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From Loose Change to Reconciliation in Beethoven Quartets

Often the blogs we write have something to do with the calendar: a historic event, date of birth or death, etc. but this blog concerns a favorite topic of mine. Going through all the Robert Greenberg courses that the Music Section offers, I found one called “The String Quartets of Beethoven.” So I got the digital talking book it and began listening.

“No fictional pulp, crystal skulls, or cantina scenes here,” Greenberg declares in his first lecture, entitled “Loose Change, “just the single most important set of chamber works ever created by a member of our species.” In the concluding lecture, Greenberg explains, “The task Beethoven set for himself in Op. 135 is a bit like sending the Tasmanian devil to etiquette school” yet it is “like all of its late quartet siblings, about reconciliation.”

The sixteen Beethoven quartets are explored in 24 lectures, usually one lecture per quartet, but three of the five “late” quartets get two lectures each, and the C-sharp-minor quartet gets three lectures. While there is much about sonata form, fugue, and theme and variation here, there is plenty of information about Beethoven’s life, and how his music evolved in response to his increasing deafness and political circumstances.

The String Quartets of Beethoven is found at DBM03760. Other Robert Greenberg courses relating to Beethoven include:

The Symphonies of Beethoven, DBM01612
Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, DBM02513
Beethoven: His Life and Music, DBM02435,

Greenberg offers many other courses on opera, music appreciation, and composers from Bach to Shostakovich.

If you want an introduction to the string quartet genre, try:

The String Quartet, DBM00308
The Music of the String Quartets, DBM00254
History of String Quartets, DBM00168

You may think, as I did, that finding a Beethoven quartet in braille is like searching for that “lost penny.” The Norton Anthology of Western Music, Vol. 2, by James Burkholder, BRM36039 contains the first and second movements of Beethoven’s quartet No. 14, Op. 131. Borrow it or download it, then you can follow the score as Greenberg elucidates it in Lectures 21-23. In braille volumes 11 and 12 of “Anthology for Musical Analysis”, by Charles Burkhart, BRM32023, you will find all four movements of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 16, Op. 135; this is also on BARD. This will help with Lecture 24. And we have the Cavatina fifth movement of the Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, arranged for violin and piano, at BRM26094, to accompany Lecture 19.

Anyone interested in string quartets may enjoy a book I just learned about today: “Con Brio: Four Russians Called the Budapest”, by Nat Brandt, DB 38384, about the Budapest String Quartet. And if you’ve never experienced “Rage over a Lost Penny”, get Beethoven’s Rondo a Capriccio for Piano, Op. 129: BRM01587 (bar-by-bar format), BRM28033, section-by-section format; BRM21370, paragraph format, this one may also be downloaded from BARD.

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