Who does not know the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? But who knows that the symphony does not actually begin with that first dramatic da, but with — of all things — a rest? And how many know that the da-da-da-daaa combination is called a quartus paeon? The equivalent in Morse code is dot-dot-dot-dash — the signal for the letter V.
In 1941, the BBC was encouraging the people of occupied Europe to scrawl V (for victory) on walls as a sign of resistance. To emphasize this, they came up with the idea of beating out the four Morse taps on a drum. The connection to Beethoven’s Fifth was quickly spotted, and the BBC Foreign Service soon had the symphony echoing through the embattled Allied world.
The British were not the first to think of the Fifth in martial terms. When Beethoven wrote it in 1808, Europe was riven by the Napoleonic Wars, and it immediately inspired heroic ideas. In World War II, it was conscripted not only by the Allies, but also by the Nazis. They rarely admitted defeat, but when they announced their disastrous loss in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, they immediately superseded regular radio broadcasts so Beethoven’s Fifth could take over the airwaves and inspire new military efforts.
These nuggets from the history of the symphony come from “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination” by Matthew Guerrieri. It is a treasury of such information. But the allure of this book is not the factoids that will delight trivia lovers, but the encyclopedic biography of the Fifth Symphony, starting with its origins, tracing its development and, most important, charting interpretations of it over the past 200 years.
Mr. Guerrieri begins by exploring those first four famous notes, investigating the intrinsic rhetorical qualities of the quartus paeon to partly account for their impact and noting their similarity to other stirring themes — “The Marseillaise” being an especially relevant analogue. Could it be a possible source of inspiration? Maybe. But Beethoven’s friends thought that he took the phrase straight from nature — specifically from the song of the yellowhammer. Because the symphony was written at the height of the Romantic era, a derivation from the natural world was appealing — not least to Beethoven himself.
Gradually, though, the yellowhammer story was superseded by the better-known idea that that foreboding opening is Fate — specifically, Fate knocking at the door. This is another notion that possibly appealed to the composer. Beethoven’s first biographer, Anton Schindler, claimed that Beethoven told him, “It is thus that Fate knocks at the door.” Schindler is widely regarded as an unreliable hero-worshipper, but Mr. Guerrieri points out, “Even if it was an out-and-out fiction, give Schindler credit for at least knowing what would make a plausible story. Beethoven talked about fate all the time.”
And so did many compatriot philosophers. As Mr. Guerrieri explains, in Beethoven’s day, “all things Eastern” were influencing German intellectual life, and so “driven by some of the nineteenth century’s most formidable thinkers — Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche — the very idea of Fate was about to experience an all-encompassing growth spurt.”
The fate-knocking-on-the-door idea has never entirely deserted the Fifth Symphony, but it has been accompanied by many other interpretations. The tearaway pace of the first movement and the triumphal themes of the close lend themselves to mid- and late-19th-century ideas about the triumph of progress. Later, fate knocking was transformed into the idea of a warning come too late.
One of the strengths of this book is that its author is as adept at tracing philosophical arguments and their transformations as he is at tracing musical history. As a result, music lovers will find much to enthrall them in his pages, while readers interested in the intellectual history of Europe and the United States will be captured by its application to Beethoven’s Fifth. So will those with literary interests. It has inspired numerous writers: Emerson, E.M Forster and Ralph Ellison, among them. And continuing in their footsteps, so have the new media of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s been co-opted in films, on television and by pop artists. The first four notes went with the Voyager spacecraft when it searched for extraterrestrial life. And in a more down-to-earth perspective, anybody can have them for a ring tone.
Not least of the pleasures of this book is the lucid and often sprightly prose. It ends with an epilogue recording the rather disastrous premiere of The Fifth Symphony, and the early troubles of its publication. And in case readers want to listen to varied interpretations, an appendix lists eight “interesting recordings.”
Few, if any, other symphonies lend themselves to such an extensive treatment because none is so well-known. But even those with the closest familiarity with Beethoven’s Fifth will find something new and intriguing in this volume.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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