The First Four Notes: A review

I love books like this.  Smart, sassy, informative, informed.  A really bright person writing about something he loves, something that makes you feel brighter for having read it.  If you like music, and philosophy, and history, get this book.  Treasure it.

Matthew Guerrieri is music critic for the Boston Globe, and also has a music blog, Soho the Dog.  He writes well, and he knows what he’s writing about.  Now, with the The First Four Notes, he has managed to write a wonderful three hundred page book on the history of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor.  On, essentially, the first four notes of that symphony.  Or, to be more precise, on the eighth rest, followed by four notes, capped with a fermata.  Bum bum bum BUM.  That thing. As he puts it in his introduction:

This 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 are only a handful of pieces of music that could yield a comparable view, and most of them are by Beethoven.

And we’re off.  And what a ride Guerrieri takes us on.  To begin with, bum bum bum BUM.  Does it not sound like a knock on a door?  A knock summoning us to what?  To fate, perhaps?  To death?  Or to something altogether more transcendent?

And so it becomes a piece of music poised on the brink of something, the music racing ahead of us, beckoning us forward, waving to us from in front.  “Come along,” it seems to be shouting.  “Join me.”  And yet that ending, those final chords, Wham wham wham?  A call to revolution? A premonition of violence?

The piece was written just after the French Revolution, in the midst of Napolean’s reign and wars.  So that’s one echo.  It was also written in that turbulent turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century period, when Romanticism seemed to be ascendent over the values of the Enlightenment.  It was written by Beethoven, that most turbulent of personalities, and the hardest to pin down. And every generation since has found in it confirmation of its fondest values, or the destruction of them.

So, for example, it was greatly beloved at the American Transcendentalist commune of Brook Farm, seven miles outside Boston, where Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott’s father spent years studying the eccentric socialism of Charles Fourier (who seems to have genuinely believed in a millennial day in which the oceans would turn to lemonade).  Swedenborgian theology was also on the intellectual menu, and of course, generous portions of Beethoven.  It was a 1840s hippie commune, essentially, and the same fate awaited it as generally awaits hippie communes–they couldn’t get anyone to take their turn with the dishes.

But Beethoven’s Fifth would have stranger resonances.  The opening theme would be used to sell Beecham’s Pills, for example, that most generally useful of Victorian home remedies.  Beecham’s Pills were in fact a fairly effective laxative, (and, whisper it quietly, a somewhat reliable abortifacient) but they were sold as having distinctly spiritual qualities.  The farmer-turned-entrepreneur, Joseph Beecham, who made and marketed them became a multi-millionaire, and his heir, Sir Thomas Beecham, became the most celebrated British conductor of the early twentieth century.  He also used his vast fortune to fund and found a number of orchestras, and he would instruct their conductors to program lots of Beethoven, and especially, lots of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Of course, Beethoven’s Fifth became a propaganda tool for both Britain and Germany during the Second World War, with the BBC using a drummed performance of the first four notes to begin its wartime broadcasts.  Short short short long is Morse code for the letter V, probably intentionally (V is the Roman numeral for 5).  V for Victory.

Meanwhile, the Fifth became a subject for philosophy.  From Kant to Hegel through Adorno, the Fifth led some of mankind’s greatest thinkers to contemplate the greatest questions of creation.  Guerrieri is at his best in those passages–he has a knack for making philosophy comprehensible.  I mean, even Hegel. Seriously: Hegel.

So if you like music, or philosophy, or history, or Beethoven, read this book. If you’re just generally into smart writing on unlikely subjects, get this book.  Seriously, it’s great.  And then go home and listen to Beethoven’s Fifth again.  Get the one conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.  He’s the one guy who gets the tempo metronomically right.  And that, it turns out, is important too.

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