Dot-dot-dot-dash

The First Four Notes
Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination
Matthew Guerrieri
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 359 pp.

Matthew Guerrieri’s highly original book opens by asserting that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “might not be the greatest piece of music ever written...but it must be the greatest ‘great piece’ ever written.” Beethoven himself preferred his Third Symphony, the Eroica; yet as this book assiduously demonstrates, the Fifth has accrued such diverse and continuing commentary—“successive mantles of greatness,” as Guerrieri puts it—that it has no rival. Guerrieri calls his book “history viewed through the forced perspective of one piece of music,” and its chapters furnish remarkable instances of various perspectives on the piece. The First Four Notes is not a work of musicology and doesn’t attempt to take us through the symphony in its four-movement entirety. In fact, the only part of the symphony Guerrieri focuses on is its “iconic” opening, three eighth-notes followed by a single half-note marked with a fermata: dot-dot-dot-dash, in Morse code. But those first four notes are preceded by an eighth-note rest, slipped in before the first note; in other words, the downbeat is a silent one. This presents a tough job for conductors, one of whom called beginning the Fifth “one of the most feared conducting challenges in the whole classical...

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About the Author

William H. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor Emeritus of English at Amherst College. He is the author of Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press) among others.