Saint Paul Sunday from American Public Media Beethoven: The Emerson Expedition 

Saint Paul Sunday: Beethoven's Journey Still Captivates: An Expedition with the Emerson String Quartet and Bill McGlaughlin

The Emerson String Quartet with Bill McGlaughlin in the MPR studios
The Emerson String Quartet with Bill McGlaughlin in the MPR studios.

An Introduction to Beethoven's Quartets

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Bill McGlaughlin's Narrative
The drama of Beethoven's Life and Work.

Music to Browse by: an Early Quartet
Played by the Emerson String Quartet
Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5 - Menuetto (1800)

BEETHOVEN: What is it that makes this man's music so universally popular? The connoisseurs have always revered his music - the greatest musicians and scholars, but the common man loves Beethoven's work, too - the fellow who can recognize the Fifth Symphony on the radio and hum along with the great tune at the end of the Ninth - Beethoven's his man, too. What gives this music the power to reach so many different sorts of people?

Some very great musicians and thinkers on music have put forth a variety of answers to that question, enough so that I think no one will be offended if I offer another of my own - I think Beethoven's work is so effective because he plays more powerfully than any other composer on the tension that exists in all of us between the intellect and the emotions - the head and the heart.


"Beethoven quartets are . . .
about life and love
and loss and triumph."

See Quartets for the Non-Connoisseur
and let Bill McGlaughlin persuade you
to give quartets a try.

This may sound a little abstract, but we find this question all the way back to the dawn of history. The Greeks understood it in terms of two of their gods - Apollo, the sun god and Dionysus, god of the night. It's important that we not see this as a struggle between good and evil, but as a tug of rope between order and freedom.

In Beethoven's time, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a great sea change was sweeping Europe, moving from the Age of Enlightenment to that of Romanticism. We see the effects of this change in the revolutions that began to break out, first in America, then in France, running down to the present day. We see this change in literature and painting and we see it with great clarity in music of Beethoven.

As he entered the new century, Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment - a world of light and clarity, honoring intellect and reason and proportion - a time of hierarchy - of princes and order.

Against the most unlikely background of the conservative court in Vienna, Beethoven strode off along tangled path of Romanticism, a universe which prized mystery in place of reason, preferred darkness to light, sought extremes of personal sensation and valued above all the passionate utterance of the individual. All men might be brothers, but the artist was prophet.

That journey, which Beethoven completed in the quarter century before his death in 1827, still captivates us today. We are drawn by the drama of his fighting alone, rising above the heartbreak of his debilitating deafness, forging a new way. He is the emblem of the Romantic artist, and he makes us his companions on that journey. There is no clearer lens through which to view this journey than through the world of Beethoven's String Quartets.

- Bill McGlaughlin

Discover brilliant performances, insightful anecdotes from recording sessions, and revealing commentary throughout the site.
Beethoven's Upbringing and Early Life
Beethoven's Early Period
Beethoven's Middle Period
Beethoven's Late Period

Quartets for the Non-Connoisseur
Meet the Emerson Quartet
Site Index and Credits

October, 1997

Recordings by the Emerson String Quartet - including the complete set of all 16 Beethoven String Quartets and a CD of selected movements - are available through the
Public Radio MusicSource.

Saint Paul Sunday is made possible by a major grant
from the General Mills Foundation with additional funding
from the National Endowment for the Arts.

 ©2005 American Public Media