Matthew Guerrieri's The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination, is a fascinating survey of the many meanings attached to the Fifth, from thinkers like Nietzsche and Sarter, to American transcendentalists and Chinese Maoists, to Nazis and their Allied opponents. Here, Guerrieri tells us how the Fifth has influenced literature.
The upside—and downside—to writing a book about about something as culturally omnipresent as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is that seemingly everybody since has had something to say about it. But its appearances in fiction have been comparatively fleeting, authors perhaps suspicious of the music's banal familiarity, or its bruising force. (In William Gaddis's novel JR, the symphony overwhelms the Frigicom process, a noise-reduction technique that freezes excess sound using liquid nitrogen; as the technique's inventor, swathed in bandages, explains to a government committee, upon freezing the Fifth, the “strident quality of the musical work's opening bars” proved literally explosive.) Still, a few have taken it on. Here are five novels, both famous and forgotten, that make Beethoven and/or his most recognizable piece a crucial character.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess - The history of a piece of music is inseparable from the history of its fans, so it's worth starting with Burgess's dystopian classic and its anti-hero, Alex, literature's most celebrated Beethoven-loving sociopath. In the book (unlike Kubrick's film adaptation), it's the Fifth that is used to torture/brainwash Alex into a semblance of conformity, and the psychological weaponization of Beethoven is what finally trips Alex's sense of morality: “It's a sin.” In an interview later in life, Burgess (a composer as well, and who wrote another novel, Napoleon Symphony, that he structurally modeled after Beethoven's Third) imagined that, after the conclusion of A Clockwork Orange, Alex had himself gone on to become a great composer. Read in that light, the book becomes a fantastically lurid portrait of the monstrosity of genius.
Rumour: A Novel by Elizabeth Sara Sheppard - Beethoven's music echoes again and again through the parlors and country estates of Victorian romances, those countless three-volume novels that Wilde's Miss Prism warned Cecily not to speak slightingly of. If you wanted to take the trouble to actually read one of these doorstops, you might try Sheppard's Rumour, first published in 1858, which goes further: it makes Beethoven himself a character. Well, not exactly: the composer's name is Rodomant, and he has been placed into a love-versus-duty subplot of post-1848 imperial proportions. But all the familiar traits are there—the irascibility, the iconoclasm, even, in the end, the deafness. In great, heavy skeins of Victorian purple, Sheppard winds her tale to a climax replete with an insane asylum, a thwarted engagement, and a heroic carrier-pigeon. (A more high-minded Beethoven doppelgänger is the title character of Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe, completed in 1912—“Beethoven,” the author explained, “cast into the modern world.”)
Fate at the Door by Jessie Van Zile Belden - Beethoven's most famous statement about the Fifth—that the opening represented “fate knocking at the door”—was probably itself a fiction, invented by his notoriously imprecise biographer Anton Schindler. But the story stuck, seeding the Fifth's role as a supporting player in tales of destiny ever since. Van Zile Belden's 1895 novel of John Strathmore, rich but mysterious, navigating his way through both Gilded Age New York society and an attraction to the beautiful, equally wealthy, but married Beatrice Courtlandt, features a pivotal performance of the Fifth, not unlike...
Howards End by E.M. Forster - Sheppard, surrounded by Victorian attitudes, concentrated them into thick gravy; but Forster, eulogizing the empire, distilled clean but potent spirits. Forster was an amateur musician of above-average discernment, a proclivity that bore fruit in Howards End. Beethoven's Fifth headlines its most famous set-piece, the Queen's Hall concert which so excites and disturbs Helen, the younger and more impulsive of the Schlegel sisters, inadvertently setting the plot on its inevitable course. But the entire novel is modeled after the Fifth, its motives of class and money and duty woven into an opening movement of accumulating counterpoint; a double variation, following the book's two unlikely couples; a demonic scherzo of scandal and recrimination; and a finale of thoroughly equivocal triumph, domestic happiness laced with encroaching decay.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison By contrast, Beethoven's Fifth only makes a cameo appearance in Ellison's novel, but it's a charged one. Literally: the electroshock apparatus that the unnamed protagonist finds himself strapped into warms up with a Beethovenian cadence—“three short and one long buzz, repeated again and again in varying volume”. And, in its own crackling, polystylistic rhythms, Invisible Man might be the most musical American novel ever written. Ellison too had a musical background, as both a jazz trumpeter and a serious student aspiring to the compositional heights of Beethoven and Wagner. His writing shows it, a tough and lyrical mix of dancing syncopations, brilliant arias, and deep harmonies. Now so often encountered in English classes or literature seminars, the novel has acquired some of the weighty baggage of greatness that the Fifth has been so long encumbered with; but, like the Fifth, if you can trick yourself into forgetting its canonic stature, Invisible Man still jabs with force and energy, an almost promiscuously dazzling performance.