Authors: Matthew Guerrieri
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Guerrieri All rights reserved. Published in the United
States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada
by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The first four notes : Beethoven’s fifth and the human imagination / by Matthew Guerrieri.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Beethoven, Ludwig van, 1770–1827. Symphonies, no. 5, op. 67, C minor. 2. Beethoven,
Ludwig van, 1770–1827—
Appreciation. I. Title.
Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund
For my father
who let me steal his books and records
: … here, how about this … “Da da da dum!” Doesn’t that stir anything in you?
f/x airlock door opens
: ’Bye, I’ll mention what you said to my aunt.
f/x airlock door closes
: Potentially bright lad I thought.
: We’re trapped now, aren’t we?
: Errrrr … yes, we’re trapped.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
: What about you? Do you have any big nostalgia-inducing songs?
: Beethoven’s Fifth reminds me of Canada. I don’t know why. I’ve never been to Canada.
In his best seller
Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music
, first published in 1929, the poet and essayist Robert Haven Schauffler polled a
parade of opinions of Beethoven’s Fifth from a pool of straw men:
To Brown it may signify a fierce conflict with a sexual obsession. To Jones a desperate
campaign against an inferiority complex. To Robinson an old-fashioned pitched battle
“Paradise Lost,” between the forces of good and evil. To a victim of hysteria it
may depict a war between sanity and bedlam. To a neurasthenic a struggle between those
two mutually exclusive objectives: “To be, or not to be?” To an
evolutionist it may bring up the primordial conflict of fire and water, of man with
beast, of civilization with savagery, of land with sea.
Such mutable celebrity had already long surrounded the symphony. Beethoven’s Fifth,
the Symphony in C minor, op. 67, might not be the greatest piece of music ever written—even
Beethoven himself preferred his Third Symphony, the
but it must be the greatest “great piece” ever written, a figure on which successive
mantles of greatness have, ever more inevitably, fit with tailored precision. And
its iconic opening is a large part of that: short enough to remember and portentous
enough to be memorable, seeming to unlock the symphony’s meaning but leaving its mysteries
temptingly out of reach, saying
but admitting nothing.
This is a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. More specifically, it is a book about
the opening notes of that symphony; and more specifically than that, it is a book
about what people have heard in those notes throughout history, and how history itself
has affected what was heard. It is, then, history viewed through the forced perspective
of one piece of music; though, to be fair, there is only a handful of pieces of music
that could yield a comparable view, and most of them are by Beethoven. And, even within
the subject’s limited parameters, it is hardly a comprehensive history. Any writing
on Beethoven is an exercise in selection, and the selection says at least as much,
if not more, about the writer’s obsessions as it does about Beethoven. This is only
one possible path through the biography of the Fifth Symphony; there could be many
To say a piece of music has meaning is to say that it is susceptible to discussions
of meaning; by that standard, Beethoven’s Fifth is easily one of the most meaningful
pieces of music ever written. The number and variety of the interpretations assigned
to the Fifth, the creativity with which the piece has been invoked
in support of countless, often contradictory, causes—artistic, philosophical, political—all
this is a tribute to its amorphous power. It is also, on the side of the interpreters,
a testament to human creativity, ingenuity—and folly. The vaunted universality of
Beethoven’s achievement encompasses the sublime and the ridiculous.
Not that he didn’t try to warn us. In 1855, an unknown writer felt compelled to make
a handwritten addition to a copy of Anton Schindler’s biography of Beethoven:
Something about the beginning of the C minor Symph[ony]. Many men were disturbed over
the beginning of the Fifth. One of them ask[ed] Beethoven about the reason for the
unusual opening and its meaning. Beethoven answered: “The beginning sounds and means:
You are too dumb
The first thing to do on arriving at a symphony concert is to express the wish that
the orchestra will play Beethoven’s Fifth. If your companion then says “Fifth what?”
you are safe with him for the rest of the evening; no metal can touch you. If, however,
he says “So do I”—this is a danger signal and he may require careful handling.
was not quite sure what to make of Beethoven’s Fifth. Le Sueur was a dramatic composer,
a specialist in oratorios and operas, and the Parisian taste for such fare (along
with Le Sueur’s career) had persisted from the reign of Louis XVI through the Revolution,
through Napoléon, through the Restoration. For audiences suddenly to be whipped into
a frenzy by
music—as they were in 1828, when a new series of orchestral concerts brought Paris
its first sustained dose of Beethoven’s symphonies—was something curious. Le Sueur,
nearing seventy, was too refined to fulminate, but he kept a respectful distance from
the novelties—that is, until one
of his students, an up-and-coming enfant terrible named Hector Berlioz, dragged his
teacher to a performance of the Fifth. Berlioz later recalled Le Sueur’s postconcert
reaction: “Ouf! I’m going outside, I need some air. It’s unbelievable, wonderful!
It so moved and disturbed me and turned me upside down that when I came out of my
box and went to put on my hat, for a moment I didn’t know where my head was.”
Alas, in retrospect, it was too much of a shock: at his lesson the next day, Le Sueur
cautioned Berlioz that “All the same, that sort of music should not be written.”
1920, Stefan Wolpe, then an eighteen-year-old student at the Berlin Hochschule für
Musik, organized a Dadaist provocation. He put eight phonographs on a stage, each
bearing a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He then played all eight, simultaneously,
with each record turning at a different speed.
A socialist and a Jew, Wolpe would flee Nazi Germany; he eventually ended up in America,
cobbling together a career as an avant-garde composer and as a teacher whose importance
and influence belied his lack of fame. (The jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, shortly
before he died, approached Wolpe about lessons and a possible commissioned piece.)
In a 1962 lecture, Wolpe recalled his Dada years, revisiting his Beethoven collage;
in a bow to technological change, this performance used only two phonographs, set
at the once-familiar 33 and 78 r.p.m. Wolpe then spoke of “one of the early Dada obsessions,
or interests, namely, the concept of unforeseeability”:
That means that every moment events are so freshly invented,
so newly born,
that it has almost no history in the piece itself
but its own actual presence.
• • •
we regard Le Sueur’s frazzled confusion as quaint, it is at least in part because
of the subsequent ubiquity of the Fifth Symphony. The music’s immediacy has been forever
dented by its celebrity. Wolpe’s eightfold distortion can be heard as a particularly
outrageous attempt to re-create Le Sueur’s experience of the Fifth, to conjure up
a time when the work’s course was still unforeseeable. It is an uphill battle—in the
two centuries since its 1808 premiere, Beethoven’s Fifth has become so familiar that
it is next to impossible to re-create the disorientation that it could cause when
it was newly born.
The disorientation is built right into the symphony’s opening. Or even, maybe,
the opening: the symphony begins, literally, with silence, an eighth rest slipped
in before the first note. A rest on the downbeat, a bit of quiet, seems an inauspicious
start. Of course, every symphony is surrounded by at least theoretical silence. Though,
in reality, preconcert ambient noise, or at least its echoes—overlapping conversations,
shifting bodies, rustling programs, air-conditioning, and so on—may in fact bleed
into the music being performed, we nonetheless create a perceptive line between nonmusic
and music, enter into a conspiracy between performers and listeners that the composer’s
statement is self-contained, that there is a sonic buffer zone between everyday life
and music. (Like most conspiracies, it thrives on partial truths.) The obvious interpretation
is that silence functions as a frame for the musical object.
The less obvious (and groovier) interpretation is that the music we hear is but one
facet of the silence it comes out of.