In his bestseller Beethoven: the Man who Freed Music, first published in 1929, the poet and essayist Robert Haven Schauffler polled a parade of opinions of Beethoven’s Fifth from a pool of straw men: “To Brown it may signify a fierce conflict with a sexual obsession. To Jones a desperate campaign against an inferiority complex. To Robinson an old-fashioned pitched battle à la “Paradise Lost,” between the forces of good and evil. To a victim of hysteria it may depict a war between sanity and bedlam. To a neurasthenic a struggle between those two mutually exclusive objectives: ‘To be, or not to be?’ To an evolutionist it may bring up the primordial conflict of fire and water, of man with beast, of civilization with savagery, of land with sea.”
Such mutable celebrity has perpetually surrounded the symphony. Beethoven’s Fifth, the Symphony in C minor, opus 67, might not be the greatest piece of music ever written—even Beethoven himself preferred his Third Symphony, the Eroica—but it must be the greatest “great piece” ever written, a figure on which successive mantles of greatness have, ever more inevitably, fit with tailored precision. And its iconic opening is a large part of that: short enough to remember and portentous enough to be memorable, seeming to unlock the symphony’s meaning but leaving its mysteries temptingly out of reach, saying something but admitting nothing.
The First Four Notes is a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. More specifically, it is a book about the opening notes of that symphony; and more specifically than that, it is a book about what people have heard in those notes throughout history, and how history itself has affected what was heard. It is, then, history viewed through the forced perspective of one piece of music (though, to be fair, there is only a handful of pieces of music that could yield a comparable view, and most of them are by Beethoven).
To say a piece of music has meaning is to say that it is susceptible to discussions of meaning; by that standard, Beethoven’s Fifth is easily one of the most meaningful pieces of music ever written. The number and variety of the interpretations assigned to the Fifth, the creativity with which the piece has been invoked in support of countless, often contradictory causes—artistic, philosophical, political—is a tribute to its amorphous power. It is also, on the side of the interpreters, a testament to human creativity, ingenuity—and folly. The vaunted universality of Beethoven’s achievement encompasses the sublime and the ridiculous.
Not that he didn’t try to warn us. In 1855, an unknown writer felt compelled to make a handwritten addition to a copy of Anton Schindler’s biography of Beethoven: “Something about the beginning of the C minor Symph[ony]. Many men were disturbed over the beginning of the Fifth. One of them ask[ed] Beethoven about the reason for the unusual opening and its meaning. Beethoven answered: ‘The beginning sounds and means: You are too dumb.’”
— Matthew Guerrieri (adapted from the prologue to The First Four Notes)
Music critic Guerrieri traces the cultural history of the most famous musical motif, recognized from its rhythm alone—da-da-da-dum (you know the tune). Identified with revolution right out of the gate, partly because “La Marseillaise” opens with the same rhythm, it was made to signify Fate by Beethoven’s German literary contemporaries, to point to the ultimate by both Hegel’s nationalizing epigones and the individualist American Transcendentalists, to be the repository of repressed Victorians’ emotions, and to sound the death knell of the Third Reich (in Morse code, da-da-da-dum denotes V, as in victory). Guerrieri closely inspects those developments, bogging down some in the effusions of the notoriously recondite Hegel, Nietzsche, and Adorno, to be sure, before concluding with “Samples,” on the many uses pop culture has found for da-da-da-dum—the disco hit, “A Fifth of Beethoven,” is not the least consequential, he avers. For readers taught not to pile philosophical and literary baggage on music, the most enjoyable chapter may be the first, which places the motif in strictly music-historical context, but the others definitely have their fascinations. --Ray OlsonSee all Editorial Reviews
I generally like to read books about specific works of art, like one about 'The Last Supper', and have read some good books like that which weave a biography of the artist in with... Read morePublished 2 months ago by Gary Rubinstein
This book is arguably the world's largest program note on Beethoven's Fifth. An exhaustive bounty of information about this iconic symphony, it makes little effort to get into the... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Roger Ruggeri
Gets too bogged down in philosophy. Could have been a fabulous book.Published 8 months ago by Richard Rabicoff
"The First Four Notes" is an extended meditation on the opening notes to Beethoven's Fifty Symphony. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Steven J. Torrey
I’m not a fan of Beethoven, but even I have to admit that a lot of his music was groundbreaking; even revolutionary and more than 200 years later is now very recognizable –... Read morePublished 10 months ago by Renee M. Groth
This will be short because already Mr Louis Look (see his review of July 4, 2013 below) has expressed - with elegance - my extreme disappointment with this book. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Carlos A Bas
I most enjoyed the early pages when those four notes - powerful yet ambiguous -- are discussed in detail. Read morePublished 15 months ago by Elkhart
This is an EXCELLENT book, full of interesting bits of musical history but also tied up with all kinds of philosophical and political movements and history, from the time of... Read morePublished on August 29, 2013 by Michelle Rosen