A TIME Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2012
A New Yorker Best Book of the Year
Los Angeles Magazine's #1 Music Book of the Year
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 in writing his Fifth Symphony, and forward into our own time to describe the ways in which the Fifth has, in turn, asserted its influence. He uncovers possible sources for the famous opening notes in the rhythms of ancient Greek poetry and certain French Revolutionary songs and symphonies. Guerrieri confirms that, contrary to popular belief, Beethoven was not deaf when he wrote the Fifth. He traces the Fifth’s influence in China, Russia, and the United States (Emerson and Thoreau were passionate fans) and shows how the masterpiece was used by both the Allies and the Nazis in World War II. Altogether, a fascinating piece of musical detective work—a treat for music lovers of every stripe.
Music s most memorable da-da-da-dummm touched off a cultural and intellectual ferment that s ably explored in this sparkling study. Boston Globe music critic Guerrieri opens with an engaging musicological investigation of how Ludwig van Beethoven orchestrated his Fifth Symphony s urgent rhythms and unsettling harmonies into a work of unique emotional and rhetorical force: listeners agree that it says something powerful and profound, he notes, even if they can t agree on what it s saying. Guerrieri surveys the many meanings that have been attached to the Fifth, by novelists from E.M. Forster to Ralph Ellison and thinkers from Nietzsche to Sartre; by American transcendentalists and Chinese Maoists; by Nazis and their Allied opponents, who both claimed it as a symbol of their cause; by avant-garde composers, disco arrangers, and ring-tone purveyors. Guerrieri often wanders away from Beethoven for luxuriant digressions on German romanticism or Victorian patent laxatives, but clothes his erudition in lucid, breezy prose. He makes the muzziest musico-philosophical conceits accessible and relevant, while tossing off his own intriguing insights Beethoven s heroic music is a lot like Steve McQueen s acting with the flick of a baton. The result is a fresh, stimulating interpretation that shows how provocative the familiar classic can be.