Most opera composers are specialists. There are only four greats who are equally noted for both operatic and instrumental music – Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, and Strauss.
Chamber music is defined as: “Instrumental music played by a small ensemble, with one player to a part, the most important form being the string quartet which developed in the 18th century.” I will also consider works for solo instrument under this classification. I will not go further back than Handel in this discussion and thus will not consider Monteverdi, as he’s a renaissance composer. Chamber music as we think of it starts during the baroque era.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote at least 42 operas, 25 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, 18 concerti grossi and 12 organ concertos.
He wrote a large number of trio sonatas, many of those attributed to him are of dubious authenticity. But the G major Trio Sonata from 1734 is definitely by Handel. The first movement is marked allegro. The Violin sonata in F major was written two years earlier. The first movement is an adagio.
Wolfgang Mozart (1756-91) occupies a unique position in music. There seemingly was nothing related to music that he couldn’t do at the highest level. OK, I don’t know how good a singer he was. To call him an opera composer, which of course he was, is to do him an injustice. He could compose anything at a level that exceeded all his contemporaries. He himself said he was better than everyone else who lived when he did, with the possible exception of Haydn.
To show his appreciation of the older master he wrote six quartets dedicated to Haydn – numbers 14-19. Composed during 1781-85, Mozart gave Haydn the supreme compliment by revising the pieces before they were published in 1785. Mozart’s genius was so facile that most of his compositions seem to have been completely composed in his head. They required no modification after he put them to paper unless the needs of a performer required changes.
After hearing these six quartets Haydn wrote his famous letter to Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father. “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”
Mozart’s dedication of these pieces is worth reproduction”:
To my dear friend Haydn,
A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend. Here they are then, O great Man and dearest Friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor, yet the hope inspired in me by several Friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last Visit to this Capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend! From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a Father’s eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous Friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend, your most Sincere Friend,
W. A. Mozart
The last of these half dozen is called “The Dissonance” (#19 in C) because of the unusual adagio which introduces the first movement. While all six quartets are masterpieces, this one is the most popular. It 4th movement is scored allegro molto.
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) was the only great composer of opera to write multiple masterpieces before the age of 25. Growing up in the theater doubtless helped
Rossini’s six string sonatas were written in Ravenna during the summer of 1804. The composer was just twelve years old and staying at the home of amateur double bass enthusiast Agostini Triossi – hence the prominent role that instrument assumes. At first these youthful works were scored for two violins, violoncello and double bass only. They were most likely categorized as ‘sonate a quattro’, for Rossini’s score clearly labels each instrument in the singular. Today’s performances are most commonly presented by ensemble groups. Each violin line is typically carried by three performers, the cello ‘voice’ is duplicated and a single bass completes the ensemble.
The existence of these early sonatas was well documented from the outset, though for many years their whereabouts remained a mystery. Most scholars assumed they had long since been destroyed. But in 1954 Rossini’s original version turned up at the Library of Congress, Washington. It was prefaced by A Bonaccorsi and corresponded with an earlier 1942 discovery of five of the works (No 3 was absent) scored as standard string quartets and first published in Milan in 1826 by Ricordi. Alfredo Casella edited this wartime discovery for publication in 1951. From Hyperion Records notes on the six sonatas.
Remember, Rossini was only 12 when he wrote these six sonatas, probably over just two days and at a time when he had received very little formal instruction in composition. Nobody, not Mozart nor Mendelssohn, could do this well at age 12. The andantino is the first movement of the 1st Sonata. The sonatas sound like the “mature” Rossini who would explode onto the operatic scene eight years later.
Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) is a collection of 150 vocal, chamber and solo piano pieces by Rossini, who of course is best known for his operas. The pieces are grouped into fourteen albums under this self-deprecating and ironic title. The ordering of the pieces in the albums does not reflect the sequence or the dates of their composition, which range from 1857 to shortly before Rossini’s death in 1868. The title Péchés de vieillesse was given by Rossini only to volumes V-IX, but has since been extended to the complete set.
Album XII is entitled “Quelques riens pour album” (Some nothings for album). This set, for solo piano, is filled with delightful numbers which the young Rossini could just as well written. There seems no drop off in inspiration compared to his salad days as a composer of opera. The mystery of his premature retirement from the theater likely will never receive a satisfactory explanation. You may recognize number 9 as a tune used by Ottorino Respighi for his ballet La Boutique fantasque.
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1948) wrote at least 65 operas, 16 symphonies, 193 songs, three oratorios, 28 cantatas, some instrumental concertos and sonatas, and 18 string quartets. I’m probably leaving out some of his work. He was so prolific that he called Rossini lazy for having taken two weeks to compose The Barber of Seville. His string quartets are lovely, even if not profound. His style is to treat the first violin as a soloist with the other three instruments acting as might an orchestra in one of his operas. Here is the 4th movement -allegro from Quartet 17.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) said he could only write for the theater. That statement was not entirely true. His requiem mass, the four sacred pieces, and some songs prove otherwise. And there’s his string quartet. Written in 1873 to pass the time while waiting for the Naples premiere of Aida. It was delayed because of the illness of the soprano Teresa Stolz who eventually played the title role. Verdi was matter of fact about the worth of the piece. “I’ve written a Quartet in my leisure moments in Naples. I had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it and without inviting anyone in particular. Only the seven or eight persons who usually come to visit me were present. I don’t know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it’s a Quartet!”
The quartet is actually quite good, as is anything by the mature Verdi. It’s performed reasonably often. I’ve heard it live twice. There are a number of recordings it, as well. 1st movement allegro
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) is best known for his large scale orchestral works, songs, and opera. His father was Europe’s best horn player, Franz Strauss. Though the elder Strauss played first horn at many of Wagner’s premiere’s he was a musical conservative who tried to keep his precocious son way from Wagner’s music – a losing battle in 19th century Europe. Richard started composing at about age six and didn’t stop until shortly before his death. His early works included some chamber music, but after hearing Tristan und Isolde at age 16 he started to turn away from the classical style his father favored.
He wrote his first opera Guntram in 1894. He was so impressed with Verdi’s Falstaff that he wrote Verdi asking for permission to dedicate Guntram to him. Verdi had never heard of Strauss despite the success of his tone poems and wrote his publisher, Ricordi, asking who this German was. Upon being told that the young Strauss was a real comer, he gave permission for the dedication.
His Cello Sonata in F major dates from 1882. It’s a nice work, especially for an 18 year old composer who had yet to find his true voice. Movement 3 allegro
Strauss returned to chamber music in his final opera, Capriccio (1942). As the show starts a string sextet is being played. It’s often performed as an independent work – The Capriccio Sextet. It’s an hibernal piece characteristic of the composer’s late style.
Benjamin Britten (1913-76) is best known for his 14 operas. He wrote his Cello Sonata (cello and piano) as well as the Cello Symphony and three suites for solo cello all for Mstislav Rostropovich. The 5th and final movement of the sonata marked Moto perpetuo. Presto has a hint of Shostakovich, a composer Britten greatly admired.
Philip Glass (b 1937) well known for his operas, has written eight numbered string quartets. The 4th movement of his 5th String quartet sounds like…Philip Glass. I find his repetitive style better suited for chamber music than opera, but that’s just an opinion.
There’s more that could be said on this subject. But this is enough for now.