In 1948, his first year of teaching at Black Mountain College, John Cage gave a lecture on Erik Satie, at the time a little-known French composer. To make his point about Satie’s significance, Cage weighed him against a composer who needed no introduction. “Beethoven was in error,” he said, “and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.” All that could be said of the German composer is that his legacy was to “practically shipwreck the art on an island of decadence.” In Indeterminacy, Cage recounted Satie’s remark that “what was needed was a music without any sauerkraut in it,” and “that the reason Beethoven was so well known was that he had a good publicity manager.” For his apostasy Cage not only alienated several friends among the Black Mountain music faculty but inspired, at least if the anecdotes can be believed, a number of students to torch their Beethoven records.
Satie was correct in at least one respect: Beethoven never lacked for good publicity. Three years after the premiere of the Symphony in C Minor, op. 67, aka Beethoven’s Fifth, on a bitterly cold December evening in Vienna in 1808, the phenomenally gifted composer, critic, and writer E. T. A. Hoffmann reviewed the work for the most influential music journal in the world, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. In a remarkably far-reaching work of criticism based on a close reading of the score—it is not clear whether he had actually heard the symphony performed—Hoffmann not only used the occasion to argue for the superiority of instrumental music among the arts, but crowned Beethoven as the cap of all that music could attain. In doing so, he made the Fifth Symphony synonymous with Romantic genius, both a model of and model for, the very quality Clifford Geertz found universal to religions. And what made the Fifth able to shoulder such greatness, as Hoffmann took pains to describe, was a foundation shockingly elemental in its simplicity: a “principle idea that consists of only two measures, and that, in the course of what follows, continually reappears in many different forms. In the second measure a fermata, then a repetition of this idea a tone lower, and again a fermata.”
The “simple idea” that mesmerized Hoffmann has so permeated the culture from high to low, from Berlioz to The Breakfast Club, that you could write a whole book about it, and now someone has. Matthew Guerrieri, a critic and frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, has turned up a vast array of artifacts, from the profound to the perfunctory, in an enjoyable and at times surprising cultural history of those first four notes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Linked inextricably since the 1840s with the dubious anecdote that Beethoven’s factotum Anton Schindler posthumously attributed to the composer, that the dum-dum-dum-dum represents “fate knocking at the door,” the opening four notes have become as familiar as they are portentous. In this the Fifth has much in common with the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel or maybe even Guernica, works that in their ubiquity have paradoxically become virtually impossible to see. Bound up from the start with the mythos of Beethoven—his imperiousness, his penchant for self-mythologizing, his encroaching deafness—those opening notes have, as Guerrieri argues, become a barometer for any number of cultural moments, equally able to serve as the cosmic soundtrack to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and the soundscape of a Japanese commerical for frozen noodles. His book is “history viewed through the forced perspective of one piece of music; though, to be fair, there is only a handful of pieces of music that could yield a comparable view, and most of them are by Beethoven.”
This historical and cultural fungibility is hardly a novel way to consider those opening notes. When Sartre recounted how in the Fifth he could discern not just “the Assemblies of the French Revolution” but “alas, Lally-Tollendal,” the weepy defender of the ancien régime, it was already fairly commonplace to note the symphony’s capacity for political flip-flopping. But Guerrieri is an affable guide who writes with genuine enthusiasm and patience about the Fifth and the ranging material on philosophy and aesthetics he amasses.
One key to the Fifth’s own cultural malleability—or ambiguity—is found in those first four measures, a masterstroke of misdirection. We tend to remember the four notes as severe and brooding, with a ponderousness that sits at extreme odds with the allegro con brio marking. That is only one of several conundrums Beethoven presents to the listener off the bat. In fact, we should speak of five notes, since the symphony begins on an eighth rest, with the first note occurring strangely enough on the downbeat, instituting a hair-thin, quick moment of silence to begin the piece. Each of the first three notes does its part to contribute to the rhythmic uncertainty, written not as triplets but as awkwardly equal quarter notes. As Hoffmann was the first to point out, hearing the first four notes, the three short Gs and held E-flat, we can’t really discern whether we are listening to a work in E-flat major or C minor; it’s not until the third and fourth meters that the tonic is delineated. And then, a mere two bars into the symphony, there is the lingering and sudden fermata—common in Haydn, but not in a composition that puts so much stress on its fleetness.
Conductors across the last two centuries—and subsequently, of course, recordings of the Fifth—have been more faithful to the brio than to the allegro. (Pierre Boulez even conducted a recording of the Fifth at a poky 74 beats per minute, a glacial tempo compared with the 108 half-notes per minute that Beethoven inscribed in his revisions to the score.) This tendency has been only marginally checked in the last few decades, in the wake of the early-music movement and its insistence on historically informed performances. As conductor Roger Norrington has written, the deliberate pacing and no-holds-barred performances have had the effect of making Beethoven sound more like early Wagner than late Haydn. Yet as the symphony moved further away from the moment of its composition, and away from its revolutionary associations, the relative torpor of Romantic performances, then those of the twentieth century, sounded more like “Beethoven” than what Beethoven actually wrote. They helped make the first four notes a kind of shorthand for any number of things—the infinite, the struggle of the tragic artist, the birth of genius—that was easy to export, that could find meaning in Victorian England and Transcendentalist New England, and that could be quoted in the work of disparate composers, from Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata (circa 1916) to Schönberg’s wartime Ode to Napoleon (1942). Even Cage himself sampled it in his 1965 recording of Variations IV, pinning archival news reports about Nazi Germany’s defeat to its sudden appearance.
It would be interesting to pinpoint the moment when the motif lost its race against kitsch. When I first read years ago the passage in Howards End in which E. M. Forster plots the class collision between the worlds of the Schlegel family and the anxious, upwardly striving clerk Leonard Bast at a concert of the Fifth (amusingly paired with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance), I thought he was being ironic when he wrote that Beethoven’s symphony was “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.” He wasn’t, and his cataloguing of what the music meant for each of his characters—from the German cousin who hears it as “echt Deutsch,” to the pedant brother who follows along on his sheet music, to Helen Schlegel, who can see “heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood”—is an appreciative rehearsal in miniature of the variety of meanings the Fifth could assume. Forster loved Beethoven and took the symphony seriously, and it is no coincidence that he puts the concert at the narrative turning point of the novel (or, for that matter, that it takes place in chapter 5). So too did Ralph Ellison, who works a variation on the Fifth’s first two bars decisively into the pivotal scene in Invisible Man, in which fate arrives at the door in the form of the transformative boiler-room explosion.
The commercialization of the Fifth traces to the nineteenth century, but it picked up speed after the BBC’s successful use of the opening notes as a radio code in the “V for Victory” campaign. (Serendipitously, the Morse code for V consists of three short dots and a dash.) There are times in The First Four Notes when Guerrieri seems in a rush to pack in as many Fifth spottings as cross his radar, and he peels through the postwar advertising and film horizon with a dispiriting lack of restraint. It’s peculiar enough to note the fact that Beethoven ringtones aren’t quite as common as you might fear, but then to go into a lengthy treatment of how frequently they occur in thrillers? Guerrieri seems to hear the Fifth everywhere: Some examples seem simply specious, as when he picks up the rhythm of the first four notes in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The long meme about Beethoven’s purported racial identity that popped up in black-nationalist rhetoric—its most prominent examples here are in a Malcolm X interview in Playboy and in the title story of Nadine Gordimer’s Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black—has plenty to do with the composer as a sort of cipher of cultural prestige but virtually nothing to do with the Fifth Symphony.
Yet at the same time, the Fifth can still occasionally work its dim sense of mysterious fate. It would be hard to top Walter Murphy’s disco rendition from 1976 for schlock value, but when “A Fifth of Beethoven” was slotted into Saturday Night Fever the year after the song’s release, it seemed a perfect fit. Accompanying a long tracking shot of Tony Manero’s entry into the 2001 Odyssey—an almost processional walk through the greeters at the club, then finally to the disco floor—it provided an oddly affecting and oddly knowing spin on destiny again knocking on the door. Cheesy? Yes. Somehow marvelous? Yes again. And you could dance to it.
Eric Banks is the former editor in chief of Bookforum and the president of the National Book Critics Circle.