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Four Notes that Changed the World

manuscript of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5
Wikimedia Commons
manuscript of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5

Author Matthew Guerrieri pulls at the threads that make the opening sounds of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony a cultural force through the course of two-and-a-half centuries.

This week brings the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, marked by commentary from the widest possible perspectives in The New York Times to the regionally specific in The Boston Globe. Both are worth the time to add context and depth to what you hear in the composer's music.

In particular, the Beethoven addition to the nicely concise "5 Minutes" series from the Times unlocks a handful of what makes the composer's work worth commemorating. And Jeremy Eichler's survey of Boston's relationship with Beethoven's music is great fun, especially if you've been to concerts at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall and run across the statue of Beethoven down the hallway from the entrance.

Incidentally, along with all the ways Eichler charts the "Beethoven in Boston" experience is the fact that Beethoven was so important in this city that, in the inaugural season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that began in 1881, all nine of the composer's symphonies were performed.

But for a unique perspective on Beethoven's impact on music and culture, turn to Matthew Guerrieri's 2012 book The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination. I talked with Guerrieri when the book was released, and he told me what Beethoven hoped for upon moving from his hometown of Bonn to Vienna, how the shift in perception of the Fifth Symphony may (or may not) have a connection to the cosmic battle for consciousness between Hegel and Marx, and how some very particular recordings of the Fifth, which you'll hear, unlock its mysteries in ways that I guarantee you will not expect:


Brian McCreath [00:00:00] There are any number of ways to celebrate, commemorate or just acknowledge significant composer anniversaries. One way is the "completist route:" listen to as many of that composer's works as you can, to get as wide a perspective as possible on what they added to the musical world. On the other end of the spectrum, you could take one piece and go deep, finding all the ways it might represent what's important about that composer and why we would care about the anniversary and question at all.

When it comes to Beethoven, there's no better place to start with than the most enduringly recognizable music the composer wrote, the Fifth Symphony. In 2012, Matthew Guerrieri wrote a book that not only went deep on that piece, it went deep on the very beginning of it. "The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination" is a fascinating cultural study on how this one work and its famous opening came to be so iconic.

I talked with Matthew when the book was published and before we got into the Fifth Symphony specifically, I asked him to set a bit of context, especially in relation to Beethoven's arrival in the musical capital of Vienna. One of Beethoven's patrons in his hometown of Bonn had written that the composer went to Vienna "to receive the spirit of Mozart from Haydn's Hands."

Matthew Guerrieri [00:01:13] Yeah, that's a very famous quote. And it is first of all, it's a great romanticization of Beethoven's trip to Vienna. Beethoven went to Vienna because that's where you went. If you were in anywhere in the Holy Roman Empire in the late seventeen hundreds and you wanted to make a career in music, you went to Vienna because that's where all the action was. And he went and actually studied with Haydn for a time and apparently they didn't get along at all. And Beethoven got to the point where he was doing the old composition student trick of passing off old assignments as new material. And Haydn found out about it. And so there was a fair amount of friction there. But Beethoven certainly admired Haydn's music and he very much admired Mozart's music. And I think it's sort of a sign of his ambition that he wanted to be, you know, included in that pantheon. And, you know, here he was coming from, you know, essentially a provincial town, Bonn, which had some musical culture. But he had to go to Vienna in order to really get to the center. And that was the level that he was aspiring to.

And so this is also, I think, part of a very interesting pattern in Beethoven's life, because Beethoven is right on the dividing line between composers sort of making their careers through aristocratic patronage and composers making their careers through appeal to the public and celebrity. And Beethoven sort of lives through a big part of that transition. And so, much of his going to Vienna was partially because that's sort of where the aristocrats, where it was, where the money was. But it's also where a lot of the public attention was. So that quote, which I'm sure Beethoven didn't mind in the least, getting spread around various musical circles in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe. But it also shows it's sort of he's linking onto this heritage, not just for esthetic reasons, but also for publicity reasons. It's sort of, he's taking the mantle and the fact that he's sort of aspiring to take that mantle and aspiring to let the public know that he's the one in that line, you can see sort of the beginnings of how from this point forward, composers and musicians are going to change the way they sort of manage their own fame.

BMcC [00:03:36] Following Beethoven's life through the course of the 19th century, you detail how various philosophical camps latch on to him, his music, his life, but to the Fifth Symphony in particular. And there's another part of your book in which you say that the fact that more people know the Fifth's beginning than its end could be read as evidence that Marx's philosophy has come to us more thoroughly than we're aware of, and Beethoven's Fifth and its beginning is maybe a reflection of that.

MG [00:04:07] Yeah, this is a speculative idea of mine and it's relatively complicated idea, but it has to do with the legacy of another philosopher, and that's Hegel. And really, the big idea behind Hegel was that both in logic and in history, you go through these various steps and it's called the Dialectic, and dialectically you progress. So this is basically putting a direction on history. It's the idea of historical progress, that as we go forward in history, things get better. And Hegel's idea was that things get better because we get ever closer to what he called the Absolute, which is pretty much the Divine.

And what Marx did with that was that he took that idea and he said, well, actually the goal is not the important thing because the goal is kind of an illusion. What he was saying was that it's the struggle that's important. And so Marx sort of comes up with this idea. It's called the materialist conception of history. And we still deal with that a lot today because we think of history in terms of economics. We think of it in terms of these sort of material, measurable things.

And it might just be a coincidence, but I think it's at least a little bit telling that in the first few decades after the premiere of the 5th, it was really the finale that people thought was the most interesting part of that piece. And it was it was the part that people really celebrated. But really by the end of the 19th century, then it's this opening four note cell that you can track all the way through the symphony that becomes really what the piece is known for. So is there any direct proof of that? No, of course there isn't. But I think it's an interesting idea that this almost complete flip of what the piece is known for somehow tracks some change in the way people started thinking about where their society was going, where history was was going, if history was indeed going anywhere.

BMcC [00:06:04] So you've included some recommended recordings in this book.

MG [00:06:08] Yeah, I didn't actually called them "recommended," but they were the ones, because some of them are recordings that certainly other commentators and listeners would not recommend in the least.

BMcC [00:06:22] Fair enough.

MG [00:06:22] Although I confess that by, you know, by the end of the process, I actually had some affection in some way for all of these recordings.

BMcC [00:06:31] We'll just take a couple of them or three of them or so and describe what is significant, even if not necessarily recommended. But why this recording? Why would you include it in the appendix to this book as one that someone would want to turn to?

MG [00:06:45] Well, I think the very first one I list is a recording that was made by the Berlin Philharmonic and it was conducted by Arthur Nickisch, who was also at one time the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It's not, in fact, the first complete recording of any symphony, but for a long time it was considered that and certainly it's the first complete recording of any symphony by an established professional group.

And it's a great recording because it sounds very little like any Beethoven Fifth you would hear today. It is very much the end of Romanticism, but you can hear sort of what the Romantics were trying to bring out of this music, and what sort of Romantic performance practice would have been for Beethoven. And just the fact that it's so different from what we tend to hear today is just a sign of, you know, sort of how history imprints its own stamp on any piece of music.


That's sort of the historical Beethoven. The other side of the historical Beethoven is, of course, something that we in Boston know very, very well, which is the early music movement.


And so the one recording I list is the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique, which is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It's one way of making the piece sound a little more sort of revolutionary and a little more unexpected. And then, of course, one of my favorite recordings now is a reaction to that.

And it was a recording done by the new Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez.


It's an infamous recording because it is one of the slowest Beethoven Fifth recordings ever done. It completely disorients you. This is the other side of the modern experience.

If you go on the Internet, this is a recording that routinely gets trashed, but it's one that, the more I listen to, the more I liked. And then when I was growing up, the two gold standards for Beethoven performance, the one was Toscanini. But the other touchstone when I was growing up was was a recording conducted by Carlos Kleiber.


It's a neat sort of balance because it is actually fairly fast, It doesn't quite get up to the hundred and eight mark, but it's faster than a lot of other recordings that were coming out at the time. But it manages to be just this very sort of glamorous recording. It's this glamorous sound, and it's very plush in sort of a very 1970s idea of luxury way. And I think it's that balance at the time was sort of considered like the holy grail of what you can do with this piece. Nowadays, you actually I think find performances tend to go more towards extremes, and so it'll be the extreme speed and sort of power or it'll be sort of the extreme romantic pillow-of-sound sort of approach. But that is one that was very famous for sort of striking just the right balance. It's kind of a little minor miracle in that way.

And then the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The Portsmouth Sinfonia is a recording, another recording I've known for a long time. Portsmouth Sinfonia was founded in the early 1970s. One of the people behind it was a British experimental composer named Gavin Bryars, who went on to do a number of remarkable pieces of his own. But he came up with this sort of idea of having an orchestra composed entirely of people who didn't know how to play the instruments they were playing.


And so it's the Think Method, really. It's Harold Hill's Think Method [from The Music Man - ed.] brought into practice with a full symphony orchestra set loose on some of the greatest hits of the orchestral repertoire. And, of course, they do Beethoven's Fifth.

What I used to always love about that piece was the fact that even though it's completely out of tune and not together and generally what by any sort of reasonable musical technical standards would be considered a terrible, terrible performance, it is still, you know, exactly what they're playing and they know exactly how it goes. And they're somehow able to bring that out, even though they're fighting with their instruments. They don't know where the fingers go. But it ends up, you know what it is. It's the Fifth Symphony.

And I always found that sort of amazing. It was sort of, you know, it's like the Jurassic Park version of human musicality. Musicality will find a way, right? They'll make the music somehow. And then after I wrote the book and after I finished the book and after I took a few months off from the book, I found myself coming back to that recording again and again and again. And the reason is because I think that, to me, it just started to sound like what writing the book was all about, because it was sort of like if you were able to take all these echoes of the Fifth through all these strange pathways of history and politics and philosophy and the culture, and I started to imagine that if you just sort of stack them up and mix them down, this is what it would sound like. And so to me, that's sort of, you know, now I listen to that piece and to me it just sounds like, this is not Beethoven's Fifth. This is the biography of Beethoven's Fifth turned into this sonic object. And in that way, I just love it even more. I don't know how else you could come up with a sound like that, that is so sort of completely off kilter and yet so completely recognizable as that specific cultural object.

BMcC [00:13:59] Wow. Matthew Guerrieri, thanks for coming in today.

MG [00:14:01] Thank you very much for having me.

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.