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The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination

3.40  ·  Rating details ·  286 ratings  ·  55 reviews
A unique and revelatory book of music history that examines in great depth what is perhaps the best known and most popular symphony ever written and its four-note opening, which has fascinated musicians, historians, and philosophers for the last two hundred years.

Music critic Matthew Guerrieri reaches back before Beethoven’s time to examine what might have influenced him
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published November 13th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2012)
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Michael Finocchiaro
This book is a brilliant piece of scholarship that talks of the multiple interpretations and distortions that the da-da-da-dum opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony has had since he penned it in 1808. It has been appropriated by philosophers, demagogues, writers, and advertisers over the past two centuries. There are some interesting side notes (I was ignorant or had forgotten that the terms "left" and "right" in politics stemmed from Hegel or that the modern phone dial tone is based on the 5ths e ...more
Oct 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Was Beethoven Jewish?

I have spent a day with this book and I can’t go on. Not because it is horrid but because it is wonderful. Every page is not only informative, it’s inspiring. The consequence is that it’s got me off pursuing obscure possibilities, that lead to further conjectures, to more research, to more possibilities, potentially ad infinitum. So I’m calling it a day until I can recover some equilibrium.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Guerrieri starts with the hidden (except to musician
Sep 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Notice the eighth rest, like a starter pistol, right before the da-da-da-dum. Why? And, if you're the conductor, How? It's not there for nothing. For me, it's as if Beethoven knew. And so he makes us pause first, however briefly, before he dramatically announces, in four notes, that music will never be the same.

So, what does it mean? The first four notes and the entirety of the Fifth? Is it Fate knocking on the door? In a surely apocryphal story, Beethoven, when asked what the first four notes m
Jim Coughenour
Nov 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: classics, music
The four-hour 1808 premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (which also included Beethoven's Sixth; an aria, the "Gloria" and "Sanctus" from the Mass in C Major; the Fourth Piano Concerto; an improvisation; and the Choral Fantasy for Piano) was famously described as "too much of a good thing." Matthew Guerrieri's book runs the risk of the same compliment. By the time Guerrieri documented the transmogrification of the symphony into disco, hip-hop and ringtones – then delved into the arcane musings ...more
Apr 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: did-not-finish
I just wanted to think about the great majesty of Beethoven's 5th symphony again, so that's why I got this book. There is no other reason.

See, it was my first major symphony I performed as oboe I with the Philadelphia Young Artists' Orchestra. I didn't realise at the time I would associate such strong emotion with it. I am strongest tied to this piece of music.

I am not confident enough to play any other instrument professionally, even flute, bassoon or voice. In fact, I am probably not confide
Mike Cuthbert
Jul 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Once, in conversation with Antal Dorati, then conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, he told me: “You must remember that every time you perform the Beethoven Fifth Symphony in concert, half the audience will never have heard it all the way through, another third of that has never heard it performed at all and the final third has never heard it played by a professional orchestra. So to almost all of your audience, even the Beethoven Fifth will be a new experience.” Hard a ...more
Dec 18, 2012 rated it it was ok
I read this book after hearing a review on NPR. Too bad the highlights NPR covered were the best parts in the story. The writing was aloof and inconsistent. The constant introduction of composers, philosophers, and politicians with insufficient text describing their connection to the 5th was distracting. Overall, It was hard to tell where the author's narrative was going. A simpler, focused book would have been a more enjoyable read.
Patrick O'Hannigan
This book is as dense and self-indulgent as you might expect if, like me, you are gobsmacked by the thought of anyone having written 282 pages about four notes. The level of detail here puts Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy to shame. But look again at that clever title, or better yet, read it aloud, because the title has the same rhythm as its subject. Moreover -- and to be fair -- Mr. Guerrieri writes not only about the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but also about the work as a ...more
Robert Giambo
Dec 25, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
A book about more about the intellectual reaction to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony than the music itself. Shows how different intellectual traditions used Beethoven's work to forward and reinforce their own agendas.

As such an interesting sampling of intellectual traditions although the discussion of Hegelianism is the most uninteresting and opaque (but not surprisingly, since Hegel is always boring and opaque).

It is interesting how the uncreative (i.e., the critic) turned beethoven's creative work
May 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is a collection of essays, some of them having a lot to do with the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth, and some having little to do with it. The author is incredibly intelligent, and part of the pleasure in reading the book is in being exposed to someone so incisive. Sometimes, though, I just wanted to hear a story about Beethoven. I did learn a lot, and it's definitely worth reading if you want to know more about music history.
Oct 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
I’m not a fan of Beethoven, but even I have to admit that a lot of his music was groundbreaking; even revolutionary and more than 200 years later is now very recognizable – especially the 5th Symphony. I truly enjoyed the historical and biographical information in the book and appreciated the many references. I appreciated the music theory and philosophical points somewhat less so, but they too added to a pleasurable and illuminating read.
Sarah Barlow
Sep 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
Certainly interesting if you're into this kind of thing. Each chapter can be read as its own little essay.
Favourite quote "Many men were disturbed over the beginning of the Fifth. One of them asked Beethoven about the reason for the unusual opening and its meaning. Beethoven answered: the beginning sounds and means: You are too dumb."
Feb 18, 2013 rated it it was ok
I heard about this book on NPR radio and thought it would be great since I love Beethoven. It turned out to be a disappointment. It was hard to read, hard to follow and was not that interesting. It tracked peoples' responses and uses of the motive from Beethoven's time to the present.
Feb 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The last chapter was my favorite; I struggled to connect some of Guerrieri's ideas together before this chapter. He's heavy on philosophy that is difficult to read without being familiar with the ideas and philosophers he writes about.
Peter Podbielski
Mar 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Well written cross disciplinary history of the 18th-21st Centuries focusing on the four most notable notes in music.
Emilie Ring
Apr 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
This one is like eating death by chocolate: it is so rich that you can only read a few pages at a time. I haven't finished, but I'll definitely get back to this one--later.
Jul 11, 2013 rated it did not like it
Ok, Well I tried. Gave it the 20 page test. Then jumped all over the place to see if I was denying myself an undiscovered gem. Not for me. Think i'll listen to the music instead.
Jun 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
Sprawling in scope; by turns poignant and pedantic. Excellent food for thought as I prepare to conduct Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the fall.
Eamonn Barrett
Sep 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting for all Beethoven lovers.
Bill FromPA
Feb 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
A manic, obsessive look at the reception history of Beethoven's Fifth. Guerrieri ransacks not just musicology but also philosophy, fiction, film, and other musical compositions for allusions to "the first four notes". He somehow missed citing the "knocking on the door" quotation in The Three-Cornered Hat. Lots of tidbits of information, some of it questionable, but nothing like a sustained thesis or carefully constructed argument; sometimes has the feeling of transcribed notes given a quick edit ...more
I started reading a library copy of this, then bought my own because I found it so interesting I was pretty sure I would want to come back to it. The Fifth is my favourite of Beethoven's symphonies. I particularly love the triumphant fourth movement. But there's no denying the power of that opening "da-da-da duuuuum," and, as the title suggests, that's mainly what Matthew Guerrieri focuses on in this book. The First Four Notes is a historical survey of some of the ways those notes have been used ...more
Oct 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, music
Definitely an expansive analysis from Greek prose, to the French Revolution, to the Romantics, to the 20th century. There were some roundabout analysis that frankly I rolled my eyes at, but most were very fun.

Also holy death-of-the-author, Beethoven, this piece, and it's opening motif have meant just about everything to someone: it's feminine and masculine, revolutionary and conservative, individualistic and socialist, etc.
Kyle Olsen
Dec 07, 2018 rated it liked it
An entertaining read ripe with both academic and mellifluous passages. Like the symphony that forms its subject, it is, however, not immune from its highs and lows. In this humble reader's opinion, the book's middle chapters were not as engaging as its opening and closing salvos. Perhaps that's more of a testament to the strength of the book's first and last movements than it is a knock on the comparatively less engaging pages between.
Jul 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
The author delights with his discoveries and reductions of the philosophy art and forces the reader to question if what you hear is as important as the history that the work created.
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Easily one of the most interesting books I have ever read. It is amazing how mysterious and influential one piece of music can be.
Jerry Li
Feb 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Entertaining, thoughtful.
Curtis Nelson
Oct 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A bit obsessive but still fascinating deep dig into what we hear when we hear music, how this changes, and why.
Nefeli Katsafourou
Mar 15, 2017 rated it did not like it
First chapter was interesting, second chapter was all right, the rest was boring and hard to follow.
Jim Foley
May 10, 2016 rated it it was ok
I'm re-writing this review because my first review was overly harsh. I'm doing this because I find myself going back into the book to reread some parts, and who does that with books they don't like?

The opening chapter is very interesting, explaining each part of the symphony and documenting the effect the 5th had on the era in which it was written.

The last chapter is equally interesting, discussing the effect the 5th had on the 20th century.

The problem is in the all the chapters in the middle, w
Steve Betz
Jan 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2013
So, if you went up to random people and asked them to hum something “classical”, I bet mostly everyone would almost immediately go, “Duh-duh-duh-DUMM!”, don’t you think? In The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri scrutinizes what is arguably the most well-known musical measure in history: the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Now, a whole book about four notes might seem a bit tedious, but Guerrieri opens by looking at musical history and the forms that might have influenced Bee
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MATTHEW GUERRIERI is the music critic for The Boston Globe, and his articles have also appeared in Vanity Fair, NewMusicBox, Playbill, and Slate. He is responsible for the popular classical music weblog Soho the Dog

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