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In the two centuries since Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Fifth Symphony, the piece’s iconic opening has etched itself into the human imagination. Those first four notes have become a kind of Rorschach test for a never-ending parade of musicologists, historians, and biographers speculating on Beethoven’s intentions.
In his book The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination (Knopf, 2012), Matthew Guerrieri takes readers on a wild, whimsical 277-page ride as he ponders the famous notes by pulling in far-flung references, from Steve McQueen to Napoleon Bonaparte to A Clockwork Orange to Unitarians. Although he plunges deep into the social, political, and musical world of the Romantic period, Guerrieri (CFA’97) doesn’t shy away from contemporary pop culture. Somehow, it works.
The book has earned widespread critical acclaim and landed Guerrieri, the Boston Globe’s classical music critic, an appearance on The Colbert Report. Bostonia spoke with Guerrieri about the power of those four notes, the enduring mystique of the Fifth, and why no words written on the subject will be the last.
Guerrieri: I do. What makes them so particular is they’re probably the four notes of classical music that most people who aren’t even part of classical music would know. They have some sense of who Beethoven was and why the piece is famous. The piece has acquired a fame that’s transcended even the experience of the piece itself in a way.
There were no conductors, but somebody would have gotten it started, usually the concertmaster. The rest is there almost for housekeeping, because you have to fill out the bar. Beethoven could have started it as just a three-note pickup. But he decided to put the rest in for whatever reason, and probably didn’t think nearly as hard about it as I did. There’s this thing that happens right before the notes that’s in the score, that you don’t actually hear, just a sort of a little intellectual takeoff. It was too much fun to resist. But it is there to indicate this downbeat. And there’s this tradition with Beethoven’s Fifth that you’re supposed to get it started giving one beat, which happens to follow exactly where that rest is, so even the rest has become more important probably than Beethoven intended.
It was an editor’s idea, a man named Marty Asher, who at the time was working at Knopf. And he had this idea that there was a small book there. I ended up delivering a lot more book than he expected, and even that amount of material was pretty much only scratching the surface of Beethoven and the history of the reception of this piece. And I was attracted to it just because of the sheer variety of angles you could come at it from. And the fact that from generation to generation, everybody has felt the need to take stock of it in terms of their own era also just makes it this wonderful timeline.
Musically, he was an incremental innovator. It’s very easy to trace what he’s drawing from the previous generation, from Mozart, whom he loved, and from Haydn, who he actually studied with for a time, although they didn’t really get along. The reviewers talk about the fact that with Beethoven, there are so many more notes, or there’s so much more going on. The ideas are coming just a little bit faster or a little bit more abruptly than they’re accustomed to.
Yes, because he was the most famous musician at a time when composers were suddenly deemed to be more culturally important than they had previously been. And that’s in the culture at large. He’s also in the first generation of composers trying to make a career that’s not completely based on aristocratic patronage. I mean, he still is dependent on patrons, but he’s also dealing with publishing. He’s putting on concerts himself. He’s trying to manage his own fame as a way to increase his career prospects. And he’s doing this for most of his life. And that’s really something that starts right around that time, the idea that you can make your own way, that you can create your own fame, and that fame becomes something that you can use to advance your own career.
Parts of him. There are very attractive parts of his personality. There are very unattractive parts of his personality, partially because of who he was and partially because of his reputation and his fame. Those tendencies on both sides tend to be somewhat amplified. You read stories of him spurning royalty and even insulting royalty in a way that sort of promoted the equality of men. And that’s somewhat overstated. His own family life was terrible. He seems to have been able to lose friends with great skill. Reading Beethoven’s biography, in a lot of ways, is just watching him having one falling out after another with all manner of people. He certainly seems to have been an incredibly irascible person and a very stubborn person. So it’s hard to say. Would I have liked him as a person? Probably.
One of the things that fueled the Fifth Symphony’s fame was the fact that there are so many stories about it, so many anecdotes about it, so many things that Beethoven supposedly said about it, and the stories are really squishy in terms of historical veracity. The most famous one is that Beethoven called the opening four notes the sound of fate knocking at the door, which is a very suspicious story, because it comes from Anton Schindler, who was a very suspicious, and the only, source for that story, and it didn’t come out until about 10 years after Beethoven died.
I don’t think it’s that big a deal. It’s an interesting story, because of the persistence of the idea that he went suddenly, immediately, and profoundly deaf, that he was struck deaf, which is in some ways more dramatic and in some ways less dramatic than the actual story. The actual story is that his deafness was progressive: he first noticed it when he was quite young, and it deteriorated over a period of many years, which from a biographical standpoint is much more interesting. Because if you follow Beethoven through his life, you can see him gradually coming to terms with the fact that he’s going deaf, even before he finally becomes completely deaf.
I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that we live in an era when the primary way that most people interact with music is passive. We’re passive listeners. There’s a lot of music in the culture specifically designed to be listened to in a more or less passive way, which is not to say that that music can’t yield a lot of really beautiful things when you listen to it in a more active way. I don’t know if the book does this at all. But I would be very happy if it did in some small way encourage people to listen to music, to this piece, to any piece in a really active, really engaged way, knowing not only that there is this wealth of ideas and history behind any piece of music, classical, pop, or whatever, but also that their own life of ideas and of the mind can also be brought into that and can enrich that experience.
The nice thing for me was, I don’t remember when I first heard it. There are a lot of pieces that I remember the first time I heard them, but the Fifth Symphony has always just kind of been there, which means probably I came to it the way that most people, musicians or nonmusicians, come to it. It’s just always been part of the culture. Immediately after writing the book, I said, okay, I’m not listening to it for six months at least. But now I hear it, and even before the piece starts, I can sort of cycle through all the collected conventional wisdom of the piece and review it all, reject it all, and then try and come to the piece fresh.
It’s a great piece of music. And in a good performance, no matter how familiar you are with it, it still has an effect. It also helps that I tend to have a poor memory, which is bad for a pianist and one of the reasons I spent a lot of my time playing for singers, because you didn’t have to memorize the music. But it’s sort of like, every time I hear a piece, even a piece this familiar, there will always be something about the piece I’ve forgotten.