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The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination [Hardcover]

Matthew Guerrieri
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

13 Nov 2012
A TIME Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2012
A New Yorker Best Book of the Year
Los Angeles Magazine's #1 Music Book of the Year

A unique and revelatory book of music history that examines in great depth what is perhaps the best-known and most-popular symphony ever written and its four-note opening, which has fascinated musicians, historians, and philosophers for the last two hundred years.

Music critic Matthew Guerrieri reaches back before Beethoven’s time to examine what might have influenced him in writing his Fifth Symphony, and forward into our own time to describe the ways in which the Fifth has, in turn, asserted its influence. He uncovers possible sources for the famous opening notes in the rhythms of ancient Greek poetry and certain French Revolutionary songs and symphonies. Guerrieri confirms that, contrary to popular belief, Beethoven was not deaf when he wrote the Fifth. He traces the Fifth’s influence in China, Russia, and the United States (Emerson and Thoreau were passionate fans) and shows how the masterpiece was used by both the Allies and the Nazis in World War II. Altogether, a fascinating piece of musical detective work—a treat for music lovers of every stripe. 

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 359 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Inc (13 Nov 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307593282
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307593283
  • Product Dimensions: 21.9 x 15.1 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 770,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Knock Knock. Who's there...? 30 Dec 2012
By GregB
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is just the kind of book I enjoy thoroughly, ranging up and down the cultural history of the last two centuries and drawing in material from a wide range of disciplines, from music itself through 19th century philosophy in both Europe and America to literature and beyond. The erudition of the author in writing a book of over two hundred pages using the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony as its starting point is remarkable and he takes us on a journey of highways and byways which is constantly fascinating and illuminating, as are the characters (eg. Méhul, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Wagner, Fourier, Charles Grove, E.M. Forster, Ralph Ellison, Adorno, and many others) who appear at regular intervals as he stops at this and that location on the way to illuminate some new facet of the Fifth Symphony and related matters.

In short, a wonderful read for music lovers with a consuming interest in history, philosophy, literature - everything! One can only hope Mr.Guerrieri will now turn his attention to another musical phrase from which an entire book, and world, can spring.

Oh, I should mention that for those lovers of classical music like myself who are musically illiterate in terms of notation and the like, the book is ideal in that the author spends very little time on the actual technical analysis of the music itself - just a few pages in the first chapter.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ah, now I understand why the Fifth is in everything! 29 Nov 2012
By subquark - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I grew up hearing Beethoven's Fifth in everything from cartoons, to commercials, to movies and the term iconic is overly used today, however if ever anything is truly iconic - this is. When I heard about this book I saw an opportunity to learn why this movement is so culturally embedded in the West.

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!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars These four notes are a shared global language, a universal expression of gravity, and Guerrieri has written their biography. 1 Feb 2013
By C.E. Alexander - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but not light reading for me 22 July 2013
By welloff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I bought this because I love Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's not only giving me an even greater appreciation of the music, but I am learning so much about history, philosophy and music theory.

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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book! 19 July 2013
By J Kuhn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Not a book for everyone, but if it is a subject that is of interest, this is a great read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great! 19 Jun 2013
By Reader One - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a fantastic book, full of both tidbits of musical history (the invention of the metronome) as well as a fabulous and surprising interpretation of the history of listening... I loved it.
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