Chamber Music Made Personal

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)
Theodor Adorno

Does art really exist for art’s sake? Around the middle of the last century, a few musicians declared that it does not. Rather than regarding music as a collection of beautiful, perfectly constructed masterworks that exist for our admiration and contemplation, created by musical superheroes whose genius set them apart from the rest of the world, it would be better to embed music in its social fabric. One of the most important voices in this cause was Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), who wrote extensively about music as a social object that contains an image of the world. Adorno, who essentially founded what today is called the sociology of music, believed that music was a powerful social force that could bring about change and the realization of truth, or function as a tool to oppress and lull us into complacency. Even so-called “absolute music” like a late Beethoven string quartet, which may bear no obvious relation to the everyday world, was socially meaningful to him. Adorno’s influence was strong, and the belief that music should not be separated from its cultural and historical contexts, nor from the purposes it serves in society, gained ground.


A significant development in the sociology of music was the realization that music-making itself is a social performance, encompassing the conditions of production, performance, and reception. Christopher Small’s Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (1998) is one of those seminal texts that caused a great stir at the time of its publication by redefining music: “There is no such thing as music. It is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.” Small worked as a teacher, performer, composer, and writer. He was a recognized member of both the musicological and ethnomusicological communities but held no advanced degree in music; his training was in medicine and the biological sciences. He never found one type of music better than another. His background in zoology led him to think about the connections among life forms and organisms and apply them to music, an approach that was very different from the prevailing academic mindset.

Christopher Small
Christopher Small

Small contended that the information all living creatures need to respond to concerns their relationships and that interacting within relationships is a creative process. This interaction in life or music may produce a response to beauty, but that response is contingent upon the interaction and not some abstract standard of aesthetic beauty. For Small, beauty lies in doing and in relationships. “To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing, or practicing, by providing performance material (composing), or by dancing…To take tickets at the door, to pay attention in any way to a musical performance…even to a recording or to Muzak in an elevator, is to music.” Small’s idea of “musicking” is important because it has directly influenced a new awareness of the field of chamber music as the ideal setting for creating and communicating relationships on multiple levels.

Adorno, too, prized the milieu of chamber music as a space that demands the social connections so endangered by modernity and industrialization. The players themselves make the musical decisions, with no need for a conductor, so that each voice receives its due: chamber music, he said, “practices courtesy.” Listeners, attending to the varied tone colors and complex textures of the music, experience and learn responsiveness to others. Taking up the causes of Adorno and Small, recent publications such as Haydn and the Performance of Rhetoric (2007), Taking It To The Bridge: Music as Performance (2013), Mozart’s Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (2016), and The Chamber Musician in the Twenty-First Century (2022), all share the premise that music making is fundamentally a collaborative, social enterprise.

Truly a Social Event

Musicking also gives rise to a relationship between its activity and the space in which it occurs. Specific spaces inform our experiences of music, and music informs our understanding of the spaces. The only way to examine this interplay is to understand the spaces themselves; in the words of musician- sociologist Lisa McCormick, “a building is a social performance.” In the unique acoustic environment of Guarneri Hall, players and listeners hear the musical sounds interacting like real-life characters with personalities, functions, and goals: the gentle, lyrical melody comes as a soothing relief after the loud, aggressive opening theme; the piano answers the question posed by the clarinet; the viola impatiently interrupts the cello. The players support, balance, and challenge each other according to their understanding of their roles. Meanwhile, the closeness between the audience and performers allows listeners to absorb the acting out of these relationships through the players’ attitudes, efforts, and gestures, responding with their attitudes and reactions to what they hear and see and correlating it to their experiences. Listeners and performers thus depend on each other to make meaning out of the sounds and sights that arise in the intimate space that they both share. A concert at Guarneri Hall is truly a social event!

Human Connections Through Music

Guarneri Hall exists to foster these human connections through music. For Christopher Small, the nature of the social contact afforded by the performance space is key to the meaning of the musical performance. “Every building, from the tiniest hut to the biggest airport terminal, is designed and built to house some aspect of human behavior and relationships, and its design reflects its builders’ assumptions about that behavior and those relationships.” We at Guarneri Hall believe that music is personal. It is meant to be made by us and used by us to transform our thinking and feeling selves. Beginning with our 2023-24 season Guarneri Hall Presents will explore new pathways through a vast and variegated landscape of musical characters, situations, sounds, and styles. We are curious about what we will see and hear there, too! More importantly, we hope that over the months and years to come, you will be inspired to travel these paths of discovery along with us and to celebrate the many layers of meaning — surprises, memories, heartaches, hopes, and joys — that arise within us and resonate among us when we engage in the act of musicking.

Guarneri Hall’s 2023-24 season begins on August 26 with the NEXUS Chamber Music Festival.

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