Watch Animated Scores of Beethoven’s 16 String Quartets: An Early Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of His Birth

Two years ago we post­ed about a music lover’s life’s work–Stephen Mali­nows­ki aka sma­lin on YouTube–and how he has pro­duced ani­mat­ed, side-scrolling scores to clas­si­cal music. Old­er folks will liken them to neon piano rolls. Youngun’s will see a bit of Gui­tar Hero or Rock Band game design in their march of col­or­ful shapes danc­ing to every­thing from Bach to Debussy.

Mali­nows­ki let us know that he just recent­ly com­plet­ed a major work: adapt­ing all of Beethoven’s String Quar­tets into his par­tic­u­lar, always evolv­ing style. And for this he turned to San Francisco’s Alexan­der String Quar­tet for their record­ings. Says the ani­ma­tor:

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 on select­ed move­ments of Beethoven string quar­tets, and in the ear­ly months of 2019 we decid­ed to hon­or the 250th anniver­sary of Beethoven’s birth by extend­ing our col­lab­o­ra­tion to the full set. [Note: that anniver­sary will offi­cial­ly take place next year.]

One impor­tant point: Mali­nows­ki does not choose col­ors ran­dom­ly or because they are pret­ty. Instead, he uses “Har­mon­ic Col­or­ing”:

I’ve assigned blue to be the “home pitch” (the ton­ic, notataed Roman numer­al “I”) because that seemed the most “set­tled,” and cho­sen the blue-toward-red direc­tion as the I‑toward‑V direc­tion because motion toward the dom­i­nant (“V”) seems more “active” com­pared with motion toward the sub­dom­i­nant (“IV”).

This might not make sense just by read­ing it, but head to this page to see how the col­or wheel looks. There you can see how clas­si­cal music has evolved from the Renais­sance (most­ly stay­ing with the sev­en pitch­es in an octave) to the rad­i­cal changes of Brahms and then through Debussy to Stravin­sky, where it is a riot of col­or.

Beethoven wrote 16 string quar­tets between 1798 and 1826, as well as a Große Fuge includ­ed here that only had one move­ment, and gained a noto­ri­ety in its day as being a chaot­ic, inac­ces­si­ble mess. (They were wrong). The last five, known at the Late Quar­tets, were writ­ten in the last three years of his life. He was com­plete­ly deaf by this time, suf­fer­ing from all sorts of med­ical issues, recov­er­ing from brush­es with death, and yet… the Late Quar­tets are con­sid­ered by many to be his mas­ter­pieces, even more notable giv­en that he had come to the quar­tet form lat­er than oth­er com­posers and wracked with doubt about his tal­ents.

The final move­ment of his final string quar­tet (No. 16) was the last com­plete work Beethoven would ever write. At the top of the score he wrote “Must it be? It must be!” Death was at the door.

For those ready to learn or ready to revis­it these chal­leng­ing works, Mali­nows­ki has made it a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. See the com­plete playlist of ani­mat­ed string quar­tets here. Or stream them all, from start to fin­ish, below:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Did Beethoven Com­pose His 9th Sym­pho­ny After He Went Com­plete­ly Deaf?

The Sto­ry of How Beethoven Helped Make It So That CDs Could Play 74 Min­utes of Music

The Genius of J.S. Bach’s “Crab Canon” Visu­al­ized on a Möbius Strip

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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  • Styra Avins says:

    This is the most insight­ful, ear-sight­ful ani­ma­tion I’ve seen, quite won­der­ful. I’m a pro­fes­sion­al cel­list, don’t usu­al­ly like these things — but this sys­tem real­ly works.Am send­ing it on to my grand­chil­dren. Thank you for what must be a mas­sive effort. And bra­vo to the Alexan­der String Quar­tet, beau­ti­ful crisp play­ing (Op. 18 No. 1).
    Styra Avins
    New York City

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