocal miniature dramas already existed, the emotional world of the individual, as it was prototypically articulated in romantic poetry, first found full-fledged artistic expression in this epoch with the setting to music of the Lied. The great song cycles such as Schubert's "Winterreise" and Schumann's "Dichterliebe" are among the highpoints of western song.

Since Joseph Haydn, however, the string quartet has reigned as the supreme discipline of chamber music. This most sophisticated form of musical conversation has challenged composers as recent as Helmut Lachenmann, Wolfgang Rihm and Jörg Widmann to produce pioneering works. In an oft-cited remark, Goethe, not particularly well-versed in issues of music, emphasised the democratic aspect of the quartet, the equality of the voices: "One hears four rational people conversing with one another and believes he gains something from their discourse while learning the peculiarities of the instruments."

For experts and connoisseurs only?

Germany is not the only country where chamber music finds itself at a distinct disadvantage: Although those in the know have recognised for some time that musical socialisation at home and at school is important for an all-encompassing personal development and encourages the ability to work in teams, public awareness of chamber music is always overshadowed by the much more prestigious genres of symphony and above all opera. It is not even all that popular as music for the home, even though it is precisely in this sector that, alongside choral music, a considerable lay culture has developed. Even in professional concert circles, chamber music is considered difficult to arrange because it is allegedly too complex, too closed. Its persistent reputation as something "for experts and connoisseurs only" has been difficult to shake.

Nevertheless, the recent and rapid increase of ensembles bodes well for the future of chamber music, which can be observed in Germany where there have never been so many highly qualified string quartets as there are today. Whether they can live just from performing in ensembles is another question entirely. Even the musicians in the renowned Artemis Quartet must also teach at various universities while the members of the Gewandhaus Quartet, which has been performing since 1808, are chiefly employed as principals of Leipzig's traditional orchestra of the same name. Moreover, most symphony and opera orchestras organise chamber concerts with musicians from their own ranks in order to raise the performance and motivation levels of their members. On the other hand, young ensembles sometimes consciously decide against support roles in orchestras in order to dedicate themselves primarily to chamber music. That such drive can lead to outright success has been proven somewhat true but the Minguet Quartet, who made its name above all with contemporary works for string quartets, and the Fauré Quartet, one of just a few established piano quartets and among the world's best.

High Level Chamber Music

The high standard of chamber music in Germany owes much to a wealth of initiatives. First to be lauded should be the German Music Council and the competitions it holds: "Jugend musiziert" focuses on promoting ensemble performance at the regional and national level while the German Music Competition awards prizes following chamber concerts. Around ten music universities in Germany offer their own courses of study in chamber music. The public broadcasting corporations produce recordings with talented ensembles, with priority given to winners of the International Music Competition of the public broadcasting corporation (ARD) , whose comprehensive, annually changing canon of subjects usually also includes a chamber music discipline. There are several commendable artist agencies in Germany that have specialised in the not altogether lucrative representation of string quartets and piano trios. The private sector has also done its part through the independent organisation of concerts financed at the promoters' own risk – Nuremberg's Privatmusikverein is one of the oldest establishments of this kind. Finally, top-class chamber music festivals such as "Spannungen" in Kraftwerk Heimbach in the Eifel mountains and the Moritzburg Festival near Dresden function as attractive location factors and cultural beacons across the region and beyond.

Despite the untold treasures offered by the repertoire of lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss, lieder have a tough time competing with opera, much in the same way as chamber music often finds itself overshadowed by symphonic music. Opera stars like Diana Damrau, Christine Schäfer or Jonas Kaufmann find it easier to get their fans excited about a one-off evening of lieder than singers who have actually chosen to specialize in the genre. Nonetheless, with their somewhat lyrical timbre, Christoph Prégardien, Thomas Quasthoff, Matthias Goerne and Christian Gerhaher have made a name for themselves as Germany's leading singers of lieder. Music academies in Germany also traditionally follow a dual approach, offering not only opera singing but also lieder courses. Special lieder competitions also help encourage up-and-coming young singers. One of the oldest such projects in the German-speaking world is the "International Competition for the Art of Lied" staged since 1987 by the Hugo-Wolf-Akademie in Stuttgart, while the "Das Lied – International Song Competition" initiated by Thomas Quasthoff as recently as 2009 in Berlin is one of the youngest. Incidentally, no training or experience is needed to enjoy the two related genres of chamber music and lieder: all one has to do is open one's ears and submit oneself entirely to what one hears – and one will experience unforgettable moments.