Chamber music refers to that body of composition for up to about 12 parts in which there is little or no doubling and in which each part is of equal importance. During Canada's formative years, from the 18th century, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were establishing the forms and typical groupings of instruments that have become standard, such as the string trio (violin, viola, cello), piano trio (violin, cello, piano), and especially the string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello).
The earliest documented activity of classical chamber music performance in Canada, at the opening of the 19th century, centered on Judge Jonathan SEWELL of Québec City, an amateur violinist. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of composition in Canada of chamber music at this time. A contemporary of Sewell's, Joseph QUESNEL from Montréal, is said to have written duos and quartets, although none has survived.
While European composers from Beethoven to Brahms were developing the genre in which both the musical language and the classical forms were much extended, Canadians turned scant attention to the medium until the last quarter of the 19th century. There were a number of marches, dances and character pieces for flute, violin and cornet, with piano accompaniment, but few examples of concert chamber music. Such composers as J.P. CLARKE and Calixa LAVALLÉE supposedly wrote for the genre, but these works too seem not to have survived. One of the earliest extant chamber works is Fantaisie sonate (1858) for flute and string quartet by Antoine DESSANE, a Québec City composer, organist and cellist.
From the 1870s several conservatories opened their doors, providing their string, woodwind and brass faculty with the opportunity to form chamber ensembles. Chamber music performance has flourished up to the present day in such teaching institutions. From Québec City's Septuor Haydn (founded in 1871 with string quintet, flute and piano), through several prominent string quartets, including the Toronto String Quartette Club (1884-87), Dubois (1910-38), (Toronto) Conservatory (1929-46), HART HOUSE (1923-46), Parlow (1943-58), ORFORD (1965-91), Vàghy (established in Canada 1968), PURCELL (1968-91) and the St Lawrence (fd 1989) string quartets, many of Canada's leading performers have added their expertise to the performance of works by the European masters as well as by Canadian composers.
With the opportunity for performance by the late 19th century, a few composers turned their attention to the genre, including Guillaume COUTURE (String Quartet, 1875), W.O. Forsyth (Quintette, 1886), Luigi von Kunits (String Quartet, 1891, and a viola sonata, 1919), Edward Manning (Trio, about 1900), Alexis CONTANT (Trio, 1907), Sir Ernest MACMILLAN (String Quartet, 1914), and Clarence Lucas (String Quartet, 1944, and numerous duets for violin and piano). Though these works exhibit a certain cautiousness in expression, lacking elements of current musical ideas from Europe such as in the work of Scriabin, Debussy and Schoenberg, they indicate nevertheless that Canadian composition had reached a high level of craft within a conservative idiom.
A correlation exists between the growth in popularity of the genre among Canadian composers and the growth in experimentation of 20th-century techniques, owing to the flexibility of chamber music as a vehicle for experimentation. The evolution towards greater experimentation began with Rodolphe MATHIEU, whose chromaticism stems from Debussy and early Schoenberg and is most apparent in his work from the 1920s (Quatuor no. 1, 1920, Trio, 1921, and Sonate pour violoncelle et piano, 1928). Unfortunately, his work was not well received in Canada.
It was the next generation of composers (those born in the early 20th century) whose experimentation was a more successful attempt to break with the past. John WEINZWEIG, Barbara PENTLAND and Jean PAPINEAU-COUTURE are among the first Canadian composers to have devoted a large part of their output to chamber music. Whether serialism, in the case of Weinzweig and Pentland, or chromaticism generally, in the case of Papineau-Couture, their musical language showed an awareness of current musical thought, which they then imparted to their students. They each produced a number of string quartets, in addition to Weinzweig's Woodwind Quintet (1964) and Papineau-Couture's Églogues (1942), with voice, and Sextuor (1967). The influence of Bartok and Hindemith is evident in Violet ARCHER's Trio no. 2 (1957), and Boulez's rigorous serialism is reflected in Serge GARANT's Offrande I (1969) and III (1971) and Circuits I & II (1972) and III (1973). Harry SOMERS's 3 string quartets (1943, 1950, 1959) show the influence of his primary teacher, Weinzweig, while his Twelve Miniatures (1964), which includes voice, indicates the independent road his style had taken.
One of Canada's most widely known composers, R. Murray SCHAFER, contributed much to the genre, including Requiems for the Party Girl (1966), which reflects his predilection for vocal lines sung to his own texts, and String Quartet No. 2 (1976), which shows his interest in the sound environment. Gilles TREMBLAY's interest in timbre is evident in such works as Champs I (for piano and 2 percussionists, 1965), II (Souffles, for 13 instrumentalists 1968) and III (Vers, for 12 instrumentalists, 1969) and Solstices (1971). Among the works of younger composers, John Hawkins's Remembrances (1969) and Claude Vivier's Prolifération (1969) are of particular interest for their incorporation of elements of theatre, which became a prominent preoccupation of many composers in the 1970s. Since the 1980s influences of minimalism, mysticism and Post-Romanticism, typified by Marjan Mozetich's Procession (1981) and Lament in the Trampled Garden (string quartet, 1992), Christos Holzis' Nunavut (string quartet and computer generated tape) which won the Jean A. Chalmers National Music Award in 1998 and Patrick Cardy's Qilakitsoq (The Sky Hangs Low, 1988), have added to the eclectic style of Canadian composition.
The flourishing of chamber music composition would not have been possible without the establishment of ensembles after WWII. Besides the string quartets already mentioned, brass and woodwind ensembles were formed, including the York Winds, the CANADIAN BRASS, and the Montreal Brass Quintet, as well as several ensembles of nontraditional groupings. Perhaps most important for composition in the genre was the establishment of several societies devoted to avant-garde chamber music, including the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (Montréal), New Music Concerts (Toronto), Array Music (Toronto), and the Vancouver New Music Society. The dangers of such societies can be the "ghettoization" of contemporary music, but with such recent organizations as the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival (founded 1994), composers and listeners have the opportunity to hear contemporary music in the context of music from every culture and era.