Sublime Nothingness: On 'The First Four Notes'

By Eileen ReynoldsDecember 18, 2012

Sublime Nothingness: On 'The First Four Notes'

The First Four Notes by Matthew Guerrieri

TO MARK ARMISTICE DAY in 1943, the New York Philharmonic played the first nine bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, paused for a minute of silence, and launched into “The Star Spangled Banner.” Earlier that year, a recording of the same symphony had accompanied the official German radio broadcast announcing the Nazi army’s defeat at Stalingrad. The Fifth was played as the finale to concerts at Victorian London’s Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition in 1851; along with “La Marseillaise” at an 1848 Paris Conservatoire concert to benefit wounded revolutionaries; and over and over, as though on a loop, on Radio Free Prague during the 1968 anti-Soviet rebellion in Czechoslovakia. A performance of the Fifth inaugurated the Chicago Orchestra Hall in 1904, and it was the first symphony to be put on a record, by Friedrich Kark and the Odeon Orchester in 1910. Its opening theme has accompanied cartoon characters from Daffy Duck to Marge Simpson and been used to advertise cars, shoes, Californian white wine, and Japanese frozen noodles.

Once a piece of music has been pressed into service for such diverse political, ideological, and commercial aims, can we still hear it? That’s the question posed by The First Four Notes, Boston Globe music critic Matthew Guerrieri’s history of the symphony’s famous opening theme — and, more importantly, what people have heard in it over the more than 200 years since its premiere. In a way, Guerrieri isn’t the first to ask the question. Early on, he describes a Dadaist experiment in which the avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe set eight phonographs to play a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth simultaneously but at different speeds, in what Guerrieri suggests was a futile attempt “to recreate the disorientation that it could cause when it was newly born.” That was in 1920, and the piece had already become a concert hall staple; today, its first four notes are so ubiquitous that most of us can’t recall where or when we first heard them. Once disorienting, even revolutionary, that opening motif now serves as common cultural shorthand for a tangle of abstract associations — fate, victory, death, greatness — and Guerrieri’s ambitious project is to identify the origins of each strand.

This approach makes The First Four Notes as much a history of ideas as of music, with substantial discussions of thinkers from Marx and Engels to Thoreau and Schopenhauer who have applied their theories to Beethoven’s life and work. But Guerrieri is often at his best when he leaves aside what the notes might mean in favor of the music itself. His straightforward reading of the Fifth’s opening phrase highlights its harmonic and rhythmic ambiguities: The first eight pitches (G-G-G-Eb, F-F-F-D) could plausibly belong to either the symphony’s key of C minor or its Eb major relative; the eighth-note rest followed by three eighth-notes sounds to some ears like a triplet; fermatas over the long, phrase-ending notes (Eb and D) obscure the meter. While it might be impossible for present-day listeners to fully enter the mindset that made all this so shocking at the Fifth’s 1808 premiere, Guerrieri’s spare exegesis strips away some of the rhetoric around the piece, by providing a concrete inventory of the musical elements that have often inspired overwrought and imprecise description.

While it’s tempting (and typical) to explain the Fifth’s initial impact by focusing on its radical novelty, Guerrieri argues that the opening theme’s rhythmic profile — short-short-short-long — was one with which Beethoven’s contemporary audience was quite familiar. He traces the figure back to antiquity: known in classical Greek poetry as the quartus paeon, it was often used in hymns to Apollo and in martial tunes. But Beethoven wouldn’t have had to read Homer to encounter it: The quartus paeon showed up again around the French Revolution, when it became the signature rhythm of Étienne-Nicolas Méhul’s First Symphony, which premiered a few years before Beethoven’s Fifth, and of the revolutionary songs “Le Chant du départ,” “Le Réveil du peuple,” and, most famously, “La Marseillaise.” Beethoven’s own politics are, as Guerrieri writes, tantalizingly “difficult to unravel”: he famously dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon — he later changed his mind, scratching the emperor’s name off the manuscript. As for the Fifth, Guerrieri leaves open whether Beethoven’s allusion to “La Marseillaise” was consciously intended, but argues that the resemblance is one reason the symphony was taken up throughout Europe as another revolutionary anthem.

In the 1840s, the short-short-short-long pattern appeared once again, but in a non-musical guise. Samuel F.B. Morse and Alfred Vail chose it to represent the letter V in what became known as Morse Code, and it’s this accident of history that allowed the Fifth’s opening phrase to become the auditory counterpart to the Allies’ “V for victory” rallying signal during World War II. Guerrieri relates this chapter of the symphony’s story in lively detail. Arturo Toscanini led his NBC Symphony Orchestra in a broadcast performance of the first movement of the Fifth on the occasion of the fall of Mussolini, and vowed to conduct the rest of the symphony only when Germany itself was defeated. True to his word, he delivered the whole piece on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, this time taking the first movement at such a clip, a breathless Guerrieri writes, that “it was as if Toscanini was annexing Beethoven back from the Nazis with a blitzkrieg of his own.”

Between “La Marseillaise” and Hitler, The First Four Notes becomes a bit of a slog, as Guerrieri dives deeply into Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. Perhaps this is predictable; after all, many symphonies also drag between their crisp opening statements and exciting conclusions. Guerrieri’s title offers a beguiling promise — can anyone really write a whole book about just four notes? — and it would be overly literal to expect him to focus on that opening phrase outside the context of the whole symphony. Still, one opens the book with the hope that by calling upon a battery of prominent philosophers, Guerrieri will show how “da-da-da-dum” can be used as a key to unlock the secrets of the Fifth and its enigmatic creator. Instead, Guerrieri too often loses sight of his stated theme for pages at a stretch, drifting away from the Fifth entirely as he catalogues the various meanings ascribed to Beethoven over the years by the many who have claimed him. Intriguing insights, such as the fact that many early interpreters wrote about the piece without ever having heard it performed (they simply studied the score), beg to be explored at greater length, but are sometimes lost among thumbnail biographies and loose theoretical summaries of a range of writers and thinkers.

At times, Guerrieri simply overreaches. While discussing the “rhetorical tone” of Beethoven’s “heroic” symphonies, he likens the composer’s music to Steve McQueen’s acting: both exude “surface energy” that “prevents us from peering behind its curtain, but because we nevertheless want to sense something behind that curtain, we make an educated guess, based on our own emotional experience.” Like a McQueen character, Guerrieri continues, Beethoven “doesn’t so much take the listener on the journey with him as return from the journey and start telling war stories.” The forced analogy goes on for far too long, ending with a trivial quip: “Besides, Beethoven could eschew action movies when he wanted to.”

When he’s not indulging such fancies, Guerrieri does get to the bottom of some of the legends around Beethoven’s most famous theme, including the often repeated claim that it represents “fate knocking at the door.” As evidence that this interpretation was Beethoven’s own, we have only the word of his early biographer Anton Schindler, a contemporary and self-professed friend of the composer who, as many scholars since have noted, was known to embellish, exaggerate, and plain make things up. That’s not to say that Beethoven never talked about fate: on the contrary, Guerrieri points out, the word comes up often in his journals and in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, the dramatic October 6, 1802 statement about his advancing deafness that Beethoven addressed to his brothers but never delivered. The temptation to hear the Fifth as a heroic ode to the composer’s struggle with hearing loss (that is, with his fate) was powerful even in Beethoven’s time, despite strong evidence that the composer could still hear when he wrote it.

But what really popularized the notion of fate as an interpretive key to the Fifth was the pervasive influence on later critics of 19th century German philosopher George Friedrich Hegel’s concept of the dialectic — the idea that the passage of time both illuminated and ultimately resolved apparent contradictions born out of the philosophies and political systems of particular eras. History, in Guerrieri’s summary of Hegel’s ideas, “learned from its mistakes, continually evolving toward more freedom, fairness, and philosophical soundness.” Despite the fact that many have done so, Guerrieri suggests that applying Hegel’s logic directly to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth is akin to jamming a round peg in a square hole, partly because of the philosopher’s own ambivalence toward music, which he alternately praised for its “formal inwardness” and “pure sound,” and derided as “empty and meaningless.” Still, even though Hegel wasn’t describing the Fifth specifically, his declaration that “the meaning to be expressed in a musical theme is already exhausted in the theme” hints at one reason generations of musicologists and philosophers have found its first four notes so mysteriously alluring.

Karl Marx also had a go at giving the symphony a philosophical reading. (He was a fan: during an 1850s London pub crawl, he praised Beethoven as one in a long line of German composers who had overcome “miserable political and economic conditions” to achieve greatness.) Under Marx’s materialist conception of history, the symphony’s four-note motive can be viewed as the “worldly friction” against which the composer struggles and ultimately triumphs. Marx, famously, once wrote that his philosophy “stood Hegel on his feet,” and in musicological terms, Guerrieri writes, this inversion influenced a shift in critical emphasis from the Fifth’s finale, “the troublesome scherzo exploding into triumphant, major-key synthesis,” to the first movement, whose “epochal opening” was increasingly viewed as “a dramatic showdown between history and the individual, irreconcilably defiant.”

As fascinating as it is to find Karl Marx behind the ongoing cultural obsession with Beethoven’s first four notes, Guerrieri’s philosophical interludes are more compelling (and less murky) when he focuses on thinkers whose analyses were grounded in the particulars of music theory. The 19th-century composer and critic Adolph Bernhard Marx (no relation to Karl) based his description of what came to be known as sonata-allegro form on the first movement of the Fifth. Like many interpretations of the symphony, A.B. Marx’s analysis has a strong Hegelian flavor: in it, what seem like two contrasting themes eventually achieve synthesis by reappearing together in a common key. Marx argued that Mozart and Haydn had followed the same basic pattern — exposition, development, recapitulation — that he observed in Beethoven’s Fifth, but he also pointed out places where Beethoven’s symphony differed from the works that preceded it. In other words, he constructed his whole theory in order to prove that Beethoven was best — more inventive and more surprising, but no less disciplined, than his classical predecessors.

Decades later, in the wake of World War I, Heinrich Schenker, the Austrian music theorist who became (and remains) a major influence on academic musicology, would hatch another theory that was arguably reverse-engineered to demonstrate Beethoven’s superiority. Scheckner’s main theoretical tool for defending “the German genius in music” was something he called a composition’s Urlinie, or “fundamental line,” made up of eight (or sometimes just three) notes that descended the scale to the root of the tonic. Though a work’s Urlinie might be hidden from ordinary listeners beneath the surface details of the music, it could be revealed by what has come to be known as “Schenkerian analysis.” When combined with a “do-sol-do” pattern in the bass line, a three-note Urlinie became an Ursatz, the structural principle fundamental to all great music. Or so Schenker argued. In his analysis, the fourth and eighth notes (Eb and D) of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth establish an exquisite tension that demands the piece’s ultimate though much-delayed descent to the tonic (C), forming — you guessed it! — the three-note Urlinie that makes German music great.

If all that sounds a little creepy, it might be because nationalist zeal for Beethoven became a hallmark of the National Socialist party in the run-up to World War II. One article in the Journal of the Reich Committee for the Volk’s Health Service and the German Society for Racial Hygiene officially proclaimed the composer’s Aryan purity, declaring that “Nordic are, above all, the heroic aspects of his works which often rise to titanic greatness.” Schenker himself was Jewish, and though he might have shared with the Nazis a belief in German greatness, Guerrieri reports that his “enthusiasm turned to skepticism” after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Mercifully, the theorist did not live to see the Anschluss — he died of diabetes in Vienna in 1935 — or the death of his wife, Jeanette, at Theresienstadt in 1945.

The Aryans were not alone in claiming the Fifth’s composer as their own: in a 1963 Playboy interview, Guerrieri reports, Malcolm X claimed that Beethoven was black. Guerrieri labels Martin Luther’s King’s “I have a dream” the “most famous quartus paeon in oratorical history” and notes that, although there’s no compelling evidence to support the rumor of Beethoven’s African ancestry, first posited in 1940 by journalist and historian A.J. Rogers, it’s another of the myths about him that can’t quite be disproven. This is also the point in the book at which Guerrieri begins to throw up his hands, writing, “the idea of a black Beethoven ends up as something like the Fifth Symphony: a convenient screen onto which anyone can project their own concerns.”

The First Four Notes provides countless examples of such projections. Wagner, who once trained a parrot to sing its theme, heard in the Fifth the song of a prophet, a fellow “genius freed.” The American transcendentalists revered Beethoven, imagining an interior journey in which, as Margaret Fuller wrote, “he traveled inward, downward, till downward was shown to be the same as upward, for the center was passed.” The symphony meant something quite different to disco dancers in 1976, when Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band set the first movement to a 4/4 throb as “A Fifth of Beethoven.” But after working through Guerrieri’s meticulous catalogue of what others have mapped on to those first four notes, one can’t help asking: What does he hear in them? Or can he even bear to listen?

While Guerrieri never signs on to a single interpretation, it’s clear that some ideas about the Fifth resonate with him more than others. He devotes several detailed paragraphs to American composer Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, an ode to transcendentalism that quotes the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth in various contexts throughout its four movements. As the piece goes on, the motif begins to “accrue meanings and mirrors,” Guerrieri writes, in a way that parallels Ives’s “cumulative” rather than “goal-oriented” view of history. At the end of his Ives analysis comes what might be the book’s most direct statement of the author’s own view: “The four-note motive is there because of its fame and familiarity, its original power and its power as cliché inseparable,” Guerrieri writes. “Beethoven’s music doesn’t come out of the previous generation and lead to the next — it stands outside time, it transcends time, and history coalesces around it.”

That idea — that the power and the clichéd status of the first four notes are somehow bound together across time — is both novel and compelling, and Guerrieri might have expanded on how that tension plays out for a 21st-century music critic made to sit through dozens of performances of the Fifth each year. I never quite stopped hoping that the book would culminate in a grand, old-fashioned “close reading” of the symphony,” with Guerrieri pouring his research findings into a blow-by-blow analysis of the four-note theme’s journey as it appears and reappears in various guises throughout the piece. Instead, the book ends with an exploration of what Theodor Adorno called “the nothingness of the first bars” — a nothingness, that, paradoxically, Adorno thought held endless possibility.

That sublime nothingness, or “original power,” as Guerrieri puts it, may be even harder to get at today, given that the symphony has been smudged with “two centuries of interpretive fingerprints.” For better or worse, this is why Guerrieri declines to add his own hand, writing that “to know what the Fifth has been burdened with is to know what to clear away.” The First Four Notes does not make that task any easier; Stefan Wolpe may have superimposed eight versions of the Fifth Symphony on one another, but Guerreri, in a way, leaves us with many more to digest, dismiss, or exorcise. The ultimate test of the book may be in what its readers hear when they put it down and reach for the nearest recording of the symphony, ready to listen anew.


LARB Contributor

Eileen Reynolds is a freelance writer and bassoonist living in New York. She has written about the arts for publications such as The Believer, the Forward, Symphony, and the New Yorker website, and her work has been featured on NPR's All Things Considered.


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