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It's a Scacchi Moment. Have a Scotch, and Let's Talk Chamber Music

I’ll have to admit even most music history experts might not know about Marco Scacchi. (Sca-chee). He was born near Rome in 1600, and was a trained violinist who wanted to be a composer. His teacher, Giovanni Francesco Anerio, was hired as master of music for the King of Poland, in Warsaw, so Marco went along for some more composition lessons. The crown prince Wladislaw was a fan of Italian opera after some travel there, and when Anerio and the King both died a few years later, Marco succeeded as the music master for the Chapel Royal, under the new King Wladislaw IV.

Marco wrote lots of Italian style masses and Italian operas for Wladislaw, and some books of madrigals heavily influenced by Monteverdi who was now in Venice. Some of the madrigals have survived, but very little remains of the other music. Now things get a little complicated, but keep reading, it won’t get too bad. Marco had written some music theory books which were distributed in estern Europe, and he had stirred up some controversy over how harmony and dissonance were treated in vocal music. He was treated rather viciously by several German music experts both in letters and in publications.

As Marco defended himself in replies, he also proposed a classification of serious musical compositions into three categories: 1. church music, 2. theater music, and 3. chamber music. He defended his proposal by pointing out that the musical style of each category could be distinctly recognized, and that the performance venue for each was entirely different. Scacchi was of course excluding folk music, popular dances, and military marches from his classification scheme. The important point here is that this was the first time a use-based classification of musical compositions was proposed, based on clearly defined characteristics. It came at an important time in music history, because separate types of compositions were already diverging within each of the categories by 1645 when he was writing.

Scacchi used the term chamber music to describe musical performance in small parlors of private homes, usually for members of the aristocracy or the wealthier middle class. The ensembles he had in mind were usually vocal quartets or quintets singing madrigals, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment, for a small size audience. The performers were most often amateurs from among the people at the party, because aristocrats were expected to have minimal skills reading music and singing or playing an instrument. But as musical styles evolved over time, professional musicians belonging to the household took over. And as keyboard instruments developed, they became a regular part of the ensemble. In Germany, the tradition continued in the term hausmusik, which referred to amateur performances in the home. In central Europe, the music printing business prospered by selling ensemble music for domestic use. So the term “chamber music” finally survived in many different languages across Europe. Back in Poland, Wladislaw died, and Scacchi went back to Italy, taught composition for another decade, and died near Rome in 1662.

We now refer to Chamber Music as small ensemble music performed by a variety of instrumentalists and/or vocalists, typically one to a part. The current custom of professional ensembles playing in public venues began a little more than two centuries ago. In closing I will assure you that you will probably never be asked who invented the term “Chamber Music”, but if it should ever happen, you are now ready to answer: “Marco Scacchi.”

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