The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri Knopf (November 2012) Reviewed by Cecil Lytle

The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination
by Matthew Guerrieri
Knopf (November 2012)
Reviewed by Cecil Lytle

Almost any discussion about Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) assumes an encounter with the meaning of canon as well as the meaning of Scripture. Both invariably rely on a certain level of faith and agreement. Matthew Guerrieri’s The First Four Notes takes on the task of unraveling the meaning and mystery of that reverberative quartet of notes that have made Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (Opus 67) an iconic symbol of all sorts of terrifying machinations, including “fate knocking at the door.” To do so, Guerrieri has considered the overall work in its historical and philosophical contexts enlisting the help of a potpourri of thinkers and sensualists along the way from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanual Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx—traditional intellectual fodder for understanding the rise of the West—to Stanley Kubrick, the Bee Gees, Bonita “D’Mite” Armah, Ralph Ellison, Henry Thoreau, Nadine Gordimer, and, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven’s greatest inquisitor, Chuck Berry. Quite a sweep!

Beethoven’s Fifth has become a warhorse if there ever was one and, as such, suffers from over-familiarity. But no serious listener should attend a future concert of this iconic symphony (or any Beethoven symphony for that matter) without having first read Matthew Guerrieri’s The First Four Notes. This ambitious effort suggests that the author is part of a cadre of post-9/11 public intellectuals who see literary and musical canon as an ever-evolving mélange of voices and actors creating, codifying, and interpreting times past and present and re-evaluating the symbolic nature of (S)cripture not as script, but as an almanac—a lot of real-time guesswork predicated on “tradition” as well as matters of the moment. Therein lies the challenge Guerrieri has set out for himself.

The main premise of the book is the underlying notion that certain works in the musical and plastic arts (not necessarily literature) by relatively few artists endure not because of their intrinsic common emotional appeal, but because they engender in the view/listener a more indelible moral or political value easily usable from time to time, cause to cause. (Indeed, this is true in the most glaring twentieth-century example of Wagner in the hands Nazi propagandists.) Measuring the intrinsic appeal of a piece of music for its political applicability would include labor and civil right protest songs, some Gangsta Rap, any Perry Como ballad, and more. But then again, when is music ever completely apolitical? Music is always about “something,” even Guerrieri’s first four notes. The concern here is the suggestion that an accumulation of distinguished witnesses (Hegel, Berry, et al) is in itself a determination of the value and importance of those four notes.

Guerrieri observes that the first step in garnering witnesses is the need for a degree of popularity and pervasiveness. Beethoven was one of the few European musician/composers of the early 1800s to achieve celebrity during his own lifetime and an inner circle of fellow artists. His renown, unlike the quintessential court musician, Franz Josef Haydn, was chiefly attained outside the service of aristocracy who hired musicians and paid staff composers stipends for new works (usually celebrating an occasion important to them alone). It is significant, therefore, that Beethoven earned his keep in later years from royalties from publications and as an independent musician. By the time of the first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in 1808, his reputation rested largely on the immensely popular and very playable first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata (Opus 27, #2) published in 1801.

Although this lunar appellation did not come into vogue until half a dozen years after Beethoven’s death, he did signal his intentions by subtitling the work and its immediate predecessor (Opus 27, #1), Sonataquasi una Fantasia. In order to invoke the ineffable, he instructs the performer in the conventional Italian: "Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino" ("One must play this whole piece—meaning ‘movement’— very delicately and without dampers"). While these instructions present acoustic challenges for the modern player seated at a large sonorous grand piano, Beethoven couldn’t be clearer: mood and atmosphere are the essential features of the first movement. Despite the revolutionary aspects of the “Moonlight” Sonata, however, this celebrated first movement devotedly follows the structural procedures of pure sonata-form.

There’s no mistaking the fact that Beethoven was drawing attention to the element of surprise—the sense of departure from script—not found in the scores of sonata-form works he had composed during this brief period in Vienna. Similarly, Symphony no. 1 in C Major (Opus 21), published in 1801, opens deceptively (Molto Adagio) with a harmonic device that immediately steers the work away from its yet-to-be established home key (C Major) toward F Major, then G Major before moving forward twelve measures later to the more familiar brisk Haydn-esque sonata-form Allegro con brio in the key of C Major. With only one rehearsal before its premiere in the Imperial Court Theatre, the 2nd flautist, 2nd oboist and 1st clarinetist must have wondered why, with a symphony in C major, their first utterance is a Bb, a flatted seventh—a note alien to simple C Major in tertian harmony. Unlike Mozart and Haydn before him, Beethoven is distinguished by his penchant for deception and misdirection without severing his devotion to the principle post-Enlightenment architectural attribute that made classical music classic—sonata form.

It is precisely this tension between adherence to form at the macro level and the blurring of events at the micro level that Matthew Guerrieri considers in the opening chapters of The First Four Notes. His discussion investigates the subversive implications of Beethoven’s use of fermatas, rests, and unisons, positing the view that each of these compositional devices contribute to the element of surprise and awe.

Fermatas over the fourth and eighth notes of the symphony [are] dramatic pauses punctuating the two statements of the four-note motive.

Throwing up such rhythmic roadblocks, holding the notes out for as long as the conductor sees fit, might seem like an avant-garde touch—a Beckettesque frustration, stopping the clock just as it gets started.

Piano Sonata #1 Opus 2, No. 1
Piano Sonata #1 Opus 2, No. 1

The evolving use of fermatas as a dramatic element is an essential turn in Beethoven’s middle sturm und drang period. The interruption of even metrical pulse surprises the ear and misleads any unsuspecting follower. By contrast, Beethoven’s deployment of the fermata in earlier works was essentially pedagogical in nature, serving to separate and delineate the structural features of sonata-form. The best example of this technique occurs in the opening measures of his Piano Sonata no. 1 in F Minor, Opus 2, no. 1. The ascending first theme lasts a quixotic duration of 8 bars and contains just about all of the musical materials for the remaining six minutes of the movement. The material immediately following the fermata is the start of a development section built upon a contrapuntal spinning of the tiniest ingredient found in the first theme—the turn at the top. This section passes on to a literal reiteration of the opening measures of the exposition after an extended passage on the dominant which acts as a surrogate fermata suspending time and events before the full recapitulation.

By contrast, Guerrieri notes the first movement fermatas in the Fifth Symphony are not entirely structural, they are emotional, suspenseful, breathtaking. As with the above example from the First Piano Sonata (as well as the celebrated Sonata Pathétique, published in 1798), the first movement of the Fifth Symphony is an organic work that exploits the raw motivic elements found in its opening measures. Indeed, as the first movement of the Fifth Symphony progresses, Beethoven has the first four notes serve as the accompaniment to the second theme. Guerrieri, consequently, makes an interesting case for appreciating Beethoven’s intellectual development as a composer: What had, heretofore, in earlier compositions been an editorial punctuation (the fermata) is transformed into a compositional device or motive to be exploited and woven into his developmental technique.

He's Sure to Get V Mail

That exploitation even allows room for Beethoven to employ fermatas, once again, as room dividers at the start of the Development section and even more dramatically in the Coda where he writes a reflective fermata within a fermata (Adagio, measure 268) featuring solo violin. If the ubiquity of the subject de-de-de dum was not clear enough, the author goes on to point out that after an opening series of fermatas opening the symphony’s third movement, it then moves forward to recast the same mnemonic rhythm of the symbol “V” in Morse Code, ● ● ● ▬, this time in triple meter. It would not be long before the twentieth century connected the two-fingered “V” victory sign with Beethoven’s little enigmatic musical motive and war.

Chapter Three (“Infinities”) offers yet another well-trod discussion of the connection between Beethoven and Romanticism. The difficulty here, as with most such examinations, is that the bevy of citations in the chapter is from figures living contemporaneous or immediately contiguous to the period in question. It’s a bit like asking the soldier in the fox-hole, “What do you think of the enemy?” Perspective is compromised by close proximity. A great deal of Western European intellectual thought is framed today by Kant’s wrestling to understand rascally questions about the nature of man in the Post-Enlightenment era. Is it possible to apply the machinations of social contract theory, Newtonian physics, mixed with the class-conscious aspirations conveyed by the American and French Revolutions to understand the meaning of de-de-de-dum as a symbol for “Fate knocking on the door?” Moreover, Beethoven’s most “romantic” musical extravagances with form and content took place long after Kant passed from the scene. Perhaps Matthew Guerrieri’s inclusion of lines from the usually unreliable source, Richard Wagner, gets it about right:

Here is shown once more the idiosyncrasy of German nature, that profoundly inward gift which stamps its mark on every form by molding it afresh from within, and thus is saved from the necessity of outward overthrow. Thus is the German no revolutionary, but a reformer…

Despite the myopic declaration of Teutonic superiority, Wagner’s description of Ludwig van Beethoven as reformer, not revolutionary, is apt. Those Beethoven extravagances such as changing and rapid tempi, and sudden key shifts were, for the most part, contained within the confines of traditional sonata-form. The point is made in the book that de-de-de-dum, while cryptic and haunting, projects toward more extremes yet to come in the œuvre of Beethoven and others. The stark FFF opening of strings and solo clarinet all reciting the same de-de-de-dum notes in octave unison, for instance, is prescient of the same raw emotional clarity found in the opening of the third movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet (Opus 37) following the 12-tone cacophony of prior movements.

The genius of Beethoven may be attributable to his native abilities as much as it is an indirect result of fate of birth. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven was born late into an era. He grew to maturity at the end of the period that saw the codification of sonata-form in the hands of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Josef Haydn. He could measure and extend his ideas against nearly a century’s worth of sonata and symphonic exploration. De-de-de-dum and what happens to it in the Fifth Symphony is really about us—how we regard what we preserve and how we might continue to be amazed by the very familiar. Matthew Guerrieri’s First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination just might help us do that.


Cecil Lytle is Professor-Emeritus/Provost-Emeritus at the University of California San Diego in La Jolla. He was the First Prize winner of the Franz Liszt International Piano Competition and his recording career includes the Complete Works for Piano by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff/Thomas DeHartmann, the late works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert sonatas and waltzes, the piano sonatas of Alexander Scriabin, rages by Scott Joplin, Thomas “Fats” Waller improvisations, and Franz Liszt. This year he completed a 90-minute documentary film, Liszt in the World.