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String Quartets of Beethoven

String Quartets of Beethoven

Professor Robert Greenberg Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Course No.  7240
Course No.  7240
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  46 minutes per lecture

In his 16 quartets for two violins, viola, and cello, Beethoven created a Mount Everest for string players and some of the most sublime, unforgettable music ever written. Continuing to astound listeners after 200 years, these glorious quartets give voice to the innermost landscape of the human heart and spirit. They stand, like Michelangelo's statues or the plays of Shakespeare, at the pinnacle of Western art.

These history-making pieces revolutionized the string quartet as an art form, bringing to it bold new musical resources and expressive content. In these works, Beethoven mastered, then transcended, the accepted musical norms, creating the quartets as both a trailblazing manifesto of personal expression and a daring challenge to the Western conception of music itself.

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In his 16 quartets for two violins, viola, and cello, Beethoven created a Mount Everest for string players and some of the most sublime, unforgettable music ever written. Continuing to astound listeners after 200 years, these glorious quartets give voice to the innermost landscape of the human heart and spirit. They stand, like Michelangelo's statues or the plays of Shakespeare, at the pinnacle of Western art.

These history-making pieces revolutionized the string quartet as an art form, bringing to it bold new musical resources and expressive content. In these works, Beethoven mastered, then transcended, the accepted musical norms, creating the quartets as both a trailblazing manifesto of personal expression and a daring challenge to the Western conception of music itself.

How can we get the most from these intriguing masterpieces? In their mold-breaking construction and rich complexity, how can we find our way to their essence and hear them with full understanding?

In The String Quartets of Beethoven, Professor Robert Greenberg, composer and celebrated music historian at San Francisco Performances, guides you in a deep encounter with these majestic works of art, offering you the rare opportunity to grasp the musical riches and spiritual greatness of the quartets in a clear and accessible way. Speaking with passion, profound insight, and refreshing informality, Dr. Greenberg reveals the secrets of these multifaceted works in twenty-four 45-minute lectures, aided at every turn by the masterful interpretations of the Alexander String Quartet.

Decoding Genius

In this compelling inquiry, you uncover the musical underpinnings of the luminous beauty, emotional depth, and dramatic scope that make these quartets legendary, and you probe the inner workings of one of history's most innovative minds.

This is not formal, academic analysis, but rather a directly accessible entry into the real substance of the quartets, giving you both an intelligent way to listen to them and follow their structure as well as an understanding of what makes them expressively impactful, dazzlingly original, and ultimately great as works of art.

The String Quartets of Beethoven gives you a way of knowing these quartets that opens the door to years of pleasure and insight into great music.

One Man Transforms an Art Form

As the course opens, Dr. Greenberg plunges you directly into the exciting atmosphere of Vienna in the late 18th century. In Vienna and Italy, the string quartet evolves from the earlier "trio sonata" into what many consider the single most intimate and conversational of musical genres. You learn the "ritual template" of the Classical string quartet, and you probe the seminal innovations of Haydn and Mozart within the template, as they set the stage for the explosive arrival of Beethoven.

At the heart of the course, Dr. Greenberg takes you on a movement-by-movement exploration of the individual Beethoven quartets, revealing the arc of the composer's fierce independence and imagination, as he brings to the string quartet an expressive, formal, and narrative range undreamed of by earlier musicians.

Your exploration includes extensive listening and study of these landmark quartets:

  • Opus 18, no. 6: The most radically innovative of the early quartets. Here Beethoven alters the Classical structure of the string quartet, forcing listeners to think and hear in new ways.
  • Opus 59, no. 1: Proceeding from his "heroic" self-reinvention of 1803, in Opus 59, no. 1 Beethoven unveils string quartet writing of symphonic scope and dramatic power, demonstrating his mature compositional innovations.
  • Opus 127: The haunting, exquisite lyricism of this quartet, set within a work of dramatic contrasts, is one of the high points of Beethoven's work with the genre.
  • Opus 130 and the Grand Fugue: A rich, unfolding sequence of diverse movements, culminating in the monumental Grand Fugue, is the epitome of Beethoven's personal, subjective vision of fugue.
  • Opus 131: Plumbing the multiple expressive milestones of this seven-part, operatically conceived quartet, you devote three lectures to what many consider to be Beethoven's single "most perfect" work.

Professor Greenberg's many provocative insights deepen your understanding, as in his suggestion that you hear the structure of Opus 130 as "circular" rather than linear, relating each individual movement organically to the Grand Fugue.

Revolutionary Music, Conceived for a Later Age

Your immersion in the musical "meat" of the individual quartets grounds the story of Beethoven's artistic trajectory with the quartets as a whole. You delve deeply into the musical innovations that underlie Beethoven's phenomenal, unfolding creativity in these works:

  • "Motivic" development: You learn how Beethoven created entire movements using the simplest musical ideas or "motives"—how his core focus was not the musical material per se, but what the material could become, through transformation.
  • Ongoing dramatic narrative: Throughout the quartets, you see how Beethoven conceived of a multimovement instrumental composition telling a single, narrative story.
  • Originality: You observe how Beethoven pursued an uncompromising ideal of artistic growth and personal inventiveness, and how his refusal to "stand still" redefined the role of the composer.
  • Contextual use of form: You see how, in the quartets, Beethoven altered and extended musical forms such as sonata, fugue, and theme and variation, bending them to his own expressive purposes or "contextual" needs.

Vivid Details of a Path of Creation

Professor Greenberg brings out details of Beethoven's personal life as they relate to the writing of the quartets, showing how multiple aspects of his difficult circumstances and personality—in addition to practical and commercial matters—contributed to the specific direction he took with these works.

You learn how Beethoven arrived in Vienna at the time of a public mania for string quartets, and how his Opus 18 quartets gave him the chance to wrestle with the form and prove himself, as both a master of the Classical quartet "template" and a boldly original voice.

You see how in late 1802, driven close to suicide by his oncoming deafness, Beethoven managed to reinvent himself with the Enlightenment-inspired identity of a hero triumphing over fate—and how this "new self" took direct and dynamic musical form in the quartets of Opus 59.

You learn how Beethoven's personal belief in redemption through struggle and perseverance is reflected in the "cathartic" narrative structure of Opuses 95, 131, and 132.

And you observe how, in his last years, ill, isolated, and poverty stricken, he poured his remaining resources of body and spirit into the magnificent late quartets, creating them as the "last revelations of his spirit."

Professor Greenberg's gift as a teacher is his ability to make the abstraction of great music directly comprehensible, while speaking to a range of experience in his listeners. Seasoned musicians will find the lectures an ingenious and far-reaching illumination of the quartets and of Beethoven's unfolding innovations. Newcomers to Classical music will find them a very welcoming and accessible path to the heart of these extraordinary creations.

Throughout the course, the quartets come to vibrant life in the playing of the renowned Alexander String Quartet—a group that has lived these works deeply, praised by The New York Times for the "power and poignancy" of its interpretations.


"He who divines the secret of my music is delivered from the misery that haunts the world." —Beethoven

In The String Quartets of Beethoven, Dr. Greenberg offers you a rare and life-enriching opportunity: to grapple with the inner workings of musical genius, with the creation of the deepest and richest of human expression, in your encounter with these works that define the power of art.

With a rare melding of nonverbal "voices," Beethoven gives expression to the poignant depths and heights of human experience; to the anguish, awe, and ecstasy of living—and to a liberating, transcendent domain of the spirit, beyond place and time.

Take this opportunity, in The String Quartets of Beethoven, to know the scope of Beethoven's genius, his most unforgettable music, and the profound humanity and beauty that live through them.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    "Loose Change"
    Enter Beethoven's tumultuous life, considering his spirit of revolutionary change and self-invention, as well as the influence of his personal crises and health problems on his creative output. Then learn the evolution of the string quartet, shaped by the ideals of the Enlightenment. Probe the innovations of Haydn and Mozart in "obbligato" accompaniment and Classical counterpoint, producing the string quartet as an art form joining four independent, highly "conversational" voices. x
  • 2
    Beethoven's Classical Inheritance
    Trace Beethoven's highly charged youth in Vienna as he reaches fame under the patronage of two royal figures, giving him the freedom to move forward quickly with his own artistic vision. Next, study the classical structure of the string quartet, focusing on Beethoven's Opus 18 no. 3. Consider the sonata, rondo, and minuet and trio forms, as Beethoven uses them idiosyncratically in this work, bringing brilliant originality to his first adventure with the string quartet. x
  • 3
    Beethoven Busts Out!
    This lecture charts Beethoven's creative development in the quartets of Opus 18, as well as his exploits in "marketing" them in the illustrious musical world of Vienna. You discover Beethoven's great ingenuity in his second quartet, as he develops a vibrant first movement from a single musical "motive," which then forms a subliminal link to the contrasting, darkly romantic second movement. Learn about his bold innovations with the scherzo form and the compelling architecture of the concluding rondo. x
  • 4
    In Deference to His Masters
    In forging his vision of the string quartet, Beethoven immersed himself in the methods of both Haydn and Mozart. Study how Beethoven experimented with aspects of Haydn's technique and "wit" in Opus 18 no. 2, while making them thoroughly his own. Learn about Beethoven's intense spiritual relationship with Mozart, and observe how he deliberately modeled Opus 18 no. 5 on Mozart's "esoteric" A Major Quartet of 1785, absorbing and extending essential features of Mozart's style. x
  • 5
    Something Old and Something New
    The lecture explores Beethoven's eccentric personal habits and his lifelong use of musical sketchbooks to introduce the puzzling origins of Opus 18 no. 4, the "Orphan" Quartet. Probe the internal evidence that suggests how this curiously uneven quartet may have been written. Also investigate the revolutionary nature of Opus 18 no. 6, where a melancholic "extra" movement and unpredictable shifts between light and darkness foreshadow the radical Middle Quartets. x
  • 6
    Beethoven in 1805
    In the early 19th century Beethoven passed through a shattering personal crisis, leading to a self-reinvention and new artistic path. Contemplate Beethoven's adopted "heroic" identity, inspired by the rise of Napoleon, and his new path in action, as he musically echoes his own struggles and despair in the history-making "Eroica" Symphony. And identify his key compositional innovations and his bold new vision of music as personal self-expression as revealed in the "Razumovsky" quartets. x
  • 7
    Opus 59, No. 1—Revolution in Action, Part 1
    The extraordinary first movement of Opus 59, no. 1 contains specific links to the Eroica Symphony, taking string quartet writing into the realm of orchestral scope and substance. In a detailed analysis of the movement, you study Beethoven's ingenious use of musical "motives," bold extremes of high and low registers, and the multitextured architecture of the exposition and development sections, as they create a sense of narrative storytelling with a deeply expressive thrust. x
  • 8
    Opus 59, No. 1—Revolution in Action, Part 2
    This lecture tackles the remaining movements of the revolutionary Opus 59, no. 1. Discover the brilliantly original scherzo, with its elaborate and unpredictable structure, surprising harmonic shifts, and constant thematic variations. Also track the dark, anguished third movement, whose meditation on darkness culminates in a subtle, unexpected transition to the light-filled final movement. See how Beethoven incorporates elements in the finale that unite the piece as a complete, movement-to-movement dramatic narrative. x
  • 9
    String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2
    Opus 59 highlights Beethoven's evolving belief in music as a dramatic, narrative progression. Chart his narrative impulse in Opus 59, no. 2, starting with the taut first movement, which builds a complex dramatic "story" as an outgrowth of two chords. Then follow the unfolding progression in the meditative second movement, the irreverent, Russian-themed scherzo, and the groundbreaking use of the finale as another bold step in a forward-moving journey. x
  • 10
    String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3
    In the last quartet of Opus 59, Beethoven takes inspiration from Mozart in pursuing his own iconoclastic vision further. Investigate the jarring dissonances of the opening, and the highly unusual, use of the first violin as a dramatic "character." Next, study his use of the "crude" augmented second in the second movement, and his third-movement incarnation of a scandalous new dance—the waltz. Finally, penetrate the structure and expressive heart of the explosive, racing finale. x
  • 11
    Beethoven in 1809
    This lecture reveals circumstances in Beethoven's personal life that formed the backdrop for his huge creative burst between 1805 and 1809. Explore the composer's highly eccentric and difficult behavior with friends and patrons and the ways in which his personal crises fed his creativity. Additionally, trace the wars and political strife in Austria that accompanied the writing of a string of Beethoven's masterworks and the role of his heroic music in expressing the frustrations and ideals of his adopted homeland. x
  • 12
    The "Harp"
    The "Harp" Quartet of 1809 reveals Beethoven's reexploration of Classical ideals—an unexpectedly graceful, intimate piece written in a time of dire emotional and financial hardships. Study the "conversational" architecture of the first movement and his contrasting, double use of theme and variations form. Then investigate the quartet's distinguishing "secrets," from its radically new use of "pizzicato" as an integral element to its unusual centering of expressive extremes in the middle movements. x
  • 13
    The "Serioso"—Opus 95
    Dedicated to one of his closest friends, Beethoven's "Serioso" Quartet unfolds as a deeply personal vision. In uncovering its expressive resources, you study his jarring juxtapositions of light and dark in the first movement and his unsettling use of the "Neapolitan" chord. In the later movements, consider how Beethoven's ambiguous harmonies and unpredictable mood shifts evoke the sense of a troubled journey. Finally, reflect on the highly surprising ending of the piece and on theories that may explain its meaning to the composer. x
  • 14
    Beethoven in 1824
    The years between 1810 and 1825 frame a period of supreme upheaval, conflict, and ultimate rebirth for Beethoven. Probe the events of this era, as they illuminate his evolution as a composer and prefigure the writing of his "late" quartets. Learn about his many personal crises, including his deafness, a dramatic rise and fall in public acclaim, and personal relationships involving profound psychological trauma. And assess his second artistic self-reinvention, as he emerges with a string of masterworks that transform Western music. x
  • 15
    Opus 127, Part 1
    The "late" quartets, coming on the heels of the Missa Solemnis and the great Ninth Symphony, occupied Beethoven completely during the final years and months of his life. This lecture begins your journey into the orchestral scale and profound lyricism of Opus 127. Learn how the expressive power of the first movement rests on Beethoven's melding of dramatic extremes and use of unusual key relations. Also investigate his highly personal use of theme and variations form in the second movement. x
  • 16
    Opus 127, Part 2
    Dr. Greenberg frames the conclusion of Opus 127 with poignant details of Beethoven's hearing loss and the creation of his famous "Conversation Books." Study the hugely compelling scherzo, comparing its unpredictable, almost schizophrenic contrasts to analogies in the Ninth Symphony. Then trace innovations in the richly melodic finale, noting the ambiguous return of the primary theme in a kind of "false" recapitulation. Afterward, consider the factors surrounding the difficult public reception of the quartet. x
  • 17
    String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, Part 1
    This lecture focuses on the complex first movement of Opus 132, which achieves great expressive impact through unrelenting contrasts. In the opening, study the elements of "appoggiatura" and descending semitones that form the bleak, indistinct theme 1, and the jarring juxtaposition of the lilting second theme. Later, unravel the abstruse construction of the development section, incorporating a "transposed exposition," as it deepens the movement's aura of anxiety and incompleteness. x
  • 18
    String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, Part 2
    As a totality, Opus 132 articulates the "cathartic impulse" in Beethoven's music, leading through adversity and struggle to a state of grace. You investigate the polyphonic voicing and expressive contrasts in the melodic scherzo, followed by the ethereal, spiritual "Hymn of Thanksgiving," based in the Lydian mode and inspired by Beethoven's recovery from illness. Last, explore the darkly urgent rondo, whose contrasting episodes lead the quartet to a transformative conclusion of light and renewal. x
  • 19
    Opus 130 and the Grand Fugue, Part 1
    The lecture opens with dramatic details of Beethoven's relationship with two personal assistants during the writing of the late quartets and of the circumstances surrounding Opus 130 and the role of the legendary Grand Fugue. You delve deeply into the formal construction of this quartet, focusing specially on the extreme contrasts within the powerful opening movement, the rhythmic sophistication of the Alla danza tedesca, and the haunting lyricism of the Cavatina, which "grounds" the quartet expressively. x
  • 20
    Opus 130 and the Grand Fugue, Part 2
    The Grand Fugue is one of Beethoven's most sublime and most "modern" creations. Consider the majestic scope and impact of the fugue, as it brings together the markedly contrasting movements that precede it. Next, study its compelling structure, focusing on the four "double" fugue sections contained within it. Probe the profound influence of Bach on Beethoven's aesthetics and the story of the fugue's reception, leading to Beethoven's highly controversial decision to replace it with an alternate finale for Opus 130. x
  • 21
    String Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131, Part 1
    Beethoven considered this monumental, seven-section quartet to be his single greatest composition. In this first lecture devoted to it, consider his visionary conception of fugue form and how he reverses the structural sequence of Opus 130 by conceiving this quartet with a first-movement fugue. Discover how the tonal structure of the opening fugue defines the harmonic unfolding of the entire quartet, and study the fugue's components in detail, culminating with its ambiguous, forward-looking conclusion. x
  • 22
    String Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131, Part 2
    Continuing with Opus 131, investigate Beethoven's unpredictable harmonic transitions, linking the quartet's "movements" without separation in an ongoing, episodic continuity. Study the structure of the rondo and the following recitative section, noting their expressive functions within the whole. And track the arc of the theme and variations, in its movement from sustained, Classical lyricism to yet another inconclusive "ending," as the hymn-like final variation is dramatically disrupted, bringing timeless contemplation back to earth. x
  • 23
    String Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131, Part 3
    Finally, reflect on the operatic structure and thrust of Opus 131 and the ways Beethoven unifies and balances the seven sections. Take apart the driving, "triple" scherzo, focusing on its complex trio section and dramatic, disorienting climax. Dig deeply into the explosive finale, tracking its thematic echoes of earlier movements, its triumphant recapitulation, which Wagner called "the dance of the whole world itself," and its multipart coda, ending on a grand gesture of affirmation. x
  • 24
    Reconciliation—String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135
    You conclude with Beethoven's astonishing final quartet and with reflections on the scope of his musical goals and artistic achievement. Opus 135 appears to be a return to Classicism—yet ultimately reveals another visionary extension of Beethoven's sensibility. Focus on his supreme ingenuity in the first movement, as he presents melodic events in "non-linear" time frames; the scherzo, with its stunning, ferocious trio section; and the enigmatic finale, representing the composer's philosophical farewell. x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Greenberg
Ph.D. Robert Greenberg
San Francisco Performances

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands.

He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres.

Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.

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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 24 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Some Pointers About Greenberg's Pointers It's no wonder that Robert Greenberg is one of the Teaching Company's most popular professors. He is knowledgeable, engaging, and witty. Since other reviewers have already described his many virtues, let me respectfully comment on one of his quirks. Apparently, no one ever informed the good professor that it's not polite to point. And point he does. Sometimes his index fingers are jabbing upwards, which gives no particular offense. More troublingly, though, they often point to and jab at you, the viewer. I've probably listened to and watched hundreds of excellent Teaching Company courses during the past 15 years, and no professor is without quirks. I find it's best to ignore them. Or, in this case, you might want to consider the audio version of Greenberg's courses. August 23, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Really good - but you have to do the work Like all the Great Courses, this is not something you just sit back and absorb. You need a good background in music theory (what is a cadence, a diminished fifth, harmonic minor?) and you have to actively listen to the whole quartets, preferably several times, before and after hearing the lectures. Yeah, there's a good bit of historical background and trivia, but it does illuminate things a bit. The music never really "speaks for itself" - it lies within historical and personal context and in the case of Beethoven it's not so easy to disentangle the music from the man. The references to Haydn and Mozart are especially helpful in terms of understanding the evolution of the formal and material aspects of the quartet. Likewise the correlations with various symphonies, sonatas, and other Beethoven works. And the music is pretty good too. I have to add, as well, that I got this for free for evaluating the packaging material. Bargain of the last few years I'd say. I'm just getting caught up on my coursework. July 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Tailored for a specific audience DVD reviews. I came to appreciate classical music well after my teens. With no musical background whatsoever, I believe my tastes evolved through a fairly common path. First came "easy listening" tunes like Pachelbel's Canon. Loud, brassy symphonies, concertos and operas with catchy melodies soon followed. Excessive familiarity eventually led me to explore less-obvious choices, including early music and chamber pieces. Dr. Greenberg's CHAMBER MUSIC OF MOZART and STRING QUARTETS OF BEETHOVEN — the order is important — are great introductions to the string quartet as it evolved from Haydn through Mozart to Beethoven, who fundamentally redefined the genre's potential. BUT, BUT these two course do assume a basic understanding, or at least a high tolerance for, music theory at a level achievable if you first go through Greenberg's UNDERSTANDING THE FUNDAMENTALS OF MUSIC. Without this background information, these courses will sound like BLAH, BLAH, BLAH → MUSIC SNIPPET → BLAH, BLAH, BLAH → ANOTHER SNIPPET → BLAH, BLAH ..... Here is a BLAH, BLAH example, 17 minutes into Lesson 9 of BEETHOVEN: "The development section begins with the sequence of 2-chord units, each followed by a measure of silence, as the harmony moves forward from E-flat major to E-flat minor to B-major finally arriving in B-minor for a lengthy sequential modulatory passage based on theme 1." You get the point. Except for some delightful biographical lectures here and there, BLAH BLAH is what you hear for hours on end. Greenberg is a wonderful, entertaining lecturer, probably TTC's best. But music presents unique challenges. Whereas paintings can be shown at a glance, with plenty of speculation about what is portrayed or the artist's biography, music is invisible and flows through time. It moves us more viscerally, yet requires a fairly abstract vocabulary to explain and compare. _______________ To sum up..... If you expect long stretches of beautiful music briefly interrupted by vague babblings about what Mozart or Beethoven must have felt, these courses will seriously disappoint. Just buy the music CDs and enjoy yourself. If the Greenberg quotation mentioned above sounds like technical jargon that adds nothing to your aesthetic appreciation for chamber music, then stay away. These courses are designed either for musically literate people, or for TTC clients with an engineer's propensity to "look under the hood" and find out how these mechanisms work. Greenberg's courses also offer you a vocabulary to compare and contrast musical performances with like-minded enthusiasts. Highly recommended if you fit that description. The course guidebooks are great. Audio versions are all you really need. June 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Awesome! Professor Greenberg is a superstar teacher. I have taken a number of his courses and I always feel enriched after completing them. Having got used to his high standard I wasn't expecting him to get any better, yet somehow he managed to do so in this course. He has done a number of courses covering other aspects of Beethoven so I was prepared for a lot of repetition. Inevitably there is some overlap, but he manages to keep it to a minimum while adding previously uncovered background details. One word of caution. This course assumes you have some grounding in music theory. If you haven't then take and enjoy Professor Greenberg's courses - Understanding the Fundementals of Music and How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. February 24, 2013
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