chamber music

Last Saturday in Syracuse, my Mom and I heard the Rossetti String Quartet play works by Mozart, Dvorak, and Debussey. Such events always provoke nostalgia for me, because chamber music used to play a very important role in my life. In my young adult years in New Haven, Oxford, and Washington, I used to attend concerts at least once a week. I usually went by myself. In childhood, however, I usually attended with my father, who died just weeks ago. He and I often had tickets to the very same concert series, the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. In London, we went to many venues, but I especially remember the rather drab hall of the Ethical Culture Society, in which we heard fine performances. And other locations occur to me as stray thoughts–for instance, a basement in Lucca, Italy, where we once heard the Chilingarian Quartet. To tell the truth (at last), I really went along because I liked Dad’s attention on the trips to and from the concert halls. I used to count the minutes until each recital ended; but a habit formed.

I had other reasons to be nostalgic last Saturday. The Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music has moved from the University to a public middle school. It’s not a school that I attended, but it’s part of the same district, and the students’ art and official warning notices on the walls were timelessly familiar. The concert program contained a memorial notice for my own music teacher, who recently died. I recognized many subscribers to the notice; some were parents of my childhood friends. And I knew members of the audience. They were almost uniformly white-haired. The median age must have been 75. These were the same people, indeed, who belonged to the Friends of Chamber Music 35 years ago. They were much the same kind of people who filled Wigmore Hall or Alice Tulley Hall in 1970 and who still predominate at the Phillips Collection or the Library of Congress recitals in Washington.

When we consider why the audience for chamber music has aged and shrunk, it’s tempting to revive the usual explanations: inadequate musical education, limited funds, the kids today. But I suspect a deeper reason, which makes me even more nostalgic or elegiac. If the heart of the chamber music tradition is the string quartet, the piano sonata, the art song, and the trio, then it really lived from about 1750 to 1950. When the audience at last Saturday’s concert was young, Shostakovich and Bartok were still writing chamber works in that tradition. The latest works of that era commented on the classic ones in the repertoire. To be sure, there are still composers today, and they still produce quartets and sonatas. But as far as I know, their style is abruptly different from that of the nineteenth-century masters. They are too hard for almost anyone to perform, and rather difficult to enjoy. They have an audience, but it is small and highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, the tradition of Mozart and Brahms is no longer alive. It is an antiquarian or historical interest. I doubt it will ever die off completely; in the age of, even the most obscure tastes can find markets. But I don’t think it will fully revive unless contemporary music itself reconnects with the classical background–which may not be a natural or even a desirable development.

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