In The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination (Knopf), Matthew Guerrieri, music critic for the Boston Globe, calls the iconic duh duh duh DUM opening "short enough to remember and portentous enough to be memorable."
Beethoven's deafness was like Mozart's beginning as a child prodigy — the biographical fact that has been merged with every discussion of their work's significance. But you say that Beethoven wasn't completely deaf in 1808 when he wrote his Fifth Symphony. Why has that myth persisted? Beethoven was the most famous composer during a time when the German Romantics decided that music picks up where language leaves off. The Romantics thought music was a way to leap beyond our conceptual limitations towards a glimpse of the Divine. The idea that Beethoven was profoundly deaf was fantastic for them, because here was someone who was completely shut off from the world. What he had was pure inspiration, because he wasn't being distracted. It made him the musical equivalent of the blind seer of classical Greek mythology.
You describe the staggering varieties of contradictory interpretations of Beethoven's Fifth — from the struggle of the individual against the state, to Wellington's victory over Bonaparte, and the symphony's deployment in American war movies. The Fifth is such a provocative blank slate. It has such rhetorical force. But once you scratch the surface, it can go in so many different directions. From the musical standpoint, I don't think that's a bad thing.
You're careful to place different interpretations at particular historical moments. There's no shortage of people communicating their own impressions from decade to decade. I wasn't so interested in writing about what I thought about the Fifth Symphony. You can use a famous piece of music like this as a control group for surveying history, because everyone has listened to this same piece of music, but they're having all these different reactions. And the simple question becomes, "Why?"
MATTHEW GUERRIERI :: Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, Cambridge :: November 30 :: 7 pm :: Free :: 617.661.1515 or harvard.com
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