Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Beethoven’s String Quartets: A Delight for the Eye and Ear

Portrait of Beethoven wearing tie-dye t-shirt, holding manuscript

Perhaps you have listened to Beethoven’s string quartets, or seen performances, recorded or live.  Now, you can see them in a new way.

I have highlighted the work of Stephen Malinowski in previous posts (here, for example).  He takes classical works and adds visualizations that reflect various aspects of the music, showing how voices interweave, pitches shift, and more.  Malinowski calls them animated graphical scores, and they provide great insights into the musical structure.  They can draw attention to aspects of the music you might miss otherwise.  They are also mesmerizing.

Malinowski collaborated with the Alexander String Quartet, who performed individual Beethoven string quartet movements that were then given visualizations.  Afterwards, they set a spectacular goal: record and visualize all of Beethoven’s string quartets in honor of Beethoven’s upcoming 250th birthday.


It was hard to select a single movement to highlight here.  Should I pick the Cavatina from String Quartet No. 13 (whose visualization reminds me of stained glass, or butterfly wings), a piece that I have discussed previously on this blog?  Or the “Heiliger Dankesang” movement of String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor?  I decided to give you a little morsel, the lighthearted, even playful, Scherzo from String Quartet No. 1.

I’m sure you will enjoy the wonderful performances of the Alexander String Quartet and Malinowski’s visualizations of Beethoven’s music.  Here is the YouTube playlist of the string quartets. Here you can find Malinowski’s notes and background information on the quartets.  If you’d like more technical or musical details, including notes on the visualization of works by other composers, start here.  You might also want to see if your favorite piece has been visualized at the YouTube channel.



Image attribution: Portrait of Beethoven wearing tie-dye t-shirt. Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Tie-dye by MpegMan at en.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons. Mash-up by C. Gallant.

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Free Live Concert Webcast: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Grosse Fuge and More

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) will present a live concert webcast tonight, 13 January 2018, at 8 PM CST (2 AM GMT).  You can see it here.  Here’s the program:

Jessie Montgomery: Records from a Vanishing City
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge for String Quartet
Beethoven: Violin Concerto

The soloist will be Steven Copes, concertmaster of the SPCO.

If you can’t make it, it will soon be available as part of the SPCO’s library of classical music performances.  With performances of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, John Adams, Hugo Wolf, Shostakovich and more, you’re sure to find a favorite.


That Jokester Joseph Haydn!

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

The last post was kind of heavy, so I thought I’d lighten things up.  And what better way than with a joke?

In particular, Joseph Haydn’s string quartet Op. 33 No. 2, known as “The Joke.”

In this string quartet, Haydn plays with the listener’s expectations of what a string quartet “should” sound like, what the listener expects to hear.  And when we are surprised by what we hear, sometimes we laugh.  And sometimes we jump—this is, after all, the same man who wrote the “Surprise” Symphony (No. 94)You can hear the symphony’s famous second movement here (headphone/earbud listeners might want to pull them away from their ears before time stamp 0:40).

I found a great short TEDx talk by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on the last movement of “The Joke”  that provides a fun explanation of what Haydn is up to.  When the movement ends, you can’t help but chuckle.

They also have an extended discussion that includes other movements of the string quartet, and that video can be found here.

A funny point is brought out that involves the minuet (scherzo) movement.  This minuet had already showed signs of Haydn’s tinkering:  the “graceful” minuet had some starts and stops that would make it a little difficult to dance to.  Then, (in the trio section) Haydn put an interesting fingering notation over some notes.  Editors must have scratched their heads and said, “that can’t be right—play two successive notes on the same string with the same finger?!”  What you end up with, if you play it with Haydn’s fingering, is an effect that sounds like…well, a slide whistle.  It’s a funny sound, perhaps slightly inebriated-sounding, that seems to poke fun at the stately minuet.  You can hear a wonderful example of it here.

Ah, but enough explanations!  Let’s let Haydn do the talking.  Here is this wonderful string quartet in its entirety.  Enjoy!


Image attribution: Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1757-circa 1805) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

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New Free Online Course: “Defining the String Quartet: Haydn” from Stanford University

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

Stanford University has a new free online course on Haydn and the development of the string quartet.

The first half of the course explores string quartet writing before Haydn, as well as his early works.  The second half is devoted to a detailed look at Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20 No 5.

The course will help you learn what to listen for and get a better understanding of how the string quartet works.

You do not need to read music for this course.  The music tutorial that is offered is minimal, and looks like a quiz–click on “Show Answer” for explanations.  If you do read music, “dynamic scores” are available. Even if you don’t read music, check them out, they’re pretty cool, and you can learn a lot through observation and pattern matching.  When you select a movement, a play bar appears.  When you click play, the notes that are being played turn red.  And for the trill, the tr and note wiggle up and down—I think that’s quite clever!

The course includes a video of each movement of the String Quartet in F Minor performed by the St. Lawrence Quartet.  The videos can be viewed with or without the dynamic score.  The videos may also be downloaded for further study and enjoyment.

You can go at your own pace, and you can earn a certificate of accomplishment.  You can pick entry level or advanced level for the quizzes.

For more details, here is the webpage for “Defining the String Quartet: Haydn.”

You might also be interested in the course “The World of the String Quartet” from the Curtis Institute of Music on Coursera.


Image attribution: Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.