The title of Matthew Guerrieri's The First Four Notes has a rather In The Beginning feel. Undeniably those notes mark a new era, be it the early years of the Romantic period, or of instrumental music, even the beginning of symphonies composed with a metronome. The subject matter - the four-second melody which opens Beethoven's Symphony # 5 in C Minor - seems too long for a blog post, too short for a book, too specialized for a general audience and too well-trodden for the specialists. Fortunately Guerrieri errs to the side of hardcover in spite of that, briefly exploring every divergence available, from Georg W.F. Hegel to Ralph Waldon Emerson and Charles Ives. But while some readers may bask in the measure's aesthetic and philosophical family tree, others may resort to pruning.
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.