The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Nov 13 2012
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Praise for Matthew Guerrieri's The First Four Notes
“How does a song evolve from the mind of its creator to something larger in the popular imagination? And how do four simple notes—da-da-da-DUM—inspire everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mao Zedong to the Nazis and the Allies in WWII? Guerrieri uncovers everything you’d ever want to know about Beethoven’s most famous symphony, from its composition in 1808 to its disastrous premiere through its more recent incarnation as a rallying cry for both discotheques and cellphone ringtones.”
—Los Angeles Magazine, #1 Music Book of the Year
“Can you really squeeze a book out of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Guerrieri shows us how, dashing back and forth from the terse notes to all the meaning-baggage that’s been heaped on them. It’s a formidable act of intelligent scholarship and imaginative connection-making.”
—Jeremy Denk, The New Yorker, Best Books of the Year
“With the omnivorous curiosity of a polymath, Matthew Guerrieri follows [the first four notes’] path through cultural history, from their humble beginnings (he even dwells on the symphony’s real opening, which is of course not a note at all but an eighth-rest) through early reactions (the composer Le Sueur told Berlioz, “That sort of music should not be written”) to their eventual canonization as the great opening of the quintessential great symphony. And, of course, to their cameo as background music for Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever.”
—TIME Magazine, Top Ten Nonfiction Book of 2012
“A pleasure. . . . There’s a lot left to learn about Beethoven’s ‘Fifth Symphony,’ from its first line to its long life in the two centuries after its 1808 premiere, as Matthew Guerrieri’s enormously entertaining, endlessly informative new book proves. . . . Guerrieri is a friendly, chatty guide.”
—The Boston Globe
“Spectacular. . . . The author's kaleidoscopic account of his subject starts in the early 19th century and ends in contemporary popular culture. . . . With a quick mind and wit, [Guerrieri] traverses two centuries of musical culture, literature and politics with uncommon authority. The passage from one reference point to another resembles free association; it reveals a novelistic ambition, permitting the author's tastes and sparkling capacity for commentary to shape a journey the reader would otherwise not have taken. . . . We can use more commentators and advocates, in other words, like Matthew Guerrieri, who can restore a sense of beauty, wonderment and profundity to classical music. The First Four Notes brings back into memory many unfairly forgotten musicians, writers and scholars whose work would otherwise continue to drift into obscurity. . . . This book should serve as an inspiration to look, listen and read further.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Guerrieri’s spare exegesis strips away some of the rhetoric around the piece, by providing a concrete inventory of the musical elements that have often inspired overwrought and imprecise description. . . . Lively detail. . . . The ultimate test of the book may be in what its readers hear when they put it down and reach for the nearest recording of the symphony, ready to listen anew.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“New and intriguing. . . . A treasury of such information. But the allure of this book is not the factoids that will delight trivia lovers, but the encyclopedic biography of the Fifth Symphony, starting with its origins, tracing its development and, most important, charting interpretations of it over the past 200 years. . . . [Guerrieri] is as adept at tracing philosophical arguments and their transformations as he is at tracing musical history. As a result, music lovers will find much to enthrall them in his pages, while readers interested in the intellectual history of Europe and the United States will be captured by its application to Beethoven’s Fifth. So will those with literary interests. . . . Not least of the pleasures of this book is the lucid and often sprightly prose.”
—The Washington Times
“Fascinating. . . . [Guerrieri’s explorations] will coax anyone into giving a fresh ear to the symphony.”
—The Columbus Dispatch
“Guerrieri has turned up a vast array of artifacts, from the profound to the perfunctory, in an enjoyable and at times surprising cultural history of those first four notes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. . . . Guerrieri is an affable guide who writes with genuine enthusiasm and patience about the Fifth and the ranging material on philosophy and aesthetics he amasses.”
"Matthew Guerrieri is a brilliant, impassioned, and witty observer not only of music but of the entire cultural landscape surrounding the art. A bit like Beethoven himself, Guerrieri finds a cosmos in four notes."
—Alex Ross, author of Listen to This and The Rest Is Noise
"Music’s most memorable da-da-da-dummm touched off a cultural and intellectual ferment that’s ably explored in this sparkling study. Boston Globe music critic Guerrieri opens with an engaging musicological investigation of how Ludwig van Beethoven orchestrated his Fifth Symphony’s urgent rhythms and unsettling harmonies into a work of unique emotional and rhetorical force. . . . Guerrieri often wanders away from Beethoven for luxuriant digressions on German romanticism or Victorian patent laxatives, but clothes his erudition in lucid, breezy prose. He makes the muzziest musico-philosophical conceits accessible and relevant, while tossing off his own intriguing insights—'Beethoven’s heroic music is a lot like Steve McQueen’s acting'—with the flick of a baton. The result is a fresh, stimulating interpretation that shows how provocative the familiar classic can be."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
Matthew Guerrieri is a music critic for The Boston Globe, and his articles have also appeared in Vanity Fair, NewMusicBox, Playbill, and Slate. He is responsible for the popular classical music blog Soho the Dog (sohothedog.blogspot.com). He lives in Framingham, Massachusetts.See all Product Description
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I usually read tech manuals (oh fun, lol, is that actually reading?) so I took this as a refreshing change and was pleased at how much I did learn.
What other book would make a connection between Beethoven's Fifth and Beecham's Pills?
It was an informative and entertaining read and now I have a better understanding why this one piece of music is something that so many people have found, and will continue to find, as a part of our day-to-day culture.
Nice read, loads of references, and a sense of wit that I love!
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.
I am enjoying this book but I'll be the first to admit that it's over my head. It contains a lot of philosophy, and I don't have any background in philosophy. There is also a lot of music theory, of which I have a thimbleful of knowledge. So I am reading it on different levels - as an introduction to some philosophical principles (such as 'amor fati') which I struggle through, rereading multiple passages multiple times; as a trip back into music theory, with passages that I don't necessarily have to reread, but I definitely need to slow down; as a biography and historical account of events, customs and controversies before, during and after Beethoven composed the 5th, in which I become engrossed.