CFA Alum Strikes Deep Chord with First Four Notes (Excerpt)

in Alumni, CFA, CFA Newsmakers, Music
April 29th, 2013

Book looks at world through Beethoven’s Fifth

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 The Colbert Report. In Leon Botstein’s Wall Street Journal review, he writes: “With a quick mind and wit, he traverses two centuries of musical culture, literature, and politics with uncommon authority.” Publisher’s Weekly notes that Guerrieri “clothes his erudition in lucid, breezy prose…the result is a fresh, stimulating interpretation that shows how provocative the familiar classic can be.”

BU Today spoke with Guerrieri recently 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.

BU Today: An NPR piece on your book refers to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as “the most well-known notes in classical music.” Do you agree?
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.

You write a lot about how the symphony begins “literally, with silence,” an eighth rest that translates into a beat given by conductors. But when Beethoven wrote the symphony, there were no conductors. What was he up to?
There were no conductors, but somebody would have gotten it started, usually the concertmaster. The rest is there almost for housekeeping. It’s there 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.
Interview by Susan Seligson. More on Bu Today