Beethoven String Quartets (notes on animated graphical scores)
I made my first graphical scores in the 1970s, my first animated graphical score in 1985, and the first of these for a movement of a Beethoven string quartet in 2010. In 2014 I began collaborating with the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ) on selected Beethoven quartet movements, and in April 2019 we decided to honor the 250th anniversary of his birth by extending the collaboration to the full set. By October 2019 I'd made videos based on ASQ recordings for all the movements, but given how I feel about this music, I expect to continue working on this project indefinitely.
This YouTube playlist, with all the Beethoven's string quartets in opus#/movement order, will be updated with new versions of the animations as they are completed, and I will be adding notes about them to this page.
If there are things you're curious about that aren't discussed here, you might want to look at this background material, but if you don't find what you're looking for there either, please feel free to contact me with questions or suggestions.
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IndexQuartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1
Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3
Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4
Quartet No. 5 in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5
Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6
Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1
Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2
Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3
Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 74
Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95
Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127
Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130
Große Fuge in B-flat Major, Op. 133
Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131
Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132
Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135
Conventions, deviations, and techniques
The organization Beethoven's string quartets is based on a design that was in widespread use at the time: four movements, with a first movement in sonata-allegro form, a fast fourth movement (often in rondo form), and two middle movements (the order of which varied): one slow, and one a minuet (or scherzo). Beethoven mostly adhered to this template, but he occasionally strayed from it (sometimes significantly), especially in the later quartets.
Likewise, my animated graphical scores mostly work according to a consistent set of conventions, but I sometimes vary things—usually in response to a particular feature of the music, but sometimes just on a whim. These conventions include:
In the descriptions that follow, I'll mention significant variations on and deviations from these conventions.
Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 11. Allegro con brio. The meaning of the backwards-moving (moving toward the right) notes in this video might not be obvious, so let me explain it. I began by identifying the notes of the first measure (the five-note turn) as the seed, with the playfulness of the movement coming from the variety of things that sprout from it—sometimes it goes up, sometimes down, sometimes repeats, etc. Second, there are the things that happen along with the seed (either as accompaniment to it or a contrast to it). Once I'd sorted the notes according to the categories I'd established, there were these notes that were very similar to the first seed, but which (in many cases) ended with a long note instead of starting with one. I don't know whether it's how Beethoven thought about it, but it seemed like he wanted something that was like the seed, but different enough to not seem like a repetition, and decided to use a sort of retrograde of the rhythm. Once I hit on the "backward" idea, depicting it mirrored seemed like the natural way to make it look both more like the seed and very clearly different from it. It also gave it a sort of "wandering around lost" (like walking the wrong direction on an escalator) feeling that I liked. It's kind of a silly idea, and there's a certain arbitrariness to it. In the early versions of the animation, I used this effect a lot more, but it started seeming too silly even to me, so I toned it down.
Since some of the playfulness of this movement comes from the surprises in where the seed leads, I sometimes hid the note(s) right after it to keep the viewer guessing. I did this most often when those notes are louder and more surprising, so I ended up using the "loud/surprise=hidden" meme elsewhere in the piece.
2. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato. After over four minutes of relative tranquility (at 4:20), this movement becomes much darker and more intense, and after a few seconds, blazing thirty-second notes (semidemiquavers) dash through. I still remember the electrifying effect this had on me the first time I heard it, and I chose to emphasize these notes by having them rush on and off the screen.
3. SCHERZO. Allegro molto. I depict one of the seeds in the movement the same way I do in the first movement (circles, with one long/important note that's bigger), but I don't think they're related, conceptually (this is a matter of opinion, though).
4. Allegro. One thing I had fun doing in this movement was to emphasize the arrival of an ascending passage at its goal (just after 0:30) by having those notes (in the past) react (their "hair" stands up).
Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 18, No. 21. Allegro. The seed that opens this movement seemed more like a "toss-off" to me, so I had it rush offscreen even as it was being played. In this movement, I introduce the convention of using rotating triangles to indicate triplets.
2. Adagio cantabile. Allegro. Tempo I. Spoiler: this slow movement is interrupted by fast sections.
3. Scherzo Allegro. Trio. For me, a lot of the playfulness of this movement comes from the way some three-note groups move, so I joined them together to highlight them. There is an "Easter egg" in this movement; I won't spoil the fun by telling where it is, but I will give this hint: they play a figure an extra time.
4. Allegro molto quasi Presto. In this movement, the seed is much shorter.
Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 18, No. 31. Allegro. Here, I do something different with the seed: instead of spacing the notes according to their duration, I made them equidistant. This has two consequences: the now point moves slowly through a long note and quickly through short notes, and (as a result) the now point is not at the center of the display. One place where this plays out to good effect is in the first violin (yellow) passage that starts at 0:25; because there are many notes between the long notes at the beginning and the long note at the end, the now point gets displaced far to the left, and spends the entire phrase rushing to catch up with the now (at 0:40).
2. Andante con moto. Some movements are so beautiful that I don't feel a need to do anything special to bring out features that might otherwise go unnoticed, and I just keep things simple.
3. Allegro. In this movement, I use a form I've nicknamed "bird of paradise" (because of its shape) for the longer notes (especially those at the beginnings and ends of phrases). In other movements, I use this shape more sparingly, as a marker for a notes that are special or unusual; words I have in mind for these notes include: different, weird, surprising, languorous, evolving, stretching.
4. Presto. At around 0:50 in this movement, Beethoven creates (for me, anyway) an auditory illusion in which some notes of a melody that's moving by step are displaced by an octave, and the notes are heard in places where they aren't. I've tried to reflect this in the display by drawing hollow notes where I hear a note that Beethoven didn't write.
Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 41. Allegro ma non tanto. One of the ways I emphasize the now (and the "perceptual now" that surrounds it) is to use a non-linear mapping of time to horizontal position. There are a lot of different ways of doing this (see this page for a description of some of them); one that is used a lot in this movement I call "sigmoid" (because the time/x mapping is a sigmoid curve). This is used in a relatively mild way for the repeated notes throughout the movement, and in a more striking way for the emphasized chords (e.g. at 0:25).
2. SCHERZO. Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto. For some reason, this movement reminds me of Norman Mclaren's wonderful animation Canon. His work has been inspirational to me.
3. MENUETTO. Allegretto. Some of the notes in this movement seemed especially stable/static, so I decided to have them remain fixed at the center (and not scroll). Another striking/unusual feature of this animation is the extra-bright effect that's used on the fast notes in the middle section (trio) of the piece.
4. Allegro. The main theme of this movement begins with two "lead-in" notes, and these two lead-in notes appear in many contexts throughout the piece; I decided to highlight these notes by making them bigger and having them disappear. My metaphor for this is that those two notes are the "pop top" on an aluminum can: it starts out being there, but is discarded right before you start drinking.
At certain points, I use a technique I call "skip time" (though in this movement it might be better to call it "stretch time"); in it, the horizontal distance associated for some of the time in the future is hidden, and only "expands" when it reaches the now point. Depending on how it's used, this can result in the feeling of a note stretching, or of the future slowing down—or stopping entirely.
Quartet No. 5 in A Major, Op. 18, No. 51. Allegro. For the first movement of this piece, it seemed that dynamics played an important role, so I developed a new way of displaying notes (called, according to my proprietary naming conventions, "VRingDelta"), in which the changing loudness of the notes is reflected in the display. Also, this is one of the few note displays I've used in which the note forms keep changing after they are played: there is a tempo (rotation rate) of the notes, and they keep moving at that rate once they've sounded; hopefully, this makes the notes seem like they "feel the beat" of the music they're creating. Since this was the first time I used this technique, I chose to use it by itself; the notes are grouped according to phrases, and are drawn over a treble and bass staff, but only one manner of drawing the notes is used.
2. MENUETTO. In the minuet, VRingDelta is combined with other ways of depicting notes.
3. Andante cantabile. This movement is a theme and variations, and I've varied the visualizations correspondingly. (Spoiler: I've tried my best to not spoil Beethoven's surprise in this movement.)
Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 61. Allegro con brio. In this movement I've made heavy use of hidden notes (notes which don't appear until they're heard) for accents and other effects.
2. Adagio ma non troppo. (A beautiful movement that I feel no need to comment on.)
3. SCHERZO. Allegro. When I first encountered this movement, I found it hard to follow the extended syncopated passage at the end of the first section (first heard at 0:50), even after listening to it multiple times. To study it, I tried playing the first violin part on the piano while listening to a recording. Even that was hard, so I started trying to play all the parts; I was surprised and pleased to find that it could mostly be played as a piano solo, and made a piano arrangement that was easier than reading from the score. However, it turned out that even with that aid, it was hard to get through the tricky extended syncopation passage; to help with that, I made "a study version" of the arrangement in which repeated notes were eliminated (to make it clearer when chords were changing). Even with this, it took me a while to get comfortable with the syncopation.
When I started working on the animated graphical score for this movement, I knew I wanted to do something special with the syncopations; it was something I'd thought about a lot but hadn't found a way to depict. For this movement, I focused on the way some of its syncopated notes felt as if they happened earlier than expected, and displayed them in the expected position in the future, and had them jump ahead when they sounded. This had a nice effect, but I couldn't figure out how to use it in the extended syncopated section. :-(
4. Allegretto quasi Allegro. A study in contrasts.
Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1Like the first of the early quartets, this (the first of the "middle" quartets) is in F major. Beyond that, I can't think of anything to say about it right at the moment, so here's a picture of a kitten:
2. Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando.
3. Adagio molto e mesto. 4. Thème russe. Allegro.
Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 21. Allegro. A feature of this movement that stood out for me was the way the beginning of the movement—two dramatic chords—seemed to "open up" the a question that was answered a few seconds later by another pair of chords, which seem to answer the question, to settle it. To depict these, I used the "explode" and "assemble" features of my Voronoi display. N.b. Later in the movement, I use them more freely (not always in conjunction with opening/closing cadences).
2. Molto adagio. A slowly-rotating VRingDelta seemed right for this exquisite slow movement.
3. Allegretto. In this movement, I extended some of the notes vertically to make it more obvious how they added up to a continuous eighth-note rhythm.
4. Finale. Presto. Sometimes, it seems to me that Beethoven puts certain notes into the music just to "mix it up"—to make it seem more chaotic, more crazy. In this animation, I use the exploding Voronoi for these notes.
Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59, No. 31. Introduzione. Andante con moto. Allegro vivace. In this movement, I use a kind of bouncy motion for the "mix it up" notes. This is something I first used in this video of a Bach fugue.
2. Andante con moto quasi Allegretto. Normally, I only depict any given note in one place, but in this movement some notes function both as the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next, so I chose to show the shared notes twice.
3. Menuetto. Grazioso. 4. Allegro molto. For the last movement of this quartet, I stole colors and shapes from a painting by Gustave Klimt:
Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 741. Poco adagio. Allegro This movement has one of the most catchy passages of all the quartets; I won't spoil it by saying anything about it other than that I wonder whether Beethoven got the idea for it from this passage (in a Bach Brandenburg concerto).
2. Adagio ma non troppo. This exquisite movement unfolds slowly.
3. Presto. 4. Allegretto con Variazioni. The theme of the theme and variations movement begins with some rhythmic ambiguity, which I've tried to clarify by drawing a frame around each section with the left edge of each frame indicating the downbeat. This also allowed me to show where the theme and variation structure is stretched (and eventually abandoned entirely).
Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 951. Allegro con brio.
2. Allegretto ma non troppo. 3. Allegro assai vivaco ma serioso. Here, I use non-moving shapes for the notes that punctuate the design of the slow movement, and backward-moving notes for notes that seemed lost or melodies that are inverted.
4. Larghetto espressivo. Allegretto agitato. Allegro. In this movement, two-note groups figure prominently, and I've depicted them as pairs of connected circles.
Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 1271. Maestoso. Allegro. Maestoso. Allegro. Maestoso. Allegro. The opening chords of this piece seemed so monumental, so firm, that I decided to show a long stretch of the opening at once, without it moving, and let it gather momentum as it goes.
2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile. There is a lot of variety in this long, slow movement.
3. Scherzando vivace. I've tried to reflect the surprising, upbeat nature of this piece.
4. Finale. Allegro con moto. Certain notes in this piece stand out as, if not exactly dissonant, at least harmonically challenging; I've given these a red aura.
Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 1301. Adagio ma non troppo. Two motifs are introduced at the start of this movement (and highlighted in my animation): a slow two-note "sigh" and a faster three-note one; these emerge from a diffuse Voronoi background. After a minute or so, faster-moving material intrudes, and the rest of the movement is a back-and-forth between these two tempi.
2. Presto. In this movement (which serves the function of a scherzo), I'm teasing the viewer's eyes by showing notes that would happen if the music's patterns continued, but then replacing them with the notes that actually do happen. This means that notes often disappear and appear.
3. Andante con moto ma non troppo. In this movement, two-note figures are again important; this time, I have the Voronoi shapes themselves move.
4. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai. The display for this movement is quite different. Instead of a scrolling display, the notes are shown in fixed positions, within an eight-measure phrase structure, with bar-lines and staff-lines shown. Towards the end of the piece, Beethoven plays a little joke: playing the four measures of the theme backward; I've tried to play along with the joke by positioning these in reverse order.
5. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo. Widely regarded as one of Beethoven's most beautiful movements, this is another place where I've done little besides stand back and let the music speak for itself.
6. Finale. Allegro. The (following) Große Fuge was the original sixth movement of this quartet, but that piece was (and remains) very hard to play, and Beethoven's publishers convinced him that they wouldn't be able to sell the quartet unless he replaced it with something easier. Uncharacteristically, Beethoven went along with this and wrote this substitute movement (the Große Fuge was published separately with its own opus number).
In the YouTube playlist for these quartets, I've put the Große Fuge in its original position (as the sixth movement of Quartet No. 13), followed by the alternate sixth movement (so that you can skip over the Große Fuge if you'd rather hear the quartet as originally published).
Große Fuge in B-flat Major, Op. 133Allegro. Meno mosso e moderato. Allegro. Fuga. Meno mosso e moderato. Allegro molto e con brio. Meno mosso e moderato. Allegro molto e con brio. Meno mosso e moderato. Allegro molto e con brio. This is one of the first movements I worked on, and I've returned to it several times; the history is given in this Viewer's Guide.
Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131This quartet is exceptional in many ways. Beethoven considered it the best thing he wrote (and some people consider it the best piece of music ever composed), but many listeners find it puzzling, elusive, and challenging, and it is not performed as often as might be expected from that reputation. Its seven (!) movements flow one into the next without a break. The first movement is a fugue. It has a strange pianissimo sul ponticello (very quiet, bowed near the bridge) passage. I apologize that I'm not able to say much beyond what I've shown in the animation.
1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo. 2. Allegro molto vivace. 3. Allegro moderato. 4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile. Più mosso. Andante moderato e lusinghiero. Adagio. Allegretto. Adagio ma non troppo e semplice. Allegretto. 5. Presto. 6. Adagio quasi un poco andante. 7. Allegro.
Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132In most of the movements of this quartet, I've used some form of Harmonic Coloring to show things about pitches, tonality, and harmonic motion.
1. Assai sostenuto. Allegro. Adagio. Allegro. Adagio. Allegro.
In the outer movements (1st, 4th, and 5th) of this quartet, I've used a variant of Harmonic Coloring in which the tonic, dominant, subdominant, and mediant pitches (A, E, D, and C) are all assigned a color very close to blue, with half-steps above and below these pitches colored various shades of red and green. F-sharp is reddish (by virtue of its affinity to B and G-sharp), and G is colored green (by affinity to C). As you can see, this coloring results in strong contrasts between pitches a half-step apart:
I've done this because motion by half-step figures prominently. In the slow opening of the first movement, I've highlighted half-step motion with lines connecting the notes—at first in the foreground, and then in the background, behind faster-moving foreground notes (n.b. in less chromatic, harmonically stable sections of the piece, I omit the half-step display.)
2. Allegro ma non tanto.
The second movement isn't titled "Minuet" but that's the kind of thing it is. It is lighter than the first movement, and since takes a break from the focus in chromatic half-step motion, I've not used Harmonic Coloring, but instead use color to distinguish the instruments. Because of it being a dance, the phrase structure is an obvious feature, so I've highlighted some of the phrases by having their notes move as groups.
3. Heiliger Dankgesang. Molto adagio. Andante. Molto adagio. Andante. Molto adagio.
This movement got enough of my attention to warrant its own page.
4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace. Più allegro. 5. Allegro appassionato.
This opening of the fourth movement is happy—playful, even—so I begin the movement focusing on I've focused on how the music moves, how notes are emphasized, and showing how Beethoven is playing with our expectations (by delaying phrases). The frolic lasts only a couple of minutes, and then we're back into something more fraught, more chromatic, more laden with half-steps (which I again highlight with the underlay).
With start of the final Allegro appassionato, the half-step comes fully into its own, becoming prominent in both melody and accompaniment. The half-step is even further emphasized (starting at about 3:00) by insistent repetition—which I've marked with an assemble/explode action.
Spoiler: the piece ends in A major!
Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 1351. Allegretto.
This movement has a lot of call-and-response activity, so I've had the phrases move in groups to highlight that.
This highly-syncopated movement it a challenge to both performers and listeners. In the opening passage, the first violin's notes are behind the beat, the second violin's notes are ahead of the beat, and the viola's notes are on the beat; to emphasize this, their notes are shown aligned to the barlines when they are in the future, and snap into their actual positions when they're played. (I'm not sure whether this makes the rhythm more comprehensible.)
(As an aside: I'm a big fan of David Brody's animation of this movement; he writes about it here.)
3. Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo.
For this this exquisite movement, I've tried to keep things simple, using one shape for sustained/background notes and another for melodic/foreground notes (and a third shape for the contrasting middle section). If you're hands are the same size as mine (or larger), you'll be able to reach nearly all the chords in this transcription of the movement.
4. Grave. Grave ma non troppo. Adagio. Allegro. Grave ma non troppo tratto. Allegro.
As an explanation of the motives this movement is built upon, Beethoven prefaces it with those motives with words. Since these are not supposed to be played separately, I've just shown the notes (silently).
The first of Beethoven's early quartets (Quartet No. 1) is in F major, as is the first of the middle quartets (Quartet No. 7), so there's a certain sense of closure that comes with having his last quartet in that key. As a nod to the symmetrical bookends of the first and last movements, I've used the same circular seed graphic in both of them.