Chamber music doesn’t really have a definition, but it does have a few paradigms; one key paradigm shows up in the following defining anecdote, given by one Michael Kelly (who sang Don Basilio in the first performance of Figaro):
Storace gave a quartett party to his friends. The players were tolerable; not one of them excelled on the instrument he played, but there was a little science among them, which I dare say will be acknowledged when I name them:
The First Violin — Haydn
The Second Violin — Baron Dittersdorf
The Violoncello — Vanhall
The Tenor — Mozart
The poet Casti and Paesiello formed part of the audience. I was there, and a greater treat, or a more remarkable one, cannot be imagined.
What this actually sounded like can only be speculated. It may have sounded very strange indeed. But there is something about the level of investigative musical imagining going on which can only have made it fascinating. And the scale of the event, combined with the possibility of so much musical curiosity in one room, makes this event one of the touchstones of the idea of chamber music.
What works this group performed for the party is anybody’s guess, but Mozart’s own string quartets could certainly benefit from such readers as these. Many of his finest and most famous works are from more public genres than the string quartet (opera, concertos, symphonies), and even in chamber music, he seems to have found more comfort in the richer mode of the viola quintet. The quartets he dedicated to Haydn, for example, are known to have cost him a good deal of time and trouble to write – string quartets leave little room for masquerade. The String Quartet in D minor, K. 421, has an unusually speculative, wistful, in-between quality, from its chaconne-tinted opening to its pastoral/ecclesiastical end. It is compositional study and public pleasure; it is interior investigation and structural experiment; and it is public and private in impossibly fine balance.