The String Quartets of Beethoven
A course of 24 lectures on 6 DVDs
TEACHING COMPANY (no catalogue number) [approx. 18 hours]

MusicWeb hasn’t reviewed any courses from the Teaching Company yet, so a bit of introduction is in order. The Teaching Company offers several hundred “courses” on diverse subjects, from history to literature, from science to philosophy. They have a few dozen courses about music: they deal with periods, composers, or, in this case, specific groups of works. Each of these courses is made up of a number of lectures (usually 12-24), ranging from a half-hour to one hour each. These lectures are composed and presented by professors who are experts in their subjects.

This set of lectures consists of 24 lectures of about 45 minutes each exploring Beethoven’s string quartets. Beginning with the roots of the string quartet form, examining Haydn and Mozart, the lectures then traverse the quartets in order, examining the forms and structures used, and giving plentiful musical examples from the quartets. For some lectures (after the initial, introductory ones), a single quartet is studied, and some quartets, such as the later ones, require two lectures to explore. While it is probably best to follow this series in order, you could dip in and a watch a lecture on a specific quartet that interests you out of sequence.

In a way, these lectures are somewhat like expanded liner-notes or program notes. But they have the advantage of the ebullient Professor Robert Greenberg, who makes these talks come to life with a rare level of enthusiasm. It’s obvious that Greenberg - who has done a large number of courses for the Teaching Company - loves music, and enjoys conveying this love to people who follow these courses. He can almost be a bit tiring sometimes; his fervor never lets up during the course of a lecture, but this keeps the viewer’s interest throughout. It can be a bit hard, though, to watch more than, say, two of these lectures in a row, given the amount of intensity he exudes.

Greenberg looks at both the big picture and the details. Giving biographical information to situate each quartet in Beethoven’s life, he helps you understand what Beethoven was thinking and feeling at the time of composition. But he also looks at the forms used, the motives, and the “tricks” of composition that make the quartets such wonderful music, using plentiful musical examples.

What’s interesting about these lectures is that you don’t need to be able to read music to follow them, as you do for any book-length analysis of such works. You do, however, need a solid grounding in musical vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the end of the course guide, a book included with the lecture series. Musical examples are provided, in this case, by the Alexander Quartet, in their recent set of the works that was favorably reviewed here on MusicWeb. You do get some musical examples in a course guidebook that comes with the lectures, but if those mean nothing to you, you can just skip them. Note that they contain timing information related to the Alexander Quartet recordings, so you can find each example easily while listening. Greenberg also, at times, sits at a piano to play isolated voices of part of a quartet to show how they relate.

This is a truly wonderful course for anyone who wants to learn more about Beethoven’s quartets, which are arguably the summit of western chamber music. The approach that Greenberg uses, looking at the big picture and the tiny details, made me hear these works as I had never heard them before. It’s a commitment to follow this course, which is some 18 hours long, but there’s no hurry to watch all the lectures in a short time, so you can watch a few, listen to the music, then come back and watch more when you feel like it. This approach to exploring music suits my desire to know more about certain works, but for others it may be too detailed.

This course, like all courses from the Teaching Company, comes in several formats. I have a DVD version, which is 6 DVDs. It is also available in audio format, on CD, cassette (remember those?), and by download. Hard copies include a course guide, a 190-page book giving outlines for each lecture, as well as additional information. A complete lecture transcript is also available; in this case, it is a three-volume set totalling about 700 pages. While the DVD is interesting, because of the use of some visuals, these are not essential to understanding and following the course; the audio alone would be sufficient, but you miss out on Greenberg’s on-screen vivacity. And some people may find it easier to follow something this complex on screen.

One note on pricing. This recently released course has a list price of $375 on DVD, and $200 by audio download. Yet it was “on sale” when it was released, and again at the time of this writing, for respectively $100 and $50. So if you’re interested in obtaining this course, wait for a sale; the Teaching Company seems to run sales like this often. The Teaching Company also sells the complete Alexander Quartet Beethoven box set for $50; so if you don’t have it, you might want to pick it up at that price.

I can’t say enough about how interesting these lectures are. Presented by a man who really knows about music, they will give you new insights into Beethoven’s quartets, and help you better appreciate this wonderful music.

Kirk McElhearn