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The World of the String Quartet

Curtis Institute of Music via Coursera

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Arnold Steinhardt, first violin of the internationally acclaimed Guarneri String Quartet, invites music listeners to the world of the string quartet repertoire and ensemble. Journey with him and interpretive analysis instructor Mia Chung through the history and features of quartet music, colored by stories of legendary quartets and insights from the stage.

This season's Curtis courses are sponsored by Linda Richardson in loving memory of her husband, Dr. Paul Richardson.


The World of the String Quartet
-Welcome to the World of the String Quartet, where you will hear the extraordinary stories behind great repertoire, discover renowned performers' experiences, and develop keen insight as a listener. This first program samples stunning repertoire from some of the most significant composers: Ravel, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák. What power can four instruments hold?

The Founders: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven
-We begin exploring string quartets during the Classical Era, when balanced structure emphasized variety, contrast, and drama. Discover the starting point of four democratic and personal string voices—and, before long, its development—with Haydn (Op. 33, No. 2, "The Joke"), Mozart (K. 465, "Dissonance"), and Beethoven (Op. 18, No. 1; Op. 130; and Op. 131). There was a dramatic change in performance from Beethoven's time to our own era. How did that happen?

The Humanists: Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms
-Personal expression infused Romantic Era compositions, including the string quartets of Schubert (D. 810, "Death and the Maiden"), Mendelssohn (Op. 13 and Op. 80), Schumann (Op. 41, No. 3), and Brahms (Op. 51, No. 1). Yet in the generation after Beethoven's towering genius, composers wrote fewer quartets. Why? And where did the followers of Beethoven take the quartet next?

The Internationalists, Part 1: Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Bartok
-Beyond German-speaking countries, composers adapted the string quartet to their own cultures—some more so than others. National traits, as well as personal stories, emerge in the heartfelt works of Smetana ("From My Life"), Dvořák (Op. 105), Tchaikovsky (Op. 22), Borodin (No. 2), and Bartók (No. 5). How does this very individual music convey its national identity?

The Internationalists, Part 2: Debussy, Ravel, Barber, Shostakovich, and Britten
-Our international tour continues with France (Debussy and Ravel) and the United States (Barber, Op. 11), a return to the former Soviet Union (Shostakovich, Op. 110), and then to England (Britten, Op. 94), as we follow string quartet stories and techniques from the 1800s into the 1900s. The discoveries of this recent past are preserved by the professional string quartets who worked with these brilliant composers. What do we learn from them—and, from our very own era, the career reflections of the Guarneri Quartet members?

The Explorers: Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Ives, Cage, and Reich
-This program's quartets were written during the 20th century, a time of technological exploration and avant-garde expression. Visionary composers such as Schoenberg (Op. 10), Webern (Op. 5), Berg (Lyric Suite), Ives (No. 1), Cage (String Quartet in Four Parts), and Reich (Different Trains) used four string instruments in ways far different than Haydn. What did these composers dare to do, and how does one play works that present an entirely new and unexplored language?

Space Odyssey, the Next Frontier
-We look ahead by first looking back: grappling with the dizzying innovation of Beethoven's late quartets (Op. 130 and the Great Fugue), which challenge performers and listeners still. Then we leap forward to the digital premiere of David Ludwig's breathtaking "Pale Blue Dot," performed by the Dover Quartet, for whom it was written in 2014. To what new frontiers will the seemingly simple yet endlessly varied combination of two violins, a viola, and a cello, take us next?

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