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Thread: Chamber and solo pecking order.

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    Senior Member Weston's Avatar
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    Default Chamber and solo pecking order.

    I perceive a phenomenon in the classical music world of a pecking order of importance for different instrumental forces. I understand why assembling large forces like symphony orchestras must be done for the most important works, but the same principle does not apply to chamber music.

    Why for example are piano sonatas held almost universally in higher regard than violin sonatas where one more instrument is involved, and violin sonatas are held in ever so slightly higher regard than flute sonatas, etc. But then string quartets are held on almost equal footing with piano sonatas, yet piano trios are slightly less revered, and piano quartets, string quintets etc are all but unknown.

    I realize I am making a rash generalization and there are notable exceptions, but I detect this rule of thumb hierarchy even within my own tastes, though I have no idea what causes it. Is this something intrinsic in the nature of the instruments and how they interact?

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    I can't speak for others, but my tastes are certainly different than you've portrayed. My favorite chamber works tend to be quintets (Mozart, Boccherini, Borodin string quintets; Dvorak, Schubert, Brahms, Shostakovich piano quintets, Mozart, Brahms clarinet quintets, etc.).

    Many more people play piano and violin than other instruments so perhaps that is why piano and violin works are generally held in higher regard than other instrumental works.

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    Senior Member Novelette's Avatar
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    Not to mention clarinet sonatas and horn sonatas...

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Weston View Post
    I realize I am making a rash generalization...
    Well, yes.

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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    The string quartet is considered the king of all genres to my knowledge, but this is for a reason. Beethoven's late quartets were so captivating, lofty, subtle and everything else good and thought-provoking, that during the 19th century the string quartet became the genre in which composers demonstrated their mastery. The genre became artificial, no longer well-suited to the style in the way it had been during the 18th century, but acquired a high reputation. This reputation was self-perpetuating, and of course hightened, consolidated, even perhaps created, as it caused more and more thoughtful works to be written for it as time went on.
    Last edited by Ramako; Jan-18-2013 at 11:56.
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    The string quartet is considered the king of all genres




    'nuff said
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    Moderator Mahlerian's Avatar
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    The original post (which I realize dates from over a year ago) specified the following tentative pecking order:

    Piano Sonatas
    String Quartets
    Violin Sonatas
    Piano Trios
    Flute Sonatas
    Other

    There's a clear pattern. Going up the list yields increasingly homogeneous ensembles, culminating in the piano, which has (essentially) a single timbre. Composers enjoy the challenge of writing for an ensemble that has no coloristic distinctions, because it forces them to concentrate on the musical material rather than the outward sound. This is in contrast to the orchestra, which has become increasingly differentiated over time.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ramako View Post
    The string quartet is considered the king of all genres to my knowledge, but this is for a reason. Beethoven's late quartets were so captivating, lofty, subtle and everything else good and thought-provoking, that during the 19th century the string quartet became the genre in which composers demonstrated their mastery. The genre became artificial, no longer well-suited to the style in the way it had been during the 18th century, but acquired a high reputation. This reputation was self-perpetuating, and of course hightened, consolidated, even perhaps created, as it caused more and more thoughtful works to be written for it as time went on.
    Sorry but I can`t agree. It is a matter of personal taste and choice. After all, one persons gold is another persons dross. As to ranking one sort of music over another, it is once again a matter of choice and taste.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    The original post (which I realize dates from over a year ago) specified the following tentative pecking order:

    Piano Sonatas
    String Quartets
    Violin Sonatas
    Piano Trios
    Flute Sonatas
    Other

    There's a clear pattern. Going up the list yields increasingly homogeneous ensembles, culminating in the piano, which has (essentially) a single timbre. Composers enjoy the challenge of writing for an ensemble that has no coloristic distinctions, because it forces them to concentrate on the musical material rather than the outward sound. This is in contrast to the orchestra, which has become increasingly differentiated over time.

    That's an interesting idea. Although why then are flute solos so much down the bottom of the list?

    There are many flute sonatas (solo) such as the famous Bach flute sonatas and the partita; those of CPE Bach; Telemann, Delusse, Genzmer, Porter, Bortz ...argh..the list goes on! Where the only instrument, is the flute.

    Then there are flute quartets too. When I think of 'flute sonata', I tend to think less of Poulenc with the thumpety thump piano accompaniment, or similarly, of Quantz, without the basso continuo, and more of these purer solo flute sonatas.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Head_case View Post
    That's an interesting idea. Although why then are flute solos so much down the bottom of the list?

    There are many flute sonatas (solo) such as the famous Bach flute sonatas and the partita; those of CPE Bach; Telemann, Delusse, Genzmer, Porter, Bortz ...argh..the list goes on! Where the only instrument, is the flute.

    Then there are flute quartets too. When I think of 'flute sonata', I tend to think less of Poulenc with the thumpety thump piano accompaniment, or similarly, of Quantz, without the basso continuo, and more of these purer solo flute sonatas.
    Ah, I thought you meant sonatas for flute and piano. Well, a solo flute work is homophonic (unless one uses extended technique), so it doesn't have the same potential that an ensemble or piano does.
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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Quartetfore View Post
    Sorry but I can`t agree. It is a matter of personal taste and choice. After all, one persons gold is another persons dross. As to ranking one sort of music over another, it is once again a matter of choice and taste.
    This is not a statement that music for string quartet is necessarily better than for other genres. In the words of wiki:

    Ever since Haydn's day the string quartet has been prestigious and considered a true test of the composer's art
    in the 19th century... composers often wrote only one quartet, perhaps to show that they could fully command this hallowed genre
    It has more of a reputation for the composer than anything else. I remember reading a book for composers advising, effectively, that the string quartet is a genre for which only your most refined thoughts should be placed.

    The piano sonata has a good reputation, and of course various works by JS Bach, for example the partitas for solo cello, are held in the very highest esteem. But the string quartet is in general the reserved genre of choice, after it was invented. This is for 'refinement of thoughts' only, of course, in which chamber music is considered to have the edge generally.
    Last edited by Ramako; Jan-18-2013 at 20:02.

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    Senior Member Vaneyes's Avatar
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    Only viola is way down in the pecking order. Drumroll. Rimshot.

    Just kidding.

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    Senior Member Hausmusik's Avatar
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    Mahlerian's post gets my award for the most intriguing answer to this question.

    Here are some more mundane thoughts.

    Supposing it is true, as you say, that the violin sonata is a more esteemed genre than the flute sonata, that it may have something to do with the repertoire for that combination of instruments--how much exists, who composed for the genre, how esteemed those composers are, etc. I think if Beethoven had composed ten flute sonatas rather than ten violin sonatas, it might make a difference to their relative prestige among later composers, mainstream listeners, etc. etc.

    Another example. I have noticed, in my experience as a concertgoer, that piano quintets (by which I mean piano + string quartet)are more frequently programmed than piano quartets, and neither is programmed as frequently as string quartets or piano trios. (This is merely anecdotal, of course.) Supposing it is true that the piano quintet is more "esteemed" than the piano quartet, this may have to do with the fact that there are more string quartets in existence that can partner with a pianist than there are string trios that can do the same, or designated piano quartet ensembles. And again, it may have to do with repertoire. There are about a half dozen pretty much universally-acknowledged masterpieces for piano quintet by (leaving out the Trout, with its bass) Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Schnittke, as well as admired works by Faure, Franck, Elgar, Sibelius, etc. etc. In the piano quartet repertoire, you basically have two by Mozart, three by Brahms, one by Schumann, and one by Dvorak: seven works in the standard rep for that particular combination of instruments. Compare that with the broad repertoire written for piano trio or string quartet, and you can see why they might get programmed less frequently.
    Last edited by Hausmusik; Jan-18-2013 at 23:07.
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    As far as the Wiki statement about 19th century composers writing one quartet to test their skill, thats not quite true. Rather than running through the entire list, any "site" that you find on say google (19th century String Quartets) will refute the Wiki entry.

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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    Re: Hausmusik, I think you're right that Beethoven has quite an influence in what genres are esteemed or not. Also I guess the violin is a more common instrument than the flute, or at least was, so more was written for it.
    Last edited by Ramako; Jan-18-2013 at 23:44.

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