String Quartets of Beethoven

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

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
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
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,...
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String Quartets of Beethoven is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Robert Greenberg is great. And, while I have listened to the Middle and Late Quartets over the years, I did not know Opus 18. They are very good. Thanks.
Date published: 2020-07-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More Great Courses from Prof. Greenberg I am an amateur pianist and have listened to around 20 of Greenberg's lectures. I find him amazing in that he integrates music theory, appreciation, understanding with the events of the different periods, the differences in language and the individual personalities of the composers
Date published: 2020-05-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from No Main Menus Professor Greenberg was terrific, as usual, and the string quartet that performed for the course was excellent. However, there were no main menus on the six discs which made it difficult to get to an individual lesson. This is the first time I have faced this problem in the 60+ courses I have purchased from Great Courses.
Date published: 2019-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Masterclass of Materclasses As I recall, this brings me up to about a dozen and a half courses by Dr. Greenberg that I have watched or listened to and reviewed. By this time I am running out of things about which to comment. Along with others, I have commented on his use of rapid-fire patter to make his points, along with his sometimes dubious humor (I’m in the camp of camp); and comments of either too much music included or not enough (I’m in the school of just right); and his inclusion of biographical notes that include unsavory details of the musicians personal life (I love the description of the complete person). What then is left to comment upon? Simply that Dr. Greenberg is an absolute master teacher. His ability to speak to a wide audience of those of us who know only a little, many of us who know the music (and composers) reasonably well and those few who really know the works in detail and have often played (or in rare cases, performed) them, is astounding. His lucid explanations of what might seem obscure and his ability to make what might seem to be the trivial, significant brings clarity to the music. And the examples he has chosen both at the piano and the selections played by the Alexander Quartet really illustrate his points perfectly. In a bit of an aside, the quality of the music played, inspires me to shell out pesos for the Alexander Quartet recordings. While I have listened to all of Beethoven’s quartets, some in concert and many quite a few times, I never thought that I really understood that much of what was happening other than what I heard on the surface. After this course, Dr. Greenberg has revealed much of what the musical complexity that I did not know (other than in a holistic sense), and that I could likely not ever understand on my own. Of course, he has done this before in other courses, but not in such depth as in this one. It might even be that much of what he is revealing is too technical and complex for those who have not played at least at an intermediate level. For sure I needed to back up on several of those occasions where the keys went flying off into Neverland (then again I am decidedly not a musician). But the explanations were always there, even if sometimes confusing. This course is highly recommended for anyone interested in chamber music and/or Beethoven. I know that I will be able to listen to this (and other similar) music with much more understating now.
Date published: 2019-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lively, accessible, informed Dr. Greenberg delivers! His lectures are spectacular. He dives into the pieces sometimes note by note and explains how this piece works and why it is noteworthy. He gives livelly stories about the composer, the times, places, and circumstances in which the piece was composed. I've gone to lots of lectures on classical music in my long life of listening, and Greenberg's are the best.
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional, gratifying--but heavy duty A different kind of thing altogether from the 6 other Greenberg courses I’ve done, this one best compares in my experience to immersing myself in Wagner’s Ring and attending the complete cycle twice back in the late 1970s. Their musical excerpts and examples notwithstanding, the previous courses have been primarily descriptive, and accessible by non-specialists in the field. This one is much more comprehensive, analytical, and technical, and I suspect that someone with no formal musical training (including some theory) would be lost in much of it. Discussion includes key relationships, chord progressions, and in-depth descriptions of sonata form, fugue, and theme-and-variations. It’s also clear that Dr Greenberg evidently used all the clout he’s accumulated with the company in his previous highly popular courses to lay this one out and present it just like he wanted to—a tour de force. For examples he uses many excerpts by the Alexander Quartet, contracted especially for this course, including passages by individual instruments and segments of the whole, as well as his own demonstrations teaching at the piano in the studio. “Word scores” in the course book, combining the music with diagrams and text, augment the discussions of several key quartets. Professor Greenberg is his usual dynamic, stimulating, amusing self, which helps a great deal as he presents some frequently heavy-duty conceptual and technical material. One comes away with the impression that one has really studied this complex body of work. I loved it. In conjunction with the course I bought the complete quartets on CD as performed by the Quartetto Italiano, and listened to each one at least 5 times, some considerably more, including Opus 131 probably 25 times… (Although posted in 2019, this review was originally written at the time I watched this course, in 2014. At that time I had not yet done his 48-lecture course, "How to Listen To and Understand Great Music", which is outstanding and strongly recommended prior to the quartets course for anyone not formally trained in music.)
Date published: 2019-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dig deeply into Beethoven's compositions Dr. Greenberg fully meets his own exceptional standards of research, analysis, and presentation in this course, as he does in all of his Great Courses. But there are two aspects of the course that are different. First, the volume of the musical excerpts is set so much lower than the volume of the lecture that I had to make his voice painfully loud in order to hear the subtleties of the music. Anyone with sensitive ears should consider this problem before buying the course. Second, Dr. Greenberg lays heavy emphasis on Beethoven's innovative use of harmonies in his string quartets, that is, the shifting key areas and chords that he employs. For non-musicians like me, this discussion is all theoretical and abstract, since I cannot distinguish the harmonies by ear (except to hear the difference between major and minor keys--sometimes). I understood the discussion and learned what really made Beethoven's string quartet compositions unique and well-crafted, because I had previously listened to Dr. Greenberg's Great Course, "Understanding the Fundamentals of Music," which explains all of the intricacies of functional harmony in Western music. In the string quartet course, Dr. Greenberg illustrates Beethoven's use of this harmonic system with excerpts from the music, but if you are a non-musician and have not taken a similar course elsewhere, I would strongly urge you to buy Dr. Greenberg's fundamentals course first, and listen to the string quartet course later.
Date published: 2018-08-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good but . . . I love many of the Beethoven quartets and I learned a lot about how to better enjoy them, now that I understand more about their structure and about related works. That said, there is a lot of technical material here and much of it was over my head. Background in music theory is necessary if one is to really understand everything in this course. I don't have that background. Because I like listening to Beethoven, I found the course very interesting and thought provoking. But I missed a lot too.
Date published: 2018-07-09
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