By Cristina Schreil
The string quartet has gone digital. Stanford University, with help from professor, musicologist, and violist Stephen Hinton and the acclaimed St. Lawrence String Quartet, launched its first free online course in classical music appreciation this spring.
“Defining the String Quartet: Haydn” highlights the earliest manifestations of the string quartet by delving into Haydn’s groundbreaking String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5. The self-guided course contains six lessons on
the historical context and origins of the string quartet and on Haydn, considered the “Father of the String Quartet.”
The course sprouted from two in-person classes created by Hinton and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, composed of violinists Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza.
The St. Lawrence players, who have been Stanford’s ensemble-in-residence since 1998, demonstrate Hinton’s points through performances recorded in Stanford’s Bing Studio and the Bing Concert Hall.
I spoke with the quartet’s first violinist, Geoff Nuttall, just after wrapping up this year’s Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and days before the St. Lawrence String quartet recorded more of the Op. 20 Haydn quartets for a new album.
He touched on the oft-overlooked magic of Haydn and how the quartet used its self-described “evangelical” fervor to hook new audiences via the world wide web.
You’ve teamed up with Stephen Hinton, an expert on Haydn, and this course notes that the St. Lawrence String Quartet plays more Haydn than any other composer. Is this class part of a larger goal to call attention to Haydn in particular?
Basically we want people to take as much pleasure out of it as we do, and as quartet players it doesn’t get any better than Haydn. Through the years, both teaching and playing concerts, [we’ve found] there’s a huge disparity in how excited we are [about Haydn] and how excited everybody else is. Young people are often the worst offenders. They’re like, “It’s boring!” Stephen Hinton’s our colleague and a brilliant musicologist and he loves Haydn—we read Haydn together, he’s a great guy—and so it just seemed like a no-brainer as part of our ongoing evangelical mission. It takes a couple of people or one piece or one teacher to say, “Hey, check this out—this is why it’s great” and then that opens a door and off you go.
What led to the creation of this free course?
We’ve done a couple different things [with Hinton] and then we just thought it would be a follow-up. And Stephen’s amazing. He does all the legwork, is an incredible writer, and he’s just so smart. He understands all the inner workings of the university. For me, it’s exciting to find a musicologist who loves the act of playing because sometimes there’s a whole school of musicology where it’s like, “I don’t really want to hear it; I just want to write about it,” and Stephen is not one of those. He loves writing about it. He loves studying it. He’s incredibly brilliant, and he also loves the act of listening to music as well. I’ve always loved to play and I’ve discovered more and more as I get older that there’s so much you can learn. And the more you know about Haydn—specifically about his life and the inner workings of the pieces—the more you admire and respect him. It all sort of just seemed like a no-brainer to try to make something happen.
Was it daunting to figure out how to squeeze string-quartet history into only six lessons?
We started with Haydn and then we started with Op. 20. Opus 20 is the seminal moment in music history. It’s shocking that nobody realizes it. It’s one of these incredible moments where Haydn basically single-handedly changed the course of music history, and specifically the course of the string quartet, with Op. 20. So our original idea was to do a six-part course with each one of the Op. 20 quartets having a whole [lesson]. And we quickly discovered that that would take way too long because there’s so much stuff in each one. So then we narrowed it down and said, “OK, we’re going to cover a broad quartet history,” and at least wanted to use Op. 20,
No. 5—you can pick any one of them. We wanted one with a fugue because that was such a groundbreaking thing at the time. So that’s how it became Op. 20, No. 5, instead of all six of them.
Looking just at that one quartet, how did you decide what would be the best to highlight?
It was really picking stuff out that we think is important to notice and can be illustrated clearly, but also it’s incredible how much other stuff is super interesting and fun to talk about and play and explain, but there’s just no time.
Hopefully we have a good balance—if you want to get really involved, you can dig deep, and if you want to just have a surface run through and have that open your ears, and then go listen to another Op. 20 quartet, you can do that, too.
Did you discover new things about Op. 20, No. 5, in creating the course?
Absolutely. But at the same time, we’ve worked out Op. 20, No. 5, a lot so there was nothing earth shattering to discover. But it’s incredible: Even just last week we played
Op. 20, No. 2—we recorded it and we played it 50 times—and you bump on, “Hey I never noticed that, that motive comes from this and why don’t we play it this way?” So you’re always discovering new things.
Is part of the goal to inspire students to get out there and experience Haydn live?
Hopefully—we want to get people excited or even interested in Haydn string quartets who will say, the next time they see a concert that has Haydn, “Oh, I want to go hear that because of the Haydn,” not in spite of it. For us it’s more than a conscious attempt to get people to go to concerts—it’s a chance to get people to understand the passion about Haydn, even just slightly more than they knew before. And if a lot of it fails but one or two moments get them thinking or listening to more, I think it’s great.
Have you gotten any feedback since the class opened?
Yeah! We’ve had some great questions and comments and I think Stephen and Chris [Costanza] have responded back and forth and that’ll be the next step, to sort of have an ongoing forum where we can discuss openly online. That’s the challenge now, to not have those [discussion forums] be a black hole. It requires quite a lot of work for the quartet and for Stephen to actually respond in a thoughtful, meaningful way. That’s something we didn’t really plan for, but it’s great it’s elicited that kind of response.
Any plans for a second course?
We’re always talking about ideas. We’re thinking of doing a late Beethoven or even a Beethoven-over-three-periods course. It may start its life as a classroom course, and then you sort of tweak it and morph it into another online course.
That’s sort of what we’ve been discussing, although nothing is set in stone. With Beethoven’s string quartets, he doesn’t need as much help as Haydn in terms of people being passionate about it, but it’s a great window into talking about his life overall. That’s something in the works and who knows, it may change over time—maybe an Op. 131 course, we could do that. So yeah, let’s put our heads together.