What’s the difference between chamber music and orchestral music?

Oliver Condy explains the differences between chamber music and orchestral music, and how each has evolved throughout history

What's the differences between chamber music and orchestral music?

On a very simple level, the differences between chamber music and orchestral music come down to the number of players featured in a composition. Generally speaking, chamber music starts from two players and takes in trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, nonets and more along its way.

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The term chamber derives from the French word ‘chambre’ for room – chamber music is designed to be performed in smaller spaces, as opposed to a concert hall. Before concert halls started to appear in the 19th century, music was written to be played in three places: the church, the theatre and the courts of the royalty and aristocracy. It’s the last of these that chamber music was originally designed for – for example, Haydn’s string quartets for the Esterházy family or Lully’s flute sonatas for Louis XIV at the court of Versailles. Today, chamber music broadly refers to any music played with one instrument to each part – and on a small-ish scale.

Don’t let the term ‘chamber orchestra’ confuse you, however – a chamber orchestra can be small enough to play chamber music, but often they’re large enough to play orchestral music. The dividing lines are very thin.

Now when it comes to orchestral music, an ‘orchestra’ simply means any collection of instruments, but it really now refers to a body of players that perform larger-scale music: symphonies, concertos (as the accompanying ensemble), large tone-poems, to be played in a concert hall. This is music where instrumental parts, particularly strings, are played by more than one player.

Orchestral music has developed over the centuries, although it’s not a question of moving from small to big – there were orchestras in 18th-century France and Italy, sometimes consisting of dozens of string instruments. Things, however, were far from standardised and people didn’t compose for what is now accepted as an ‘orchestra’. Back in the early 17th century, say, Monteverdi would have written for whoever was available. In early 18th-century Leipzig, Bach’s orchestras adapted to the composer’s whim and, again, whoever was there. It’s when we get to the 18th century that definitions start to solidify with Mozart symphonies, for instance, requiring a certain make-up of ensemble ­– around 25 or so players: strings, two flutes, a pair of oboes, a couple of bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and perhaps some kettledrums. Fast-forward to the 19th century, and you’ll find the massive bodies of over 100 musicians often required by the likes of Richard Strauss, Wagner, Berlioz and Mahler.

Orchestral music today is generally scored for all families of Western instruments: strings, brass, woodwind, percussion, with occasional requirements for keyboard (piano and organ) and electronic instruments (synths, ondes Martenot, Theremin). Things are getting woolly again, however…

Read our reviews of the latest chamber music recordings here

Read our reviews of the latest orchestral recordings here

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