Beethoven’s string quartets are not as well known as the symphonies and piano sonatas that dominated his creative output. But their sophistication and innovation have earned them a place among the most sublime masterpieces in the classical repertory.
In lectures highlighted by video clips of performances and music recordings, musicologist Daniel Freeman explores the history of these works, their unique characteristics, and the influence of the social and cultural milieu in which they were created. Participants develop a greater understanding and appreciation for Beethoven's genius and the exhilarating beauty of these masterworks.
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Introduction to Beethoven and the String Quartet
During Beethoven’s youth in the late 18th century, the string quartet was the most prestigious genre of chamber music cultivated in Europe. The genre’s style and format—a musical conversation among four string players—was largely shaped by Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher. At first, Beethoven imitated Haydn’s techniques. Soon, he introduced more individualistic approaches, foreshadowing the emotional power and musical virtuosity of his mature compositions.
11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Early Period Quartets (1798-1800)
Beethoven produced only one collection of string quartets during his early period: the Op. 18 quartets written between 1798 and 1800 and published in 1801. Haydn’s influence is readily apparent in the music, but so is the sense that Beethoven is trying to break free of 18th-century restraints with bold new approaches to harmony, rhythm, and melodic style.
12:15 to 1:15 p.m. Break
1:15 to 2:30 p.m. Middle Period Quartets (1805-1810)
The five quartets Beethoven composed in the early 1800s fully conform to the principal stylistic hallmarks of the symphonies and piano sonatas he wrote about the same time: spacious proportions, stunning emotional impact, advanced harmonic content, dazzling virtuosity, and qualities of nobility and heroism. Beethoven’s best-known quartet is the first of the set of three known as the “Razumovksy” Quartets, Op. 59, but the remaining quartets from this period (including Opp. 74 and 95) are equally as brilliant.
2:45 to 4 p.m. Late Period Quartets (1823-1826)
Beethoven wrote an extraordinary series of string quartets in the years just before his death in 1827: Opp. 127, 130–133, and 135. These quartets, all written when Beethoven was completely deaf, were famous for their experimentation with dissonant harmonies and unconventional melodic styles. Although they encountered visceral hostility from many of the first audiences who heard them, modern listeners are much more receptive to their introspective musings.
Freeman lectures on classical music and opera topics nationally and internationally and teaches at the University of Minnesota.
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