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The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination Hardcover – November 13, 2012
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Essay by Author, Matthew Guerrieri
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 Olson
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Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the Fifth during - and indeed, was largely responsible for - a transitional period in music history. Given, the metronome had not been invented yet, but neither had the conductor's baton or, not insignificantly, the electric motor. Critics reviewed symphonies from sheet music and audiences rarely attended concerts by permanent orchestras; instead, the Fifth was normally "interpreted by either amateur or essentially freelance groups." Rumors must have flourished in this environment, and two survive even today: first, that Beethoven composed the Fifth and all of his subsequent work stone-deaf, and second, that the opening measure - and its refrain throughout the seven-minute allegro - represents the knock of fate, or the knock of death, our one shared fate.
Guerrieri contends that Beethoven only suffered from tinnitus during the creation of the Fifth - with absolute deafness still to come - although the author reminds us that the psychological treatment for tinnitus is every bit the concern that medical treatment is. As to the fate rumor, Guerrieri lends most credence to Carl Czerny's statement that yellowhammer song inspired the notes, hardly a revolutionary start, and therefore easy to cast aside for some of the symphony's more radical listeners like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. For those expecting the pacing of a novel, here will lie the book's most active fault line. The First Four Notes dedicates as much space to Hegelianism and Das Kapital as it does to Romanticism and any heroic verse Beethoven is thought to have read (Homer, Ossian).
Yet Guerrieri's tangents usually work. The account of the Belgian resistance during German occupation, for one, is a stirring read. During World War II, Belgian civilians would make initial contact with downed Royal Air Force bomber pilots using graffiti, then begin the process of ushering the pilots back to England. The large, chalked-in message "R.A.F." became too time-consuming and, therefore, possibly too risky to write. Victor de Laveleye - the former Belgian parliament member and then director of BBC's French-language broadcasting - launched the V campaign (V for Victoire, or Victory in French and Vrijheid, or Freedom in Dutch). It was pure serendipity that the Morse code for the letter V was three dots and a dash, which could be represented in sound as if by design: the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth. This way Germany's famed allegro became "a devilishly effective double agent," because "the sound of Beethoven's Fifth coming over a radio in Germany was now cause to suspect treason." Those of you subject to passions should take note, it's impossible to keep reading this book with both fists in the air.
Even Guerrieri's lighter material is rousing. The author's research into ringtones - hardly the fare of radicals - makes for a gossamery coda to the French revolution, Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the horrors of twentieth century combat. While it is anyone's guess how many cellular phones ever did employ the first four allegro notes, fiction writers offer a place where virtually all of them do. The measure provides a royalty-free and universally-identifiable soundtrack, communicating significance or humor as needed. The audience does not even need to suspend disbelief. They only have to accept that a phone is ringing.
Guerrieri's first example of many is Christopher Reich's 2002 novel The First Billion:
"As he stroked the putter toward the ball, an ominous tune chimed from within his golf bag. The first bars of 'Beethoven's Fifth.' The blade met the ball askew and it sailed three feet past the cup."
An ominous tune, indeed. Beethoven's Symphony # 5 in C Minor is alternately slicing and whimsical, intimidating for composers, written in a difficult tempo, and deceptively major-key in temperament. This "might not be the greatest piece of music ever written... but it must be the greatest `great piece' ever written." Its first four notes are a shared global language, a universal expression of gravity, and Matthew Guerrieri has written their biography.