Beethoven's String Quartets - movement by movement

There is wide consensus that Beethoven’s string quartets are some of the greatest masterpieces in western culture. Proof of that is how Beethoven draws audiences to the concert halls season after season. One often receives deep nods of approval when mentioning the “Grosse Fugue” or “The Late Quartets” in conversation. I think any person, who opens themselves up emotionally when listening to music, will experience the greatness of a good piece of music when it is well performed. But as a teacher, and as a performer who is often asked to speak about the pieces I perform, the task of explaining what makes these compositions great is a different story.

The world of concert lectures is an ever growing field. There is something about great classical music that ignites people’s curiosity. But there are very few people who can speak about great music in a way that speaks to people regardless of their level of knowledge. If you aren’t sure about what I mean, take a look at this lecture by Leonard Bernstein:

As a highly trained musician, I find it riveting. But there is no knowledge necessary to access what Bernstein is talking about. How can we explain some of the genius in Beethoven’s innovative harmonic language without using musical jargon that will leave non-musicians feeling like ignoramuses?\

In the following set of articles, I will attempt to speak about Beethoven’s quartets one movement at a time. I am not sure yet where this journey will take me. My level of knowledge about these quartets varies. I first encountered some of the quartets as a youngster playing chamber music for the first time. Other quartets I encountered years later. With some of these pieces I spent time delving into the structure and harmony, while having played them only a few times. Others I have played often, but have spent little time on analysis.

I participated in a masterclass that Daniel Barenboim gave a young conductor in the Salzburg Festival once. I was playing in the orchestra, the young conductor was leading us in Beethoven’s 3rd “Leonora” Overture, and Maestro Barenboim was coaching him. At a certain moment, Barenboim asked the young conductor why he showed the principal clarinetist to take time on a certain interval in their solo? The young conductor thought for a while and finally answered that he felt it that way. Barenboim then said that feeling is wonderful, but that it is only the first step in the process of learning a composition. He then described the process as starting with our emotional responses to the music, then comes a long process of questions, analysis, and observations essentially asking what in the text makes us feel this way, and examining weather the text supports our feelings? Finally, when we perform the piece, we go back to feeling the music, with the full weight of the knowledge behind our feelings.

I think this approach is what leads me in my relationship with the pieces I play. In particular the ones I come back to again and again, like Beethoven’s quartets. I am not going to try and capture everything about each of these movements, but perhaps my thought and observations will spark some of the readers to embark on their journey, which may (and probably will) lead them to different conclusions than mine.