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

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

by Matthew Guerrieri; Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pp., $26.95

The first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are among the most famous, most analyzed, and most persistently recognized patterns in music. Renowned classical music critic Matthew Guerrieri explores how such a tiny idea can inspire 200 years of debate, interpretation, and performance. The result mixes deep theoretical thought, socio-cultural history, and philosophy alongside anecdotes (including a great parenthetical about Brahms playing a joke on a Beethoven scholar), while remaining engaging and intellectually stimulating. The heaviest portion of music theory comes at the beginning, with a breakdown of how those four notes work, focusing on their tonal and rhythmic ambiguity, and the short-short-short-long pattern that forms the basis of the symphony's first movement. Then Guerrieri rumbles through its relationship to the French Revolution, spanning from lit-crit deconstructionist Jacques Derrida to Goethe and fate, and including Coco the parrot from Beirut's Hotel Commodore. Some readers might get bogged down in details, like the extended list of Hollywood films that feature the Fifth, yet Guerrieri grabs you and doesn't let go. The protagonist and main character remains this special musical idea, and you want to know its story. With two centuries of Beethoven books, a scholar has to look closely to find any unexplored corners. Guerrieri succeeds in doing just that.

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