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The Qualities of Chamber Music

Peter Fribbins writes about the virtues of chamber music from his perspective as a composer and as the Artistic Director of the London Chamber Music Society

The coming 2015/16 season will be my 14th year directing the London Chamber Music Society’s series of weekly Sunday evening concerts – six of those at Conway Hall before the series moved to Kings Place in 2008. Whilst I sometimes struggle to recall the intricate details of those nearly 400 concert programmes, ranging as they do from duos, piano trios, string quartets, quintets, wind ensembles and chamber orchestras, I am grateful for the unique opportunity this task has given me; to survey, comprehend and absorb the astonishing canon that is classical chamber music. As a composer, the experience has been of incalculable benefit.

From the perspective of reception, despite fears of disappearing audiences for classical chamber music – a recurring theme for so many years now – this wonderful repertoire continues to flourish, albeit arguably for a minority following. The traditional orthodoxy, as articulated in Arts Council research over the years, is that young UK adults often discover classical orchestral music in their 30s, with a proportion then beginning to explore chamber music in their 40s and 50s. If audiences for classical orchestral music constitute less than 5% of the population, the audience for chamber music is probably less than half that figure.

So the classical chamber music audience is small, very small, however at the same time, it is a passionate, educated and sophisticated one. Is it not a middle-class elitist leisure pursuit? I am reminded of the conductor Karajan’s comment that he was not an elitist but a ‘super elitist’! Whilst elitism in society implies class divide, unfair privilege and societal schism, surely the pursuance of an elite intellectual and artistic sensibility is important for individual personal growth as well as for the wider benefit of society. The issue here is not elitism but access and social inclusivity. Whilst classical master-works like Beethoven’s late quartets may have been commissioned by a tiny group of aristocratic connoisseurs for private performance in Vienna in the 1820s – the ultimate minority audience pursuit – we don’t actually need to be a noble to feel its aesthetically ennobling and ineffable resonances.

In the context of classical chamber music’s complete failure to flourish as an unsupported and unsubsidised commercial activity (‘how do you become a millionaire playing string quartets? Start as a billionaire!’), I think it is interesting to recall the Antiquity distinction between the liberal arts and the servile arts: the liberal arts can liberate us from the mundane and prosaic in life.

Consideration of the relative merits of different types and styles of music are virtually impossible to argue aesthetically, but some clarity can be gained in comparing their different uses and social functions. The importance of classical chamber music is not that it is a way of providing a classical musical experience on shoestring finance, but that its smaller and more concentrated musical gestures, in comparison to opera and orchestral music, can create more focused and intimate meaning. One of the best illustrations of this is the string quartet medium, repertoire that is habitually central to LCMS concert programmes. I do not have space here to extol its many and magical qualities, but as an example of classical music’s ability to be transformative, sublime and ineffable, the quartet reigns supreme. As I increasingly perceive the spiritual potential of the best music in live performance, I also feel its parallels with liturgy. Whilst the word liturgy comes from the Greek λειτουργία, meaning public service and worship of the gods, the latter part of the word implies performance. In the ritual that is the classical chamber music concert, and in particular the hushed concentration demanded by string quartet performance, its capacity for transformative aural alchemy is unparalleled.

Peter Fribbinsis a composer, academic and artistic director. His works include two string quartets, a Clarinet Quintet, piano trios, a Cello sonata, and various other chamber works. The 2015/16 LCMS Sunday Series begins on 4 October, 6.30pm at Kings Place, Hall 1, witha performanceby the Wihan Quartet.



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