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Cellist Steven Isserlis on the Importance of Playing Chamber Music

Cellist Steven Isserlis talks through the essential role of chamber music in enriching ones artistic growth

Chamber music is the central heart of musical life. The joy and satisfaction from playing chamber music can be as rewarding as solo playing. What makes chamber music an integral role in every musician's life?

Steven discusses his personal assertion why chamber music should never be treated as "just a hobby."


Steven Isserlis cellist

The Integral Role of Chamber Music in Every Musician's Life

Chamber Music - not just a hobby!

Optimism seems to be a rare luxury at the moment – well, it does feel that there’s not much reason for it in many aspects of our world. But in our little music world, I feel that in some ways there IS some reason for cautious celebration of some developments. (Is that guarded enough?) And one of these developments is the general attitude to chamber music.

I remember many years ago talking to a cellist in a very successful American string quartet who – in front of his colleagues – snorted in disgust: ‘Yeah, great – I went through all those years of college, practising all those hours every day; and now I play in a quartet. Thanks a lot!’ His colleagues merely raised their eyes to the ceiling, obviously being used to these rants; but I was shocked enough to remember it today. He wasn’t being malicious (he was actually a very sweet guy, who sadly ended up giving up the cello); he was just spouting an attitude that was surprisingly prevalent at that time. Young players were being groomed to be ‘soloists’ (please note inverted commas!) – to play loudly all the time, at full intensity no matter what emotion the music was (should have been) expressing. Oh, and then perhaps they might be sent to some chamber music festival for a summer, to ‘make contacts’. Yuk.

But, even given the fact that some young musicians (though by no means all) do want to spend much of their lives playing concertos, what sort of players were being produced by that attitude to music? To take the violinist products of that ‘ambition school’: they were being taught to play classical sonatas, clearly marked and intended by the composer as sonatas for piano and violin, or absolutely equal duo sonatas, as if they were sonatas for solo violin with a little background decoration. Pianists (humiliatingly referred to as accompanists) were forced to play with the lid down, to allow every little accompanying figure in the violin to blast out, frequently drowning out the melody in the piano part; some unfortunate pianists were even instructed in the use of body language, warned to stand behind the ‘soloist’ at all times, and not to attract the audience’s attention away from the – snort - star. It seems rather unbelievable as I write it now; but some famous teachers really did inculcate that attitude into their students. I’m absolutely sure that the composers of these sonatas would have been flabbergasted – and furious.

When it came to concertos, the same problems infested performances. Concertos are not as a rule just solo pieces with a light smattering of accompaniment (there ARE some such pieces from the early 19th century – Schumann complains vociferously about them in his critical writings – but few are heard today, because they’re just not interesting). Concertos are dialogues between soloist and orchestra, the tuttis setting out themes that are then commented upon and developed by the soloist, with constant interaction between soloist and orchestra. Of course, the soloist has to be audible, and may therefore have to play somewhat louder than in chamber music; but that does not mean that he or she shouldn’t listen. Listening is a vital part of dialogue; people who talk without hearing what is being said to them are as boring in music as they are in life.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning of this rant, I do believe that attitudes have generally improved, both among young musicians and their teachers.

Playing chamber music is now seen, quite rightly, as a necessary part of being a musician; and it is proving to be hugely beneficial for every aspect of artistic growth.

Young artists are learning to think far more deeply about their role in music. To be a true musician, it is essential to be aware at all times whether one is playing the principal melody, the bass-line, a counter-melody, a decoration, or is part of accompanying harmony; whether one is taking over in the middle of a phrase from another player, or starting/ending a phrase; whether one is questioning or stating; and so on – and where better to learn to do that than in chamber music? Learning to listen and to react in that way will help one be a better teacher or concerto soloist or any other sort of performer (or listener). And that is only to talk about the musical/educational benefits. The musical/personal rewards can also be endless; the joy of discovering a work together, of finding that one is on the same wavelength as one’s colleagues, of the magic that can transpire between players when a performance is truly taking off – these are unique, priceless pleasures.

Chamber music should be at the absolute heart of our education and subsequent musical life; there’s still room for improvement, I think - but I’m glad to say that the musical world does seem (largely) to be realising that. So not all in our world is doom and gloom! -Steven


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Internationally renowned British cellist Steven Isserlis enjoys a diverse career as a soloist, chamber musician, educator, author, and broadcaster. He appears as soloist with the world's leading orchestras and is an active chamber musician for many distinguished festivals and venues, including Wigmore Hall, 92nd Street Y, and the Salzburg Festival. He plays on the Marquis de Corberon (Nelsova) Stradivarius of 1726, kindly loaned by the Royal Academy of Music.

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