YouTube is a modern miracle. It’s an unparalleled resource that enriches our lives in ways never possible before. I will admit there is some content on YouTube that will leave you somewhat less intelligent (check out British Animal Voiceovers); and I have learned that astoundingly, the site has approximately two million cat videos. It does have its flaws, but the treasures waiting to be discovered on YouTube defy belief.
My notable YouTube discovery this week is a historic video of a 1969 performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. The video features a handful of music’s all-time greats: Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré, Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim. Without a doubt, it’s a superlative performance: full-throttle playing, and technically flawless from every member of the all-star ensemble.
Even more fascinating than the performance is the fifteen or so minutes of footage before they go onstage. You get a chance to see the musicians rehearse the music together, and more remarkably, you see them hanging out backstage. They smile, they laugh, they joke, and we are given a rare glimpse of the remarkable friendship that connects them. It’s this part of the video that really captures the essence of what chamber music is all about.
Chamber music takes its name from the spaces in which it was intended to be played: historically a palace chamber or large room. In contrast to orchestral music, it’s a much more intimate setting, and the music itself behaves much more like a conversation between friends. For many years, chamber music was a favourite pastime of many amateur musicians, and it was most often played in someone’s home. With composers like Beethoven and Schubert, the music became more technically demanding, and chamber music became more the province of professional musicians. The presentation has become more formal, but the music is still best experienced in a smaller, more intimate setting than a concert hall.
With the right group of musicians, chamber music is a richly rewarding experience for both players and audience. Compared to how an orchestra functions, it’s an entirely different way of making music. You might call it more democratic. With an orchestra, it’s largely left to the conductor to make the crucial decisions about the interpretation of a particular piece. This is out of necessity, as the group is too large to function any other way; rehearsal by committee simply doesn’t work. But with chamber music, the group is usually no bigger than five or six. This allows every musician to have his or her say in deciding how best to bring the music off the page. Even if you’re not a musician, you can understand the appeal.
There are two billion YouTube users worldwide, which explains why there is such an astonishing wealth of content out there. Without leaving our couches, we have unprecedented opportunities to explore our rich musical past and present. And so many cats.