cover image The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination

The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination

Matthew Guerrieri. Knopf, $26.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-307-59328-3

Music’s most memorable da-da-da-dummm touched off a cultural and intellectual ferment that’s ably explored in this sparkling study. Boston Globe music critic Guerrieri opens with an engaging musicological investigation of how Ludwig van Beethoven orchestrated his Fifth Symphony’s urgent rhythms and unsettling harmonies into a work of unique emotional and rhetorical force: listeners agree that it says something powerful and profound, he notes, even if they can’t agree on what it’s saying. Guerrieri surveys the many meanings that have been attached to the Fifth, by novelists from E.M. Forster to Ralph Ellison and thinkers from Nietzsche to Sartre; by American transcendentalists and Chinese Maoists; by Nazis and their Allied opponents, who both claimed it as a symbol of their cause; by avant-garde composers, disco arrangers, and ring-tone purveyors. Guerrieri often wanders away from Beethoven for luxuriant digressions on German romanticism or Victorian patent laxatives, but clothes his erudition in lucid, breezy prose. He makes the muzziest musico-philosophical conceits accessible and relevant, while tossing off his own intriguing insights—“Beethoven’s heroic music is a lot like Steve McQueen’s acting”—with the flick of a baton. The result is a fresh, stimulating interpretation that shows how provocative the familiar classic can be. (Nov. 15)